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Why you too should know who Cotton Owens is

by Dave Grayson
Friday, March 06, 2009

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Cotton Owens
While cruising on a Southern California freeway, en route to covering the latest race on our schedule, we were listening to Dave Moody's show on Sirius Satellite Radio as we always do. Moody was commenting on NASCAR legend Cotton Owens and told a story about how he recently visited a Sprint Cup Series garage. Moody relayed that Owens introduced himself to many of today's young superstars in the series but the vast majority of them didn't seem to have any idea who he was.

Moody's assessment of that situation was quite correct: it's shameful. A legend like Cotton Owens, who's on NASCAR's all time 50 Greatest Drivers list. deserves better.

For you newer NASCAR fans, and for that matter young drivers, allow me to tell you about this racing legend

Everett "Cotton" Owens, a favorite son of Spartanburg-South Carolina, was born May 21, 1924 in Union-South Carolina. He was one of those barnstorming NASCAR drivers who raced all over the country while helping to create the sport that we know and love today.

His racing career began in the 1950's in open wheel modifieds. Today that series is known as the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour. During his modified stint Owens won over 100 features and was a back to back series champion in 1953 and 1954.

During that same time he also ran some limited NASCAR Grand National, now known as the Sprint Cup, races. But it would be during the late fifties before he began his rise to prominence in Grand National racing. His first series win came February 17th, 1957 at what was then the series' premiere annual event: the Daytona Beach Road Course. Driving a 1957 Pontiac prepared by car owner Ray Nichols, yet another NASCAR pioneer, Owens beat runner up Johnny Beauchamp by a whopping 55 seconds. Historically, there are two reasons why this particular race was so important. First, the average race speed was 101.541 MPH and it was the first ever NASCAR sanctioned race with an average speed in excess of 100 MPH. The race is also significant because it was Pontiac's first ever manufacturer's win in NASCAR.

Owens visited victory lane again in 1958 but it was the following year that he began to hit his NASCAR stride. The 1959 season saw him finishing second, to Lee Petty, in the Grand National championship standings. That was pretty remarkable because he only made 37 starts but managed to score a win, 13 top five finishes and 22 top tens.

The 1961 racing season was also highly productive for Cotton Owens and saw him win four races and 11 top fives despite the fact that he only ran a limited schedule of 17 races.

At this point Cotton Owens decided to hang up his driving helmet to focus on a budding career as a team owner and car fabricator. In 1962 he hired the legendary Junior Johnson to drive his car. That same year he hired a young, unknown but up and coming development driver by the name of David Pearson.

That's right young people. It was Cotton Owens who brought David Pearson to NASCAR and launched the legend of the "Silver Fox."

In 1964 Owens put on his driving helmet once again for a rather unusual reason. The promoter of the Richmond, (Virginia), Speedway enticed him to come out of retirement to participate in a special race to see if the now prominent car owner could beat his rising star driver. Owens beat Pearson that night and collected his final NASCAR Grand National career win.

The following year was a down season for Cotton Owens Racing for a very unexpected reason. At this point Owens was campaigning Dodges and was one of the Chrysler Corporation's factory backed teams. But prior to the 1965 season NASCAR announced that the Chrysler Corporation cars could no longer run the Hemi engine because its high horsepower rating was upstaging their vision of a level playing field among the factory teams. Chrysler announced its intent to boycott NASCAR that year and instructed its teams to do the same. 

Owens and Pearson spent the 1965 season drag racing. Owens built a Dodge Dart drag car, with a full sized Hemi loaded in the back of it, and ran it on nitro and alcohol based fuel in the Experimental Class. It was during this time that the now famous rivalry between David Pearson and Richard Petty actually began. Petty Enterprises was also honoring the boycott and also entered the world of drag racing with a Petty blue Plymouth #43 Jr. There were many much heralded grudge races between Pearson and Petty that year.

Owens Racing returned to NASCAR in 1966 and the team hit their peak when Pearson won the NASCAR Grand National championship. They parted ways in 1967 but finished their time together with 27 wins in 170 starts.

Yet another prestigious moment came in 1970 when Buddy Baker became the first driver to hit 200 MPH, in a Cotton Owens prepared Dodge Charger Daytona, during a NASCAR sanctioned test at the Talladega Super Speedway. 

Over the years some true racing legends drover for Cotton Owens Racing including Pearson, Buddy Baker, Pete Hamilton, Ralph Earnhardt, Bobby Isaac, Junior Johnson, Benny Parsons, Fireball Roberts, Mario Andretti, Charlie Glotzbach and Al Unser. Oh yes, there was also this famous country music singer named Marty Robbins who spent some time racing an Owens car. In all, a total of 25 drivers climbed behind the wheel of an Owens car in 291 races while earning 32 wins. In total, as both a driver and a car owner, Owen's NASCAR career statistics include 41 wins and 38 pole positions in 487 races.

On a lighter note Owens even built a winning race car for the legendary Elvis Presley. The king of rock n roll  drove a Cotton Owens' Racing Dodge Charger in his 1968 racing film "Speedway" which co starred Nancy Sinatra. The Dodge Charger's performance in the movie was excellent. The same can not be said for Presley and Sinatra. Sorry about that Elvis fans. 

In the years that followed Owen's NASCAR career there were some distinguished awards that included:

1970- inducted into the National Motorsports Press Association's Hall Of Fame at Darlington Raceway.
1996- recipient of the "Car Owner's of the 1960's" award by the Old Timer's Racing Club.
1998- named one of NASCAR's 50 Greatest Drivers during NASCAR's 50th Anniversary celebration in 1998.
2000- presented with the Smokey Yunick Award for "Lifetime Achievement in Auto Racing."
2006- recipient of the Order Of The Palmetto, the highest civilian honor awarded by the Governor of South Carolina recognizing lifetime achievement and service to the state.
2006- Pioneer of Racing Award from the Living Legends of Auto Racing. 
2008-inducted into the International Motorsports Hall Of Fame.

To fully understand and appreciate the level NASCAR racing has achieved in this modern era one has to understand and appreciate the efforts made by the sport's pioneers that created what we enjoy today. It's important for today's young driving stars to have an awareness and respect for the NASCAR pioneers who paved the way before them and allowed them to live their great American dream. In this age of instant information there's no reason for today's NASCAR stars not to be aware of their predecessor's contributions to the sport.

Perhaps a little less time playing video games in a speedway's motor coach lot will rectify this.

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