Last week, Motor City Garage joined the motorsports media community in reporting the passing of NASCAR legend Cotton Owens. This week, MCG would like to circle back and explore the great man’s life a little further.
Owens was from Upstate South Carolina, in the region known as the Carolina Piedmont — the eastern foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. The Spartanburg area in particular was a hub of stock car racing in the early days. Owens, Bud Moore, Jack Smith, Rex White, David Pearson, and many other NASCAR heroes all hailed from this little corner of the world.
Though he started his first race in NASCAR’s premier division in 1950, Owens first made his name in the modified division, collecting over 100 feature wins, winning the season championship in 1953 and 1954, and earning the title, “king of the modifieds.”
In 1957, Owens won his first race in NASCAR’s Grand National division, the series today known as Sprint Cup, on the combined beach/road course at Daytona. (The 2.5-mile superspeedway would not be completed until 1959.) At left is the front page of Chis Economacki’s National Speed Sport News reporting Cotton’s big win behind the wheel of a Ray Nichels-built Pontiac. In 160 Grand Nationals starts as a driver between 1950 and 1964, Owens scored 10 poles, 9 wins, and 84 top 10s. In 1961 Owens won four Grand National races, all on short tracks: Spartanburg, Hillsboro, and twice at Columbia, SC.
While Owens mainly raced Pontiacs in these years, in 1959 he briefly drove a Ford Thunderbird for team owner and trucking company boss W.H. Watson, finishing second in the championship to Lee Petty. When GM abruptly pulled out of racing in early 1963, Owens switched to Dodge, representing the Dodge brand in NASCAR-land in much the same way that Petty Enterprises led the Plymouth effort.
In 1965, NASCAR temporarily legislated the Chrysler hemis off the racetrack, generating a boycott by the factory Dodge and Plymouth teams. Owens and driver David Pearson went drag racing with a hemi-powered, mid-engine Dart station wagon built for Dodge in Detroit by Jay Howell and Dick Branster (the masterminds behind the infamous Little Red Wagon, among other creations). When the boycott was lifted in the fall, Owens and Pearson returned to NASCAR and the crazy Dart wagon was shipped off to Northeast Dodge racer Bud Faubel of Honker fame.
As a NASCAR team owner, Owens won 38 races and 33 poles in 405 starts, retiring in 1973. His drivers were a virtual who’s who of American motorsports: Pearson, Junior Johnson, Buddy Baker, Charlie Glotzbach, Mario Andretti, Peter Gregg — the list is effectively endless. This year Owens was elected to the 2013 NASCAR Hall of Fame, but the celebration was bittersweet as Owens’ wife Dot had passed away in April at 83. Cotton, 88, followed her last week. Rest in peace, Cotton Owens.