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Cotton Owens: NASCAR Hall royalty

- ThatsRacin.com Contributor
Thursday, Jan. 10, 2013

With the approach of the 2013 NASCAR Hall of Fame induction ceremonies, we're taking a closer look at the five men to be honored on Feb. 8. The second inductee we're featuring is Cotton Owens.

COTTON OWENS

Born: May 21, 1924, Union, S.C.

Died: June 7, 2012, Spartanburg, S.C., of cancer at age 88.

Family: Wife Dollie, known as "Dot," to whom he was married 66 years before her death two months prior to his; son Don, daughter Debbie.

CAREER HIGHLIGHTS

After serving in the Navy during World War II, Owens began racing in 1950 on short tracks in the Carolinas and neighboring states. He became known as "The King Of The Modifieds," scoring approximately 100 feature victories.

Won NASCAR’s Modified Tour championships back-to-back in 1953-54.

Entered for the first time in what has evolved into the Cup Series on Feb. 5, 1950. The race was the wild, colorful Beach & Road Course event at Daytona Beach, Fla. He finished 14th in the 200-mile, 48-lap chase on the 4.17-mile course, completing 45 laps.

Scored his first victory on the major NASCAR level on Feb. 17, 1957, taking Daytona’s “beach race” and giving Pontiac its first-ever triumph. Owens a averaged 101.541 mph. It was the first time a driver averaged more than 100 mph in a NASCAR race.

Made his best run at the big-time championship in 1959, finishing second in the point standings to Lee Petty. While winning only once, he was consistent, posting 22 top 10 finishes and 13 top fives in 37 starts.

Had his best season as a driver in 1961, winning four times and finishing in the top five 11 times in only 17 starts.

Essentially retired as a driver after the 1962 season and began fielding cars for others, basing his team at a shop in Spartanburg. Among his early drivers were future hall-of-famers Junior Johnson and David Pearson. Cotton raced only once in '63 and twice in '64.

Entered the races in 1964 in an effort to prove he could beat Pearson. He did, winning the Capital City 300 at the Virginia State Fairgrounds track, a half-mile dirt layout. Owens finished a lap ahead of runner-up Pearson, who was driving a car fielded by Cotton. It was the last of Owens’ nine Grand National victories.

Team won the big-time circuit’s championship with Pearson driving in 1966, posting 15 victories, 26 top fives and 33 top tens in 42 starts.

Despite scoring 27 victories in six seasons together, Owens and Pearson parted ways early in 1967.

Among the winning drivers following Pearson in Owens’ cars were Buddy Baker, Pete Hamilton and Chargin’ Charlie Glotzbach. They triumphed, respectively, on the superspeedways at Darlington, Daytona and Charlotte.

Overall, 25 men drove cars owned and engineered by Owens, including Ralph Earnhardt, Fireball Roberts, Benny Parsons, Mario Andretti and Al Unser. In 291 races, Cotton’s “hired drivers” won 32 times and took 29 poles.

HONORS

Was inducted into the National Motorsports Press Association Hall of Fame in 1970, into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame at Talladega in 2008 and into the S.C. Athletic Hall of Fame in 2009. He received The Order of the Palmetto, his state’s highest civilian honor, in 2006.

He was named one of NASCAR’s 50 Geatest Drivers in 1998.

REFLECTIONS

Retired Observer motorsports writer Tom Higgins and Thatsracin.com contributor Tom Higgins on Cotton Owens.

I first saw him: At Asheville-Weaverville Speedway on Sept. 8, 1957 in a 100-mile race, the first I ever covered. He finished 16th in a 20-car field after being involved in a crash while leading on the 140th lap at the half-mile dirt track. He started fourth and had led since lap 10 before wrecking. Lee Petty won the race.

First impression: Gentlemanly and reserved, yet a very tough competitor.

What people might not know about him: Cotton split with Pearson in 1967 over a simple misunderstanding about what time the team was to depart Spartanburg for a race.

My favorite memory of him: His absolute joy in victory lane after Buddy Baker won the 1970 Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway in a beautiful orange and black No. 6 needle-nosed Dodge Daytona. Owens had been trying to win the classic race in his home state since entering the inaugural 500 at Darlington on Sept. 4, 1950, and finishing seventh in a 70-car field.

Most memorable quote: "I refused to change my car for reasons of principle. The principle involved was NASCAR allowing two cars to flaunt the rules while blowing the whistle on others. I realize that Lorenzen and Turner are valuable drawing cards, but that didn’t make what happened right." – An angry Cotton Owens after his Dodge was ruled illegal for the Dixie 400 on Aug. 7, 1966, at Atlanta International Raceway.

As stock car racing historian Greg Fielden recounts, "The car was rigged with a device that would allow driver David Pearson to pull a cable and lower the vehicle after the race started." Meanwhile, NASCAR allowed the entry of a CurtisTurner-Smokey Yunick Chevrolet and a Fred Lorenzen-Junior Johnson Ford that had sheet metal altered so much that the cars looked comical.

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