Date of Birth: May 21, 1924
Hometown: Union, S.C.
Top Fives: 52
Top 10s: 84
It is easy to overlook the fact that Everett “Cotton” Owens was a racecar driver before he began his career as a successful mechanic and team owner whose stock cars were driven by historical greats of the sport. The names include David Pearson, Buddy Baker, Bobby Allison, Junior Johnson, Benny Parsons, Fireball Roberts, Mario Andretti and Al Unser among others. Though Owens’s talents with a wrench aided in many of his drivers becoming legends in NASCAR, be assured, in Cotton’s day, despite his diminutive 5-foot 6-inch, 140-pound frame, he could turn a steering wheel with any of them as well. Good enough in fact to be selected as one of NASCAR’s 50 Greatest Drivers by NASCAR during the sanctioning body’s 50th Anniversary celebration in 1998.
Owens is one of the original NASCAR barnstormers whose story is similar to many of this country’s “Greatest Generation” of men that came from humble beginnings, suffered through the Great Depression, joined the armed forces during WWII and then went on to carve out successful careers through hard work learned at an early age and a passion for their profession. Born Everett Douglas Owens, the nickname “Cotton” came about as a boy due his blond hair, said to be as white as the cotton that grew in the fields of his South Carolina home – a South Carolina that suffered immensely during the depression years, and the Owens family did not escape the tribulations millions of American families experienced. As a boy, Cotton moved routinely during those lean years as his family traveled from town to town seeking any kind of employment available to maintain their meager existence.
In 1943, at 18 years of age, Cotton, like many young men of his generation, answered the nation’s call to arms and joined the U.S. Navy, mustering out of the service in 1945 as WWII ended. Shortly after returning to civilian life in the spring of 1946, while working in a Spartanburg, S.C. auto body shop, Owens, along with four buddies, bought a 1937 Ford with plans of campaigning it on the countless dirt tracks that dotted the rural southeast during that era. Besides Owens, two of the other owners of the jalopy had designs on driving the car as well, but after each had taken a turn behind the wheel, the other two conceded that it was more difficult a task than they had thought and that Cotton should be the driver. His cohorts were quickly rewarded as Owens easily won the first heat race he ever competed in.
From that moment on, Owens was a racecar driver. Though he recorded only nine wins during his career in the Grand National series (predecessor to today’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series), during most of the 1950s Owens focused his energy towards the modified division, scoring more than 100 wins in dirt “bull-rings” throughout the south. He dabbled in stock car’s top racing division starting in 1950, competing sporadically for the next few years. He found that the Modified series of the time afforded him the best opportunity to support himself and his family. In the early years of NASCAR, it actually was more lucrative to run the Modified division, as the payouts for a 30-lap short track win in the division would typically pay $500, equivalent to what a victory in the more expensive to campaign stock cars would pay for a 100-lap short track win. And winning is what Owens was all about, becoming the national Modified division champion in both 1953 and 1954. Owens was the driver to beat during the 1950s in that division and was commonly referred to as “the King of the Modifieds.”
Cotton’s breakout season in NASCAR’s elite division occurred in February of 1957 when he won his first Grand National race, and the season’s biggest stock car race, the Daytona Beach Road Course, besting runner-up Johnny Beauchamp by 55 seconds. In 1958, Owens once again won, this time at Rochester, N.Y., again running stock cars on a part-time schedule. It wasn’t until 1959 that the Pontiac driver seriously campaigned for a Grand National championship, entering 37 events and finishing second in points to Lee Petty, who participated in five more races than Owens. In 1960 and 1961, Owens handpicked his events, but still won one race in each year while running in less than half of the scheduled race dates.
1961 was the most productive season in respect to win totals, as Owens won four times and amassed 10 top-five finishes in 17 attempts. In 1962 and 1963, Cotton began to put other drivers in his car on a more regular basis. During that period Cotton’s drivers were primarily Johnson, Billy Wade and Pearson. No one other than Owens had known that Cotton suffered from double vision throughout his stellar racing career which was caused by a 1951 racing injury. Throughout the ’50s, what depth perception he had was becoming progressively worse.
In 1964, Owens competed just twice as a driver, mostly to prove to Pearson that he could still out-race him. He won in his first race of the year (his last win as a driver), at Richmond, Va. and retired as a driver for good just six days later after finishing second to Ned Jarrett at the 9/10-mile dirt track in Hillsboro, N.C. Owens ended his driving career with no fanfare, or tributes.
But Owens was not finished with stock car racing, fielding cars for most of the following nine seasons. In 1966, Pearson drove an Owens-prepared Dodge to 16 victories, 36 top fives and 38 top 10s in 48 events, winning the Grand National drivers’ championship and the owners’ championship for Owens.
Owens owned and prepared cars competed in 353 races, posting 39 wins, 140 top-five and 207 top-10 finishes, in addition to 37 poles. He has been inducted into the National Motorsports Press Association Hall of Fame and the International Motorsports Hall of Fame at Talladega Superspeedway, and is a member of the NASCAR Mechanics Hall of Fame, among many other tributes to career accomplishment in motorsports.
Cotton Owens, now 83 years old, is semi-retired and lives in Spartanburg, S.C.
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