Cotton Owens' career paved road to HOF

Spartanburg’s Cotton Owens was voted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame last week, a well- deserved honor for a career that pre-dates the formation of NASCAR. He was a fearless driver, a brilliant mechanic, and a safety innovator that helped to make NASCAR, and motorsports in general, both better and safer.
Owens honed his skills at tracks across the Carolinas competing in modified races. “He won around 350 modified races over the years. I knew no matter how good my car was, or how heavy a foot my driver had, that we would have to beat Cotton’s Dodge if we wanted to win the race,” said NASCAR Hall of Fame member, and lifelong friend, Bud Moore.
The name ‘King of the Modifieds’ was pinned on Cotton Owens as he continued to pick up win after win. His consistency on track led to back-to-back NASCAR National Modified Series Championships in 1953 and 1954.
Owens decided to make the move to full time competition in the Grand National Series, which is known today as the Sprint Cup Series. Owens scored nine wins and placed second in the 1959 season standings behind Lee Petty. During the 1961 season, Owens started 16 races, winning four and finishing in the top ten eleven times.
Though Owens wanted to keep driving, he thought it was time to step aside. The affects of an injury from a crash in the early 50’s hampered his vision.
The role of car owner and crew chief suited Owens, as his cars continued to find victory lane. Those first wins came as Cotton served as team owner with drivers Bobby Johns and David Pearson. Owens wanted to drive again and that chance happened in 1964 at Richmond.
“I had the chance to race again a couple of years after getting out of my car at Richmond in 1964. I beat my car and the rest of the field that day to get my last win as a driver,” Owens said on Droppin’ the Hammer.
In 1964, Pearson scored eight wins with 42 top-ten finishes and looked poised to win the title in 1965 before Chrysler announced their teams would boycott NASCAR over a rules issue which involved the legendary 426-Hemi being banned from NASCAR. This left Owens and his driver David Pearson looking for somewhere to race.
“We went drag racing, Richard Petty did too. I built a Dodge Dart Wagon and decided to put the engine in the back. The car was great and we could move the weight around on that Dart and Pearson could carry the front wheels the entire length of the drag-strip; in fact I think he still holds a record,” Owens said while talking about the drag race car known as ‘The Cotton Picker.’
NASCAR and Chrysler got back together. Pearson scored two wins and continued that success during the 1966 season. Pearson won 15 times and totaled 33 top ten finishes in the Owens-prepared Dodge to win the championship. And oh by the way, they did not compete in every race but still won the title.
Owens put Buddy Baker in his winged Dodge Daytona and the combination resulted in the first lap at an average speed of over 200mph during speed runs at Talladega. This capped off the year for Owens which included seeing Baker give the winged Dodge Daytona it’s last victory in the granddaddy of them all, the Southern 500.
Cotton Owens Enterprises was one of the strongest teams during the sixties, and Cotton and his crew continued to work on cars several years afterward. Drivers who have strapped in the famous MOPAR cars include: David Pearson, Bobby Johns, Buddy Baker, Bobby Allison, Charlie Glotzbach, Pete Hamilton, Fireball Roberts, Mario Andretti, Ralph Earnhardt, Dick Brooks, Marvin Panch, James Hylton, Al Unser, Sr, G. C. Spencer, Junior Johnson, Billy Wade, Larry Thomas, Ray Hendrick, Sam McQuagg, Bobby Isaac, Sam Posey, Peter Gregg, and Marty Robbins.
But the story did not stop with Marty Robbins. When Cotton’s grandson wanted to try their hand at the local dirt tracks, Cotton quickly went to work in his shop. The Plymouth Arrow four cylinder cars that rolled out of Owens shop changed four cylinder races at classes around the Carolinas, as Cotton’s setups gave his grandsons some of the best cars to ever hit the tracks.
Cotton Owens was hard to beat on the racetrack as a driver, and he became one of the most difficult to defeat as he stood in the pits. Safety innovations that Cotton Owens made to cars are still used today and folks still call him to get advice on how to set up a chassis for tracks from Anderson to the Z-Max Dragway.