"King of the Modifieds" and one of Pontiac's "Favorite Sons"
Like so many of the famous drivers that we Pontiac lovers claim as “our own”, Cotton Owens was not exclusively a Pontiac racer. His Pontiac association ran from 1956 through 1961, where he did himself and Pontiac proud with win after win. But, perhaps it was an event in the early part of his Pontiac association that all Pontiac lovers remember the most.
The event that made Cotton Owens a Pontiac legend didn’t happen over night. Long before his Pontiac fame, Owens was one of the NASCAR pioneers, back in the days before race drivers were like rock stars working just as hard at their name promotion as their driving (perhaps even more!). Owens was from the days of hold-down-a-full-time-job and race at night and on the weekends, often pounding out the dents and making their repairs in their own home garage.
Born in Spartanburg, South Carolina on May 21, 1924, Cotton Owens was part of the original birth of stock car racing from the South. And like so many of those originals, his entire life and career revolved around the racing industry. His NASCAR racing career began in 1950 when he ran only three races, but did well enough with just those to place 13th in the year’s point standings. The next several seasons were to prove much less successful with no wins under his belt. But then came 1957....
On February 17, 1957 at the Daytona Beach Road Course, Cotton Owens drove into the Pontiac history books. It was there that he drove a Ray Nichel’s prepared ‘57 Pontiac to victory, beating runner-up Johnny Beauchamp by a full 55 seconds with the first-ever 100 mph (101.541 mph) average race on the sand. This was also Pontiac’s first NASCAR win, especially important as it finally moved Pontiac into the performance image category. From this important day, until withdrawing from NASCAR (2003), Pontiac went on to earn more than 150+ NASCAR Nextel Cup victories. It looks like Cotton had started something.
By 1959, Owens was running with the big dogs, and finished second only to Lee Petty for the championship. The year 1961 was his most productive season with 10 top five finishes and four wins, all in only seventeen starts. After such a productive season driving, Owens retired from behind the wheel and by 1962 was one of the leading car owners on the circuit. He teamed up with fellow Spartanburg racer David Pearson and for six seasons made a pretty unbeatable team with 27 wins in 170 races.
Interestingly, Owens came out of retirement as a driver in 1964 to prove that he could beat Pearson– and he did in his final career win at Richmond. Two races later he finished his final (for real this time) race with a second to Ned Jarrett. It was now back to the role as car owner.
For a short while Owens and Pearson took a leave from NASCAR because of the ban on the Chrysler hemi. Together they went drag racing running a nitro and alcohol hemi in the back of a Dodge Dart. But they returned to NASCAR in 1966 winning the Grand National Championship. They parted company in early 1967.
In addition to having David Pearson driving for Owens, he was fortunate to have many other of the biggest names in the sport drive for him, such as: Buddy Baker, Pete Hamilton, Ralph Earnhardt, Bobby Isaac, Junior Johnson, Fireball Roberts, Mario Andretti, and Al Unser.
Cotton Owens is truly one of the racing sport’s biggest and finest names, and rightfully, he is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association’s Hall of Fame, and was named one of NASCAR’s 50 Greatest Drivers during the 50th anniversary celebration in 1998.
In spite of all of Cotton Owens’ accomplishment on and off of the race track, and in spite of the fact that he was not a Pontiac-only racer, ALL Pontiac hobbyists hold him in the deepest of esteem for his dedication to the sport of auto racing, and his early racing accomplishments with Pontiac that went on to make the most solid of foundations for a very long Pontiac command of the racing industry, both NASCAR and NHRA..
To read even more about Cotton Owens, and to enjoy some great pictures from Owens’ early days of Pontiac racing, read the exclusive interview by Christopher Phillip of High Performance Pontiac Magazine at: http://www.highperformancepontiac.com/features/hppp_0802_pontiac_nascar_cotton_owens/index.html
To enjoy even more of he Cotton Owens story, visit the Cotton Owens Garage web site at: http://www.cottonowens.com
And, for a live interview with Cotton Owens visit: u-tube-- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qNveR9mp9-0
• Owens was announced as a 2008 inductee in the International Motorsports Hall of Fame.
• In 1970, Owens was inducted into the National Motorsports Press Association’s Hall of Fame at Darlington Speedway.
• Cotton Owens was named one of NASCAR’s 50 Greatest Drivers during NASCAR’s 50th Anniversary celebration in 1998.
• Recipient of the Order of the Palmetto, the highest civilian honor awarded by the Governor of South Carolina, created in 1971 to recognize lifetime achievement and service to the State of South Carolina. September 16, 2006
• Member Darlington Records Club
• Member NASCAR Mechanics Hall of Fame
• Member NASCAR Legends
• Pioneer of Racing Award, Living Legends of Auto Racing, February 15, 2006
• Presented with the Smokey Yunick Award for “Lifetime Achievement in Auto Racing” on May 28, 2000
• Honored by the Vance County Tourism Dept., Henderson, NC with the “East Coast Drag Times Hall of Fame Motorsports Pioneer Award” on October 16, 2005
• Recipient of the “Car Owner’s of the 1960s” award by the Old Timer’s Racing Club, 1996
Other Notable Achievements
• Prepared first car to run 200 mph in a NASCAR sanctioned event at Talladega 1970 with Buddy Baker at the wheel of his 1969 Dodge Charger Daytona
• Won NASCAR’s first live televised race
• Gave Dodge its last NASCAR victory in a wing car
• Earned Pontiac its first NASCAR win when Cotton Owens won on the old beach course at Daytona in 1957 driving a ’57 Pontiac prepared by Ray Nichels.
Thanks to Pontiac Registry.