Cotton Owens Interview
Chat Transcript with Cotton Owens
Cotton Owens fields questions from various fans during a live internet session that is transcripted below.
Hello, this is Cotton Owens, I've been a member of NASCAR for a long, long time. Former driver and car owner. I have also been selected as one of NASCAR's 50 Greatest Drivers. They got me from the olden days, when we used to run on the beach in the Modified Division and in Grand National.
Could you speak about working with Marty Robbins and his talents as a driver? Thank You.
I met Marty back in the early '60s at Daytona Beach, Florida. He was very interested in NASCAR racing, and later on in years he decided to get himself a race car and run some events. I helped him set up a 1972 Dodge Charger. We ran that car almost up to the day he died. We put it in the museum in Talladega when he died. Marty was a great driver, for no more time than he had in a race car. If he had started younger, and devoted all his time to stock car racing as he did music, I would say he'd have been one of the greatest. He had that kind of talent.
Cotton, what's the difference between a modified and a Cup car?
I started out in the very early ages of ghe Grand National racing. I drove a '50 Plymouth back in Darlington and it was absolutely pure stock. It was right off the showroom floor, we taped up the headlights, took the muffler off it, and went racing. But as we gained more knowledge on the cars, as they had to do with safety, and the speeds became greater and greater, we started changing away from that. I believe the Plymouth I drove in didn't have roll bars. And you could open the doors just by hitting the handles. It was into the '60s before we really got into the safety aspect of it. Today's racing, they have pretty near the same chassis on all cars. And they attach the sheet metal of the car they want to race with. They've gone a long, long ways as far as safety is concerned. Back then we didn't have a lot of the things we have now to protect a driver from an accident. Basically, race cars have come a long ways from the days of showroom stock.
Mr Owens, Have you ever thought of being a car owner again? If so who would you like to drive for you these days?
I think possibly that my age has gotten me out of a little bit of that. You still have those desires, but at my age I give up a whole lot quicker than I used to. But it would still be a challenge. As far as a driver is concerned, the last few races I have watched, and thinking about upcoming drivers, I think young Dale Earnhardt Jr. is looking awfully good to me. The last few races he has run, he has shown an awful lot of talent. And he's grown up racing short tracks and dirt, and I like that. I've got some grandsons -- Ryan Owens, Brandon Davis and Kyle Davis who run at Cherokee Speedway in Gaffney, S.C. -- who are real sharp on dirt, but I don't know how good they would go on asphalt. But it would be great to see them run.
Do you feel drivers are more careless and wreckless today than the days that you drove?
I don't hardly think so. We had some awful wild people driving back when we was coming along. Really banging fenders more so than they do today. I understand they have the TV watching them now, and they have to be a little more careful about what they do, because it can come back and haunt them. But they do a lot less than we used to do in my day. Today they may say 'excuse me' if someone happens to bump you, something like that didn't happen much when I was driving (laughs).
David Pearson drove for you, was he the best driver you ever put behind the wheel?
I'd have to say David Pearson is one of the greatest of all time, of all the race drivers I've seen. Pearson could run dirt, asphalt, short track, superspeedway, road courses. He could run anything he set his mind too. I'd say he's one of the greatest. In terms of percentage of race wins, for the races he ran, I'd say he's the greatest of all time. He was awful hard to get excited about anything. I'd say he was one of the coolest guys, as far as driving a race car, that I've been around. When he first started, he was like everyone else, he didn't take care of the equipment. But he learned what his equipment would take over time. I would say his alertness, and his depth perception, made him more than 100 percent as far as his talents as a race driver.
Why did you retire?
I had a bad accident back in 1951 that pretty near wiped me off. I had abroke neck, and completely distorted my face, my head was as big as a wash tub. That left me with double vision. I never did tell anybody that I was actually closing my left eye and drove with my right one. But in doing that my depth perception was way off and I was running over too many people. I won a lot of races after that -- three races in Daytona -- and the first live ever television event in 1960, a run for the pole position at Daytona, and I won it in a Pontiac. But still my depth perception wasn't what it was supposed to be, and at those speeds you need to focus in your mind and know that depth is what it is. I actually retired in 1962 and let Pearson drive some races for me. I drove one race in 1963, but I came back in 1964 and won at Richmond and ran second the following week. But I said, 'oh heck, this isn't worth is anymore.' So I just concentrated on building the cars and let Pearson run.
Racers, such as yourself, built the foundation for the current success of NASCAR, is there anything you would change or do regarding the future of the sport?
Only thing I can say to that we should look more toward the spectators view. The cars are running so fast now, and you never want to get one airborne and get into the stands. That was one of the first thing I always looked at. They are at the age now, in terms of speed, where the cars can get up rather easy. Of course they have spoilers and roof flaps that keep them down, but at these speeds you never know. To me, I think the engine size should be cut way down and bring it back to where the cars are more controllable.
What do you feel has been your biggest accomplishment in NASCAR?
I suppose racing the Modifieds, because I did have quite a bit of success in the Modified Division. We used to have the U.S. Modified Championship Race that Bruton Smith used to put on in Concord, in those days. I won four of those, against drivers from all over the United States. When you win, that's nice, but when you do it more than once, that stands out. The Modified Division really stands out, it was poor man's racing, but we ran pretty near all over the East Coast. It was a good division back then. I got out of it when they started cutting the cars up so you could hardly tell what they were, and moved into the Grand National circuit, more or less, in 1957.
What did you race as a teenager (quatermidgets, go-karts etc.) and how did it prepare you for a full size race car?
Back when I was growing up -- in the late '30s -- I bought a '34 Ford sedan, a two-door sedan, and that was my street car. I guess that's where I got my driving ability from. I always loved automobiles, my grandfather and father were mechanics. I actually owned my first car in 1937 or '38, a '34 Ford. I was a terror, which you couldn't do today. You could do a lot more than you can now, as far as learning to drive on the streets.
Who was the toughtest driver you raced against?
I suppose back into the early '50s you had Fireball Roberts running in the Modifieds, Speedy Thompson, Joe Weatherly, they were running the Modifieds. All those drivers were tough. You could never loaf, you had to stay on it all the time, they would never let you rest. Curtis Turner, too. Curtis was tough. I would say we had about 10 or 12 drivers who would really run you to death.
I really thank the fans that have followed me in my racing career, and even as I have become a car owner. These are the people you respect, they are spending their dollars to see you race, and they get my salute as far as being the fans that they are. I appreciate every one of them, and even to this day, I don't turn someone down for an autographed picture. It's a real honor. We don't have anymore postcards for that, it's been a while, but we are thinking about ordering up some more with the 50th Anniversary of NASCAR this year. In any case, thanks for your questions. Good bye.