NASCAR Legend Owens Prepares for the Homestretch
By Mike Hembree for the Spartanburg Herald-Journal
May 18, 2011
It's a long way from the dusty leavings of what once was a country road — Reidville Road — in Spartanburg to the newly rarefied air of the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Everett "Cotton" Owens figures to complete that journey. Soon, maybe. Almost certainly eventually.
A certified pioneer of stock car racing. Winner of hundreds of races as a driver. A championship car builder and team owner. An innovator in racing safety.
Owens' racing story is interwoven with that of NASCAR - with the notable exception that his story predates NASCAR's.
Eighty-six years old and a self-described "wild" driver in his teenage years, Owens was there before the creation, knows where most of the bodies are buried and understood most of the intricacies of making Detroit steel go fast before many of his contemporaries caught up. He rode the high wind at Daytona Beach, Fla., in stock-car spaceships built with fire and finesse at the famous COG - as read the crisp workshirts worn by the boss and others at Cotton Owens Garage, Spartanburg.
It could be Owens' sad luck - in the near term - to fall between the cracks that bedevil the largely forgotten as far as election to the big hall is concerned.
He already is a member of the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in Alabama, the National Motorsports Press Association Hall of Fame in Darlington and the S.C. Athletic Hall of Fame and has received many other major awards, including being picked as one of NASCAR's top 50 drivers during the 1998 observance of the sanctioning body's first 50 years.
But membership in the new NASCAR Hall now is considered at the top of all such lists, and that membership is at a premium. Only five people can be elected each year, guaranteeing a logjam on the asphalt at the finish line.
Although many on the voting panel are old-line NASCAR types and would seem much more likely to vote for Owens than would those who have arrived in racing in later years, even those inclined to be impressed with a pioneer resume like Owens's also will be considering the histories of other nominated founding fathers such as Martinsville, Va., Speedway builder Clay Earles, iconic team owner Glen Wood, overachieving crew chiefs Dale Inman and Leonard Wood, championship team owner Raymond Parks and accomplished drivers Curtis Turner, Tim Flock, Herb Thomas and Joe Weatherly, among others.
Owens's credentials and reputation are strong, and they figure to carry him into the hall. But how long will the road be? How long must he wait? There is no clear map, no obvious timeline.
But Cotton Owens has been over miles of bad road in this lifetime.
A Smashing Start
On a Sunday in 1940, Owens, barely 16 and a few minutes out of church, headed out of town to a service station on West Main Street. It was the place where the city boys with fast cars, white T-shirts and whiter socks, their hair slicked back, hung out. The subjects of the day - almost every day- were girls and cars, not necessarily in that order.
This particular Sunday was no different. By the time Owens arrived, the rest of the gang had already assembled. And there was a problem. Somebody had a 1934 Ford coupe he wanted to sell, but he wanted to "modify" it first.
"They were all talking about how the car wouldn't roll over," Owens remembered. "I said, ‘What's wrong with you people, trying to turn a car over?' They said the engine had a crack in it and it wouldn't hold water and they figured it would bring more money wrecked than it would as it was because the motor was no good."
That didn't make a lot of sense to Owens, but no matter. Boys will be boys. He figured he could flip it if they wanted it flipped.
"They said, ‘You can't turn it over.' I said I could," Owens said.
Dares have been accepted on much sillier propositions.
They drove the car out of town and out beyond the pavement onto the dirt surface of what then was Reidville Road, barely recognizable as the busy thoroughfare it would become. On a summer Sunday in 1940, it was quiet enough to host a little automotive adventure.
Before he drove off to attempt the stunt, Owens had a thought. If the car were going to be wrecked, there almost certainly would be some kind of official paperwork to follow, and he didn't want his name on it.
"I told them, ‘I can't use my name. My mama will kill me,' " Owens said. So it was decided that one of the bystanders, another future NASCAR star named Walter Moore but known to the gang simply as Bud, would be the driver of record.
Owens roared out the road, firing dust into the sky.
"I slung that thing sideways, and it took hold, and I don't know how many times it turned over," he said. "It just tore it all to pieces. The hood, the doors — they all came off. When it got stopped, my foot was hung between the brake and the steering column, and I could hear the sirens coming.
"They had already been out there running the car, and somebody had called the cops. I had to get out some way. I finally got my leg out. The policeman got there and started writing it up. Somebody told him it blew a tire, that that's what caused it. Then he wanted to know who was driving.
"Me and Bud were standing right behind him. Somebody said, ‘Bud Moore.' About that time, Bud took off. There isn't a race car or a greyhound dog that could have outrun Bud that day. He took off, with me right behind him. We weren't going to jail."
Owens went home.
"I had one little scratch up on my forehead," he said. "I went in the house and told my mama, ‘You've got to move that cursed clothesline. It's done scratched my head.' "
That was not the last time Cotton Owens and Bud Moore ran together. They were tight friends on the mean streets of pre-World War II Spartanburg, tough guys who wheeled juiced-up jalopies around town and in the outlying mill villages and double-dog-dared the other locals - and especially the out-of-towners - to race them on the road.
And their girls? Best to stay away from their girls.
"There were three of us couples one night driving in a '34 Ford," Owens said. "I was dating Betty (Clark), who later would marry Bud. Bud and his date and another couple were with us. We were out next to Lyman on old Highway 29.
"A car came around a corner, and they threw a whiskey bottle out, and it hit my windshield post. I spun that thing around in the road, and I caught them and hit them in the rear and sent them running out through the field.
"It tore Betty up so bad that she said, ‘Carry me home.' She was hollering and carrying on. I said, ‘OK, but don't you ever get back in my car again.' She was just a date for me. I thought more of my car than I did any girl back then."
And that was perhaps a good thing in this case. Bud Moore had his eyes on Betty Clark, and they soon would become an item.
"He was completely wild about Betty," Owens said. "If she dated any other boy and they had a car, they had to keep their car in the backyard because Bud would sideswipe it and tear the fenders off it."
Bud Moore would marry Betty Clark in 1945 after a courtship that survived Moore's time as an infantryman in the European theater, including a beach landing on D-Day. It was a union that survived Moore's sometimes ragged rise through the NASCAR world and lasted until her death in 2009.
In 1946, Owens also became a groom, marrying Dot Moore (no relation to Bud) after meeting her on an outing at Cleveland Park and ignoring the fact that she was engaged to someone else.
They honeymooned in Gaffney.
Both couples settled down to married life in Spartanburg.
The Big Break
The fun had only begun for Owens and Moore, back from service in World War II and anxious to recharge and restore their reputations as top guns on Spartanburg streets.
They were hired at D.N. Tinsley's Wrecking Yard, where they ripped parts from wrecked cars and readied them for sale. Their lives were changed one day when a racer - a Georgia driver named Gober Sosebee who would establish a name for himself in Southern racing circles - stumbled upon the salvage yard looking for some mechanical help.
Sosebee had wrecked his race car at one of the backwater tracks where the young daredevils of the day raced, and he was looking for some repair help before the next race, scheduled that weekend at the Piedmont Interstate Fairgrounds in Spartanburg. Local promoter Joe Littlejohn had successfully converted the fair's harness racing track into a half-miler for automobiles. NASCAR's founding was still two years away.
"They had torn the body up racing somewhere and had us to put a body on it," Owens said. "They didn't know us from anybody. They just came in the yard to get a new body. They were worn out from traveling, and they asked us if we would put the body on. We didn't see them for two or three days, but they came back and got the car and won the race on Saturday at the track."
Owens was impressed: "I said, ‘Heck, there ain't nothing to this. Why don't I do it?' That got us in the mood to race."
And Owens was on the road to the Hall of Fame.
Owens salvaged parts and pieces from here and there, worked and reworked engines and learned the basics from the chassis up. There were long nights in the garage and long weekends on the road, towing a race car here and there and hoping to win enough money to race again. It was a time so different from now as to be almost unimaginable.
Soon, it became clear to those around Owens — and those in race fields with him on those pockmarked old dirt half-miles — that Owens had "it." It being that combination of skill and bravery behind the wheel that made the difference on the final lap at Savannah, Ga., or Columbia or North Wilkesboro, N.C., when only the strong and bold reached the line first.
Racing in the beat-up jalopies that came to define stock car racing in the post-war era - even as NASCAR wrestled the rag-tag sport under quasi-formal control in 1949 and into the 1950s, Owens earned the title of King of the Modifieds, the somewhat fancy name that was stuck on the cars.
He won virtually everywhere, and soon everywhere wanted him.
Owens won 19 races in a row in 1950 and attracted the attention of a businessman in Mobile, Ala. He approached Owens and his car owner, F.J. Bland, at a race at Columbia Speedway and made a deal for them to bring their car to Mobile to challenge the local drivers at a track the businessman owned.
Even today - but especially in the 1940s and 1950s, this typically is not a good idea. An outsider coming to town to race against the local track favorites faces a hard climb and more than a little prejudice - as retired driver "Little" Bud Moore (no relation to Spartanburg's Bud Moore) found out when he traveled north from his home near Charleston to race at Greenville-Pickens Speedway in the Upstate. He often faced hostile crowds.
"You could get cut up there," Moore once said. "Sometimes even by the men."
Owens knew the odds, but the money was good. So he, Bland and mechanic Joe Rumph and their wives and Owens's 4-year-old son, D.O., piled into Bland's Cadillac after hooking up the race car with a tow bar and headed to Alabama. Or, as Owens put it, "We lit out for Alabama."
While Owens fine-tuned his car on the Mobile half-mile in practice, Dot had a problem. It was hot, and D.O. was thirsty.
"They didn't have any soft drinks at the stands," Dot said, still baffled by that thought 60 years later. "Everything they sold was alcohol. But I thought I'd walk up there and see what they had. I didn't a bit more know what a Tom Collins was than anything. But I saw a man order one and it had fruit in it, so I figured D.O. could drink that.
"I ordered one, and about that time the other girls came up and one of them said, ‘Oh, my God, Dot, you haven't given that child none of that alcohol!' I hadn't, but I didn't know any different."
On the track, her husband was not at all confused. Despite starting in the rear in both the heat race and the feature (a penalty for being an outsider and having no track points), Owens smoked the field and won the race.
He was invited back to Mobile for a special Thanksgiving Day race that year and won again. The track owner was so impressed he wanted Owens to move to town to run for him full-time, Owens said, but Dot quickly vetoed that possibility. It was very hot in Mobile, she said.
Spartanburg was home. And it was where Owens would grow his racing career into a big success in what is now the Sprint Cup Series as both a driver and car builder.
To reach those heights, he had to overcome the results of a gruesome accident early in his career in a Modified race at the Charlotte, N.C., fairgrounds. Although Owens was racing in NASCAR's top series, he also regularly ran the modifieds because the pay was good and the opportunities were plenty.
On that spring night in 1951, however, it almost all came crashing down.
Owens had a strong car - a potent six-cylinder Dodge, and he pushed it to first place along the track's backstretch early in the race. At almost the same moment, driver Willie Thompson, one of Owens' friends, wrecked on the front side of the track.
"I was on the back bumper of Fireball (Roberts), about to lap him," Owens said. "Fireball went around Willie. Then people came running out on the racetrack (to help Thompson). I could do anything with a race car and knew I had to do something quick. I turned the car sideways and was going to go around the other side of Willie, but I had forgotten about passing two cars in the corner, and one of them hit me in the left door and turned me straight through Willie's car.
"I tore his car in half and went on through it and ran head-on into the bandstand (at the side of the track)."
Both drivers were seriously injured. Owens' head had slammed into his steering wheel on impact.
"My face was knocked sideways, and half of my teeth were out," Owens said. "Willie was in there in the hospital screaming at the top of his voice for them to do something for me. They took me over to another hospital, and I stayed there a couple of months."
Later that year, Owens was racing again. But the vision in his left eye was permanently clouded by the accident, and problems with double vision and depth perception eventually pushed him from the driver's seat, although he raced and won despite the difficulties.
The effects of that accident still can be read in the lines on Owens' face today.
He drove in Cup until 1964, then concentrated on assembling the hot Dodges that carried David Pearson, Bobby Allison, Junior Johnson, Buddy Baker and others to stardom.
Owens semi-retired in the 1970s but returned to the roots of his sport late in the 1980s when he prepared dirt cars for the drivers who raced closest to his heart - his three grandsons. They ran a few years on area dirt tracks, and their race cars still sit in the shop behind Pop's house.
No one in the family can bear to let them go.
Owens' long road did not end with those days on Carolina dirt.
Five years ago, in the autumn, he became short of breath repeatedly, and several coughing spells resulted in blood. A smoker for much of his life, Owens knew what the problem might be.
He was diagnosed with lung cancer, and the diagnosis was made by Dr. Brandon Davis, his grandson and former dirt racer.
"I have had to give a lot of people bad news, but that was the hardest," Davis said.
Owens, then 81, chose not to attack the cancer with radiation or chemotherapy. He had watched his father suffer through similar treatments and wanted no part of it.
"He'd go in for treatment laughing and talking and come out and couldn't eat or sleep or do anything for three days," Owens said. "I said, no, not for me. The good Lord has been with me all these many years, and whatever happens will happen. That was the way I looked at it."
It was the correct decision. Although he has weakened some in recent months, Owens still works most days at his Spartanburg salvage yard. The tumor in his right lung has grown and still saps his breath, but he has beaten the odds and added five strong years - and counting - to his life.
Now there is another challenge. Last fall, Dot also was diagnosed with lung cancer - a more aggressive type. She underwent radiation and chemotherapy immediately and has responded well.
Family members say both got a big lift recently from news that Owens had been nominated for the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Voting to select five inductees from the list of 25 nominees will be in June, and the winners will be inducted in January.
The Owens' live in the simple white house they moved into on White Avenue, a straightaway from Asheville Highway, in 1951. Despite recent difficulties, they remain largely independent, although old racing friends like Pearson and Moore and family members are nearly constant parts of their lives.
Pearson, Moore and Owens share meals at their favorite restaurants around town when the opportunity arises. During the past few months, Pearson and Moore, voted into the hall during the last election cycle, have been busy with dinners and news conferences and media appearances, helping the NASCAR hall build publicity for their inductions on Monday.
Soon - but soon enough? - Cotton Owens, too, will be at that table.