1959 Daytona 500

An Interview with the Palm Beach Post

February, 2008

Cotton Owens of Spartanburg, S.C., drove a 1958 Pontiac to a fourth-place finish in the first Daytona 500 in 1959. With the 50th Daytona 500 approaching in 2008, Owens recently spoke with Palm Beach (Fla.) Post motorsports writer Alan Tays about the experience.

Q: You were the fastest qualifier, but you didn’t start on the pole. Why not?

A: I didn’t win the pole, because I didn’t get there until the last week. I was in my own car -- I built it myself, and that’s the reason I was late getting to Daytona.

Q: Tell me about your qualifying run. What was it like being on that 2 1/2-mile, high-banked track?

A: It was something that none of us had ever seen until we got to Daytona. The biggest race track we’d actually been on was Darlington, which was a mile and 3/8ths. When we got to Daytona and saw that monster, it was something else. I actually had two cars. I had sold the ’57, so I had to fix two cars for Daytona, and I didn’t get there until that last week. I never did actually let anybody know just how fast I could run, because I’d just run spurts. I’d just run one corner, then I’d run another corner, so when it came time to (qualify), I ran wide open pretty near all the way around and I ran 143 miles an hour.

Q: Was your speed faster on that track than you’d ever gone before?

A: Not really, but as a whole circle it was. In other words, top speed down at the beach on the back straightaway, on the pavement I’d say we run 150 mile an hour. But we didn’t average that around the race track. When we went to the big race track, the 2 1/2-miler, that was the fastest that we had ever run in a circle.

Q: Where in the field did you start?

A: I don’t remember just where I started. The starting positions were determined by where you finished in the 100-miler. They ran the 100-miler and averaged the same speed that I did qualifying. I was the fastest qualifier, and I was almost three mile an hour faster than the pole man. But they picked up that much (speed in the 100-miler). They knew about the draft even in the first race.

Q: How did the race go for you?

A: The car I sold was a ’57 Pontiac. Charley Griffith drove that. He ran third and I ran fourth.

Q: What was the feeling among the drivers about the contested victory involving Lee Petty and Johnny Beauchamp?

A: It really didn’t matter to us because it wasn’t going to change our position one way or another.

Q: Did you think the huge Daytona track was going to be the forerunner of other superspeedways?

A: You could see right then, after you saw that race, there wasn’t but one way it could go, and that was gain popularity.

Q: Was there a good crowd there?

A: Oh yeah, it was.

Q: What do you do these days?

A: I have a wrecking yard that I’m closing out. I guess I’ll just retire after that.

Q: Do you get to many races?

A: I won’t go to the race. I’ll just be there for the weekend activities before the race. I’ll probably come back home and watch it on TV.

Q: NASCAR has changed a great deal over the years. How do you feel about the sport these days? Is it better now or back when you were driving?

A: We ran stock automobiles back then. Now, it looks like it’s just going to be one type of automobile. And they’ve got so many restrictions on it, I don’t believe I could race that way anymore.

Q: Do you watch the races on TV?

A: I watch them occasionally.

Q: Do you have any favorite drivers?

A: I pull for Earnhardt (Dale Jr.) because his grandpa drove for me at one time. Ralph Earnhardt.

Q: Do you think the modern guys are good drivers?

A: Oh yeah. They’ve got the ability they have to have, and they’ve got the desire to win. You can’t take it away from them. They’re racing better equipment than what we had. The equipment that we had was what you made yourself. You didn’t go to the store and buy it – you had to make it.

Q: It’s more specialized today, isn’t it, with drivers not required to work on their own cars?

A: That’s what made me feel so good about it. I built them and raced them and won races with them. I look at them (modern drivers) – they’ve got a long ways to go to catch where I was at.


An Interview with Alan Tays
Motorsports writer for the Palm Beach Post
An article about the first Daytona 500 in 1959