Everett "Cotton" Owens won a number of big races in his lengthy career as both a stock car racer and owner.
He took the checkered flag at the famous Beach Course at Daytona Beach, Florida, in 1957. He helped driver david Pearson power to 15 victories and the NASCAR championship in 1966. He also won several NASCAR events in his home state of South Carolina.
But, when asked which victory over the years meant the most to him, Owens immediately chose an obscure race on the old U.S. Gulf Coast circuit from 1950 at a track in Mobile, Alabama.
It dated to the days when Owens began his race career, and was starting to earn a reputation as the "King of the Modifieds" for his success in Modified racing.
"A gentleman out of Mobile had heard about us and how we were winning races, so he came to South Carolina to see if he could get me to come to Mobile for a race," said Owens, who is now 84. "He said there were these boys in Mobile who were real good, and no outsider had ever come in and outrun them. He thought that I'd be a good challenge for them.
"So, we worked out a deal, and I went down there and beat those boys. It was the first time that they had been beaten," Owens said. "They didn't like that. They said, "You have to come back and give us another shot." So I went back and beat them again."
"That one stands out the most," Owens said. "Beating those boys felt real good."
Owens went on to win quite a few more races as both a driver and a car owner. He visited Victory Lane more than 100 times as a driver on the NASCAR Modified Tour and captured the series championship in both 1953 and 1954. Then, when he moved into what's now known as the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, he claimed a combined total of 41 victories (and 38 pole awards) in 487 races as both a driver and an owner.
Nicknamed "Cotton" because of his bushy head of white hair, Owens was born in Union, South Carolina. He didn't know much about stock car racing while he was growing up in the 1930s. But, then in 1940, he snuck in to see a stock car race that included "Big Bill" France as one of the drivers - Owens' life immediately changed.
"I had to climb the fence to see that race, and I fell in love with it," Owens said. "I'd seen some Midget races, but I hadn't seen any stock cars. I watched that one race, and that's all it took."
World War II postponed Owens' efforts to begin his own racing career. After the war, he worked in a wrecking yard with Bud Moore, who also went on to become a successful NASCAR car owner, when an unexpected opportunity came driving through the gates.
"These guys came in with a 1937 Ford that they had wrecked in a race somewhere in Virginia," Owens said. "They were going to race in Spartanburg in a few days, and they wanted to know if we could put a new body on it. So, we did it, and they went out and won the race."
That lit a spark in each of them.
"After that, we said, 'Heck, we could build one of them things and race them ourselves,'" Owens said.
That is exactly what he did, first on the Modified circuit and then at NASCAR's top level.
Owens picked up the first NASCAR victory for manufacturer Pontiac in February 1957 by winning the series' premier event on the sand at Daytona Beach. Owens became the first driver to average more than 100 mph in the race (101.541 mph) in taking the checkered flag nearly a full minute ahead of runner-up Johnny Beauchamp.
That began a five-season streak, from 1957 through 1961, in which Owens won at least one NASCAR race. his most successful season in the point standings came in 1959, when he posted one victory, 13 top-five finishes and 22 top 10s in 37 starts. He trailed only the legendary Lee Petty in the standings that year.
Two years leader, Owens had perhaps his most productive season, though he did it as a part-time racer on the circuit. In only 17 starts (compared to 46 starts for points champion Ned Jarrett), Owens grabbed four victories and 11 top-five finishes.
Shortly after that season, Owens shifted gears and became more of a car owner than a driver, though he continued to race periodically through 1966. Over the years, Owens worked with some of the biggest names in the sport, including Buddy Baker
, Pete Hamilton
, David Pearson
, Ralph Earnhardt
, Bobby Isaac
, Junior Johnson
, Charlie Glotzbach
, Fireball Roberts
, Mario Andretti
and Al Unser
. In 1970 at Talladega Superspeedway, Baker drove an Owens-prepared Dodge when he became the first person to top 200 mph in a NASCAR-sanctioned event.
All the other drivers are legends, indeed, but Owens' most famous and successful partnership formed with David Pearson. In five seasons together, Owens and Pearson won 27 times in 170 races. The duo teamed up to win the 1966 Grand National (Cup) Series championship, capturing a remarkable 15 victories and 26 top-five finishes in 42 races.
"He was like a young lion," Owens said in describing Pearson. "You'd have to calm him down every so often. But, when he was, he was one of the best ever."
The same could be said of Owens. In fact, in 1998, he was named one of the 50 Greatest Drivers in NASCAR history. But, he is equally pleased with the success he had as a car builder and owner.
"I'm doubly proud," Owens said of his career. "I built them, and I drove them. A lot of people can't say that – and I won races with them. A lot of people don’t remember what happened years and years ago," Owens said. "So it’s nice to be remembered this way."