The Legend of Cotton Owens

Originally printed in AutoSports magazine

April 1963

It was no accident that Owens became a top race mechanic and driver. As a boy he climbed trees outside the Piedmont Interstate Fairgrounds track in Spartanburg to watch races. Little did Promoter Joe Littlejohn know when he chased him out, that the skinny, white-headed youngster would some day be one of his star attractions.

Born Everett Owens, Cotton got the name that has become his trademark while perched on a limb watching the races. It was Littlejohn, who has remained a close friend and chief booster of Owens over the years, who tabbed him.

"As I looked out beyond the fence into the trees all I could see was his head, a little white ball that looked like cotton in bloom," Littlejohn recalls. "I'd tell one of my guards to go get that cotton ball and chase him inside."

Owens grew up around automobiles - working in his father's garage. But it was not until 1946, when he returned from three years of wartime duty with the Navy, that he realized his dream to become a driver.

He had take a job with a wrecker company owned by a racing enthusiast, D.N. Tinsley, who built cars driven by Gober Solesbee. Cotton had an opportunity to work on the car, in the garage and at the track.

One day at Hendersonville, N.C., the car was not handling properly. Tinsley asked Owens to try it out. He not only tried, he drove the race and finished second. From that time on he has never had trouble getting a ride for any race.

He campaigned in a Ford at first but soon switched to his famous Dodge. In 1949 he entered 23 races and won 19 of them. His success continued in 1950 when he won the Gulf Coast championship race. Then in 1951 he sped to victories all over the South, racking up 54 wins.

Switching from Dodge to the Chrysler-powered Plymouth he continued to dominate the modified circuit, winning the big modified championship race at Daytona two years in succession in 1953 and 1954, and capturing the United States Modified Championship Race three times.

Owens' racing career hasn't been all checkered flags and victory lanes. He has survived terrifying crashes and financial heartbreaks. He learned how loyal sports fans can be when his followers passed the hat for a collection to buy him a racer and keep him in running for the Grand National title in 1959.

In 1951, he was involved in a serious accident in a race at Charlotte on the old clay speedway. He had come from last place to the front in just seven laps when he roared up on a slower car which had wrecked in a turn. Fans began pouring onto the track to help the driver of the wrecked car, oblivious to the fact Owens' car was bearing down on them – fast.

Cotton had two choices – try to clear the wreckage and take a chance on hitting a spectator, or smash the helpless car. He bulldozed into the wreckage and as a result suffered serious face and eye injuries. His cheek bone was crushed.

He was in the hospital 15 days and out of action three months. His left eye has never regained full muscular control and he was plagued by double-vision for the remainder of his career.

In 1955 he was involved in a four-car pileup at Daytona which took the life of Al Briggs, of Lake Worth, Florida. The mishap occurred on the asphalt strip of the old beach course. As the racers crunched to a halt, Briggs' car burst into flames. Owens risked his life to pull his fellow driver free. He rolled him in sand to put out the flames engulfing his clothes. But Briggs died in a hospital the next day.

In a state of shock and suffering from minor injuries, Owens fought police and ambulance attendants who tried to get him away from the scene of the crash. "My car," he kept saying. "I've gotta save my car."

The man who will head Dodges' first serious bid for a stock car racing championship is a man in love with racing, but devoted first of all to church and family.

"If there's anything I dislike about racing it's the fact we have to do it on Sunday," Cotton has said many times. "But it's my livelihood and, if I'm going to race I'll have to do it on the days they have the races."

Owens has the blessing of his pastor, who is one of his most ardent fans. He is a member of Spartanburg's Bethany Baptist Church, which gets 10 percent of all his winnings.

He is married to the former Dollie Moore and is the father of two children, Donnie (16) and Debbie (10). Whenever Cotton goes racing Donnie is an important member of the pit crew, Dollie does his scoring, and Debbie – well, she's his No. 1 rooter.

Owens' reputation for clean, safe race cars and clean, tough competition is unequaled in racing. It is such a man that the Carolina Dodge Dealers Association chose to carry their banner in 1963.

And the fact he began it all in a Dodge a dozen years ago? Perhaps a coincidence. But reunited, Owens and Dodge could be the big winner in 1963.