Remembering Cotton Owens

By Dale Wilkerson for The News & Reporter

June 12, 2012

One of the absolute best things that has happened to me since Mark Hauser and the late Tommy Sims asked me about hosting a local racing show on WSPG radio has been the folks I have met and the friends that I have made. Last Thursday, I lost one of those friends as Cotton Owens passed away after a very brave battle against cancer.

Now I had met Cotton Owens many years ago, as I went to his shop looking for parts for an old Plymouth. Several guys at school told me, "He is Mr. Mopar, if you need the part, he either has it or he can get it quicker than anyone else."

When it came to parts for Chrysler products, the factory may have been calling Cotton for help as he helped numerous mechanics, folks working to restore classic cars, or just folks that needed parts to keep the family car rolling. Cotton Owens was the man to see to keep your Mopar running.

I did not get to see him race, that I can remember, with the NASCAR tour, but I did get to see him on a few local tracks. When his grandsons, Kyle and Brandon Davis and Ryan Owens, wanted to go racing, there was one way Cotton knew he could make sure the cars were handling correctly; that was for him to make a few laps. Those cars handled very nicely both through the turns as well as down the straight-a-ways as Cotton Owens poured his years of experience into each of those cars. As Cotton and his wife Dot welcomed me into their home last summer, Dot made sure I looked at the pictures on her refrigerator. "Those are my favorite race cars! My grandsons raced those cars and Cotton built them!" the late Dot Owens said with a huge smile last August.

I was stopping by to talk with Cotton to write an article and to help Kevin Wray gather information about Cotton for last summer's induction ceremony for the Cherokee Speedway Hall of Fame.

Cotton and Dot both talked about the days racing around the upstate with their grandsons. Dot quickly became the favorite of everybody in the pits as she made sure nobody went hungry. "We would take a grill, or make sandwiches and Dot always had something sweet for us to nibble on whether it was before, during or after the races," Cotton said while reminiscing about his time at some of our local tracks.

As Dot was offering to feed friends and family at the track, Cotton would give advice to folks when they would ask. "I hated to watch somebody struggling with a car, and if they asked for help, I would do what I could for them," Cotton said.

As recent as last spring, a team from Greenville Pickens Speedway asked Cotton for help to get a car handling better. Cotton offered up some information, those folks made the changes to the car and that car went to the front.

Cotton was a guest and a guest host on Droppin' the Hammer with Greg Moore, Ronnie Black and me several times over the past five years. Sometimes we would repeat a question from his last time on the show with us but he always answered the question like it was the first time he had heard it. Several times Cotton was joined by Bud Moore, which made the job of being show host very easy for me.

Having those two together with racing being the topic, all I had to do was tell them what era in racing we wanted to talk about. Bud would mention a race or track and Cotton would perk up remembering the race in question, leaving me to enjoy listening to them and Hauser hoping I didn't forget to stop for a commercial break, because after all, radio shows are like racecars, you have got to have a sponsor. As Cotton's illness intensified over the past eight weeks, he could not get out and Bud Moore came on the show the Saturday following the announcement that Cotton would be joining his longtime Spartanburg friends, Bud Moore and David Pearson, in the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

"I reminded the folks on the balloting committee that there was a good reason why Cotton was called King of the Modifieds. Cotton won two NASCAR National Modified Championships, but he was winning races long before NASCAR was formed," said Bud Moore. "Whether it was his modifieds, the Pontiacs and Dodges he drove or the cars he built for others to race, Cotton made cars go faster, engines last longer, and he constantly worked to improve driver safety," Moore added.

After finishing second during the 1964 season with David Pearson at the wheel of his Dodge, the future looked bright in 1965 until a disagreement with NASCAR over the 426-HEMI engine left the Chrysler Corporation boycotting NASCAR and Cotton and David looking for somewhere to go racing.

Cotton took a Dodge Dart wagon, put that big HEMI engine in the back, and he and Pearson went drag racing. "Richard Petty had already been drag racing a while before Cotton built his drag car, and the first thing they did was go out and beat Richard. Cotton built that car to be like nothing drag racing had seen before. He could move the weight around to make it grab the track better, or to where Pearson could stand on the gas and do a wheelie the entire length of the drag strip," said Greg Moore.

That car was called 'The Cotton Picker' and whether David Pearson or Cotton Owens was driving it on a given race day, it quickly became the car to beat.

Leonard Wood, who was voted in with Owens for the Class of 2013 - NASCAR Hall of Fame, talked about how fast Cotton's modified was when his brother Glen Wood, a 2012 inductee into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, raced against Cotton. "That flathead six-cylinder Cotton built just sounded strong when Cotton cranked it up. He was an incredible driver and very smart mechanic who just continued to make engines better and his cars last longer," Wood said.

Cotton Owens left his mark on racing from his days driving the modifieds to the beach at Daytona. The cars he built were some of the most desired rides in racing whether a driver was making a pass down the quarter mile, going for a speed record at Talladega, or slinging a little dirt on a Carolina Saturday night. His children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren have seen his work ethic first hand and each of them applies that same effort in their work today, whether on the job or in the classroom.

Cotton was a humble man who always looked for ways to make those around him happy. Even as he fought a terrible illness, he was always concerned for the welfare of both friends and family. Cotton was able to stay concerned for others, because he remained faithful in his walk with the Lord.

Cotton Owens fought the good fight. Cotton Owens kept his faith and Cotton Owens has finished the race.