We Lose a Legend: Famed NASCAR Racer and Tuner Cotton Owens Dies at Age 88

By Elana Scherr

June 14, 2012

From the sands of Daytona to the high speed track at Talladega, Cotton Owens set records and claimed wins during the most challenging and dangerous years of NASCAR’s history and will be remembered as one of the all-time great influencers in motorsports.
Everett “Cotton” Owens passed on Thursday, June 7, 2012 from lung cancer. He was 88 years old.
Owens was more than just a NASCAR driver and team owner; he was at the core of racing and safety development throughout his motorsports career.
That career started in the 50s and saw several firsts including Pontiac’s first NASCAR win in 1957, the first race on sand averaging over 100mph (also in ’57), and the first average speed over 200 mph in 1970.
Although Owens was a skilled racer, racking up numerous wins and top ten finishes during his driving career, some of his most impressive achievements came as a car owner and tuner.
Starting in the early 1960s after an accident that affected his depth perception, Owens moved out of the driver’s seat and in to the garages. The roster of drivers winning in Cotton Owens-prepared cars reads like a who’s who of NASCAR. Owens’ drivers include Junior Johnson, David Pearson, Al Unser, Fireball Roberts, Mario Andretti and many, many more big names behind the wheel.
In 1965 NASCAR temporarily banned the Chrysler Hemi, and like many frustrated Chrysler racers that year –Most famously Richard Petty, Owens and driver at the time, David Pearson turned to drag racing to get their high speed kicks.
The "Cotton Picker" Dart wasn’t a particularly successful quarter-mile car, but the rear-engined wagon was well respected for its wheelie abilities, and according to his website,  Cotton Owens recalled the drag racing experience fondly.
One of the most significant achievements of Cotton Owens’ career was with the Dodge wing cars in 1970.
Buddy Baker was the pilot of the Cotton Owens #6 1969 Dodge Daytona when timers clocked the big aero-warrior at an average of over 200 mph during the Alabama 500 at Talladega in April, 1970. This was just weeks after Baker hit similar speeds on the same track during a testing session in the #88 Chrysler R&D Daytona.
Later that year Baker and Owens took the last-ever win for the wing-cars in NASCAR as the strict engine displacement handicaps for the Superbird and Daytona in 1971 nullified the cars’ aerodynamic advantages and most Chrysler teams chose to run the bigger Hemi in the more conservatively-styled Chargers and Road Runners.
Owens was also a strong innovator regarding safety, and many of the safety features in all forms of racing today had their start with Owens and his fellow car-builders.
Things like side cage reinforcements, padded steering wheel hubs, check valves for fuel and moly tubing roll bars were all found in Cotton Owens cars way before they were mandated by sanctioning bodies.
Like all great mechanics, Owens just liked building things, and if it wasn’t a NASCAR car, one might see his handiwork in other racing venues.  The Dodge Challenger run by Brock Yates and Dan Gurney in the 1972 Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash was built and race-prepped by Cotton Owens, and finished top three against some much more exotic iron.
Owens contributions to the sport of NASCAR and beyond have not gone unrecognized.  He is a NASCAR Hall-of-Famer, listed in the Motorsports Hall of Fame and amongst the recognized “50 Greatest Drivers” according to NASCAR, and that’s just to name a few.