A Legend in the Making
Cotton would return from WWII to begin a career in racing in 1946, building and driving "Modifieds" to victory all over the Southeast. Modifieds were essentially pre-war hot-rods that allowed for all sorts of modifications in an effort to gain speed, providing cheap thrills and unlimited go-fast potential for crafty mechanics. Owens would harness his mechanical aptitude and boundless energy to build bulletproof rides and become the most feared driver on the circuit.
Owens deservedly earned the nickname "King of the Modifieds
" by winning more than 200 NASCAR Modified division races and was a 3-time National Modified Champion (1950, 1953, 1954). 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. Click here to read the story.
Cotton would continue driving in the Modified division throughout the 1940s and early 1950s, showing up wherever there was a big purse or prize to be won. Modifieds were where the money and competition were at during this time, as their unlimited nature made them fast and easily tuned, with plenty of spare parts and bodies available. NASCAR would not officially get organized until 1947, and their Grand National division did not draw similar competition or prize monies until the mid to late 1950s. Throughout this period Owens would drive both Modifieds and "Stock" racers and would eventually transition to the Grand National "Stock Car" division full-time in 1956-57, as it started to emerge as the premier racing series and garnered interest from fans and factories alike, fielding Pontiacs with colorful nicknames such as "Thunder-Chick."
Cotton was a hero for more than just his driving and mechanical abilities. This accident in 1951 put Cotton in hospital for 15 days and would eventually lead to the end of his driving career, although he would continue to run intermittently over the next decade, overcoming a broken neck and facial reconstruction that left him with double-vision.
Bobby Myers and Cotton Owens at the 1957 Southern 500
Cotton Owens after a victory at the Spartanburg County Fairgrounds
Cotton charges past Paul Goldsmith in the Smokey Yunick prepared Chevrolet at Daytona Beach in 1957. Owens would go on to take the win while Goldsmith suffered engine failure and wound up in 24th position. Photo credit © Bud Kirsch.
Cotton Owens pilots his 1957 Pontiac to victory in the 160 mile Grand National Race on the 4.1 mile beach and road course at Daytona. Owens averaged 101.6 miles per hour - the fastest ever negotiated in NASCAR's parade of speed over the beach road course.
Cotton Owens behind the wheel of a Pontiac Catalina.
1959 Firecracker 250 at Daytona
1960 Firecracker 400 at Daytona
NASCAR Daytona Beach race (1950s).
This photo shows Cotton Owens with the #3 Pontiac that he bought from Smokey Yunick right after the Daytona beach race in February of 1959. Marvin Panch
drove the '58 Ford #98 and Fireball Roberts
drove the #22 '57 Chevy.