JUNE 12, 2012 LEGENDTORIAL
by: Tim Leeming
Last Thursday, a family lost a father, grandfather, great grandfather, brother, father-in-law, or, in other words, a man who was everything to a certain family in Spartanburg, South Carolina. That family grieves.
Last Thursday, those of us who hang out here on RacersReunion, lost a member of our family too. He was a man who gave so much of himself to stock car racing and the sport finally gave him something back by electing him to the fourth class to be inducted into the elite NASCAR Hall of Fame. He was informed of that honor while in the hospital and I read somewhere that David Pearson said that when that when he was told of his selection, a smile came upon the lips of Everett “Cotton” Owens although his cancer had exhausted him to the point it was difficult to express much outward emotion. Our family also grieves. We feel this loss, although assuredly not as much as immediate family, but in a deeper sense of having more of our heritage removed from us. As the recent observance of Memorial Day reminds us of the sacrifice given by so many for our freedom, Cotton’s passing reminds us that the early days of the sport were rough, tough, and required men, and women, of special talents and inner strengths that seem to have become less important, certainly less obvious, as the generations pass.
Many years ago, Walter Brennan, whom I’m sure many of you will not remember, had a recitation recording entitled “That Mule, Old Rivers and Me”. I remember the recitation began with “How old was I when I first seen Old Rivers? Well, I can’t remember when he weren’t around”. In my life, Cotton Owens could be substituted for Old Rivers because as long as I’ve been around racing, and that began in 1952, Cotton Owens was always there. Either as a Modified Driver who won two National Titles and over 200 races, 24 consecutive at one point, a car owner, or just a hero I got to hang out with several times thanks to being a part of this website.
Cotton began working in the pits for, and you’ll appreciate this Cody, Gober Sosebee before World War II. Cotton served in the Navy during the war but he said that he often thought about racing while serving, I guess much like I did while sailing around the ocean. It was in 1947 when Gober offered the steering wheel to Cotton Owens and he was literally off and running, as they say.
I didn’t realize this until I was doing research for this Legendtorial, but Cotton actually competed in the very first Southern 500 at Darlington in 1950 and finished seventh. He didn’t come back to the Cup series until 1957 full time and between 1957 and 1962 he won at least one race per year in that division. In 1959, he set the world’s closed course record in qualifying for the first Daytona 500 at just over 143 mph. He finished a close second in the Cup Championship race to Lee Petty in 1959. Going back to 1957, he gave Pontiac its first NASCAR victory on the old Beach course.
Cotton fielded cars for a number of great drivers, Buddy Baker, Bobby Allison, Pete Hamilton, and, of course, David Pearson. David won the championship in 1966 in a Cotton Owens Dodge. It was a Cotton Owens Dodge Buddy Baker drove at Talladega to become the first stock car to average more than 200 mph on a closed course. As our own Dave Fulton pointed out this week, Cotton came out of driver’s retirement in 1964 at Richmond Fairgrounds to show David Pearson how to make fast pit stops. He also showed David Pearson how Cotton Owens could still win races as he powered that Dodge number 5 to victory.
All of these facts just stated relate to the driver, car owner, and mechanic who is one of the selected “NASCAR’s Fifty Greatest Drivers.” He is that. But he is much more.
Like Old Rivers, I can’t remember the first time I saw Cotton Owens but I’m sure it was sometime in my childhood because it seems he has always been around. Being a big fan of Mopars, I was always impressed by his immaculate Dodges. I remember, very well, the 1963 Atlanta 500 where the Chevrolets were so fast and Junior Johnson was rocketing around that track in that white Chevy. It had already been determined at Daytona that year that the Mopars were seriously deficient in horsepower to the Chevys. Suddenly, in the mirror of the number 3 Chevy there appeared one of those ultra ugly 1963 Dodges driven by David Pearson. Then appeared the other ugly 1963 Dodge driven by Billy Wade, both cars built by Cotton Owens. Both Dodges had problems that day and did not win the race but those two Dodges were the only cars on the tracks that could run with, indeed, outrun the Chevys. That was the hands on Cotton Owens experience that built into those cars and that made the difference over the other Mopar brands in the race.
All of this racing history of Cotton Owens is certainly warranted, for this is a racing history site. But let me get personal here for a few minutes and reflect on two different encounters with Cotton. In 1994, or thereabouts, Joe Penland and I went to Greenville Pickens Speedway to see the Goody’s Dash Series Race. Cotton was there that night and he was there with his grandson, Brandon Davis. I was not a grandfather at that time so I was sort of not quite sure why the conversation of the evening with Cotton was more about his grandchildren than it was racing. Now that I’m a grandfather I understand that. At the time it seemed strange to me, but I didn’t know the real Cotton Owens then. I just knew the guy who drove and built race cars. He was someone I had respected for things he did, more than who he was as a person. But that was to change.
I believe it was two years ago at the Celebration of the Automobile held in Hillsborough, NC. Our member, Dwight Fields posted in the Forum that he had much the same encounter with Cotton Owens there as did I. I vividly remember sitting there with Cotton recalling that night at Greenville Pickens and talking about grandkids. Cotton was so extremely proud of his, as I am of mine. We didn’t talk about the lung cancer that had been diagnosed by his grandson, the doctor, I believe the same young man I met at Greenville-Pickens that night. We talked about racing, we talked about grandkids, and we talked about the beautiful weather. I do remember feeling like I had been so very honored to have that opportunity with Cotton Owens but when I got up to leave and shook his hand, he said to me “Thanks for remembering.” I’m not sure what remembering he was thanking me for but it seems I should have responded with a more appropriate response than my weakly offered “Thank you!.”
Cotton had battled lung cancer for 7 years. I understand that most diagnosed with the same type cancer, usually at a much younger age, can expect to live approximately 5 years if treated with Chemo and/or radiation. Cotton declined all treatment and actually lived seven years after the first diagnosis. Sort of gives an indication of how strong a man he was. Some must wonder if his wife had not passed away in April, would he still be around. She was the love of his life.
Going back to Old Rivers, the chorus of that song states “One of these days I’m gonna climb that mountain and walk up there among those clouds”. Cotton has climbed that mountain now and left behind a huge mass of folks who will remember him for all he did in racing. He left behind his family, who will have memories for their entire lifetimes and those memories will surely consist of warmth and love. He left behind a world that was a better place for all the lives he touched, because he was the kind of man who exemplified all that is good about the human race. I hope when the NASCAR Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony is held, the speaker inducting Cotton will remember to include that in spite of his small physical stature, Cotton Owens was a giant to those who knew him.
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(Editor’s note: Tim Leeming is a member of the regular cast of the Tuesday evening racing show ” Racing Through History”, presented on Zeus Radio Network by RacersReunion®. Archives can be found by following the link. Live broadcasts can be heard from 7:00-9:00 PM every Tuesday. Please feel free to join us in the RacersReunion® Chat Room for the show.)