Everett “Cotton” Owens, a racer whose life touched practically every era of stock car racing, died Thursday morning. He had turned 88 years old May 21.
On May 23, it was announced that Owens was one of five new members selected for induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Owens will be inducted posthumously as part of the hall’s fourth class in February.
Owens was diagnosed with lung cancer seven years ago at 81. He chose not to treat the cancer aggressively, saying he had led a full life.
His choice turned out to be the correct one. He lived for seven more years with a high quality of life.
Owens was born in Union, SC but lived most of his life in nearby Spartanburg, S.C., where he based his racing operation.
In a motorsports career that lasted most of a half-century, Owens won nine Sprint Cup (then Grand National) races as a driver and later built winning cars for other top racers. He and Hall of Fame driver Pearson teamed to win the Cup championship in 1966.
Owens became interested in fast cars while growing up in Spartanburg in the pre-World War II years. He and other teen-agers burned rubber on the streets of the city and on the backroads of Spartanburg County before the war called. Owens served in the Navy and returned to South Carolina primed to jump in fast cars again.
He started racing modifieds on the dirt tracks of the Carolinas and quickly built a strong reputation, winning dozens of races in the 1940s and 1950s and becoming known as the “king of the modifieds”. Even after moving up to the Grand National series and its higher-profile races, he continued to run in modified events, in part because they typically paid well and he typically was among the favorites wherever he ran.
Pearson often has said Owens was a hero of his and one of his inspirations for starting his own driving career.
Owens drove in the Cup series from 1950 to 1964, leaving high-level driving at the age of 40. He probably would have driven for several more seasons, but vision problems that had plagued him since crashes in the 1950s led him to climb out of the driver’s seat – at least at the Cup level – for good.
Owens had a team in the Cup series through the 1973 season. He scored 38 wins as an owner, enjoying the most success with Pearson, a fellow Spartanburg resident.
Owens spent much of his Cup career as a Dodge team owner.
In 1970, Buddy Baker drove an Owens-prepared winged Dodge Daytona to a speed of 200.447 miles per hour in a tire test at Talladega Superspeedway, marking the first official NASCAR lap over 200. It was a key achievement Owens later said was as meaningful to him as his championship.
After leaving the circuit on a full-time basis, Owens occasionally fielded cars for close friend and country music singer Marty Robbins, who raced sporadically as a hobby.
Owens closed out his racing career in the 1990s where it started – on dirt. His three grandsons had an interested in driving, and he built cars for them to race on dirt at several South Carolina tracks. Even in his 70s, he was able to drive those dirt cars at speed while trying to perfect the setups.
Owens was named one of NASCAR’s 50 greatest drivers in 1998 as the organization celebrated its 50th anniversary.
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 30 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.