Darlington Legends: South Carolina Native Owens Leaves His Mark on Darlington
By: Jim McLaurin
DARLINGTON, S.C. (Feb. 9, 2009) – Surprisingly, Everett "Cotton" Owens didn’t make much of a dent as a driver at Darlington Raceway, despite its being the biggest track in his home state of South Carolina, and despite his status as one of the top 50 drivers in NASCAR history. But in 1970, as a team owner, he knocked a hole in the old track.
"That was really a special weekend for me," said Owens, the long-retired driver/car owner from Spartanburg. "I don’t think it could have gotten much better."
It was indeed special. On Labor Day weekend of 1970, Owens pulled off a rare double.
On Saturday night, he was inducted into the National Motorsports Press Association Hall of Fame, which is situated just outside the fence on the backstretch of the historic track, and on the following Monday, Buddy Baker gave him a victory in the Southern 500, the oldest big race on the oldest superspeedway in NASCAR history.
Only one other time, when Cale Yarborough won the 500 in 1973 on the same weekend as his boss Junior Johnson’s induction, has that been accomplished.
"Cotton was my man," said Baker, who later joined Owens in the Hall of Fame. "I never had the privilege of racing against him -- my dad raced against him but I never had the opportunity -- he was just a wee bit before my time.
"But I won a Southern 500 for him. I'd still be driving for him, but the factories (car manufacturers) said they were only going to keep two teams with full backing," said Baker, who moved over to team with Richard Petty.
"I never left because I was unhappy with Cotton. If you're going to look for somebody to race for who wouldn't put any pressure on you, he was the one."
The ones to which Owens applied the pressure were the other cars on the track. Whether as a driver or car owner, he applied plenty of that.
Owens made his mark as a driver in the old modified division, which predated even NASCAR, winning over 100 races, earning the nickname "King of the Modifieds" for himself. But he also scored nine wins in the Grand National Series (now Sprint Cup) behind the wheel, and that included the first win for Pontiac, on Daytona’s old beach-road course, in 1957.
He also scored wins on the beach-road track in 1953 and 1954, in a modified ’38 Plymouth.
"I loved the modifieds," he said. "They were very good cars. You more or less hand-built them yourselves and it went back to your wits against everybody else's, and when you won, you felt pretty good about it."
He raced modifieds, he said, because back in the 1940s and ’50s, "I could make more money with my modified. We didn't run as many laps, and didn't use as many tires, or use nearly the same amount of fuel. And you could drive home every night."
He did OK in the Grand Nationals, too. In fact, he is one of the few drivers still around who drove in the first Southern 500, in 1950. In a field of 75 cars, he finished seventh, driving a little Plymouth similar to the one driven by the winner, Johnny Mantz.
Owens was injured at Richmond in 1951, curtailing his driving career, but as owner he went to the top.
Over 30 drivers won a total of 38 Grand National races behind the wheel of Owens’ cars, including hall of famers Baker, Junior Johnson, and a fellow Spartanburg native named David Pearson.
Pearson, in fact, drove an Owens Dodge to 15 victories, 28 Top 5's, and 33 Top 10's in 42 races in 1966, winning the Grand National Driver's championship and the owner's title for Owens.
Owens maintains that Pearson was the best driver he ever saw, much less sat in one of his cars, but Baker still has a warm place in his heart, too.On March 24, 1970, Baker drove a Dodge Daytona prepared by Owens to the first
lap at over 200 miles per hour (200.447) on an enclosed course in any type of auto, at Talladega Superspeedway. But it was pretty hard to top that weekend at Darlington.
"I think we qualified for the outside pole, and went along real good," Owens said. "I know with about 30 laps to go, we had a lap on the field and I was controlling Baker. He was right in front of a lapped car and all we wanted to do was to keep him behind us. He came off the corner all cross-wise, and I put out the board, 'Slow that thing down!'
"He had relaxed with it and wasn't right up on the wheel right there at the end.
"He was thinking about cashing the check."
So was Owens.
"The weekend went off real good," he said.
Darlington still holds a pretty good chunk of Owens’ heart, too. At the track’s inaugural Darlington Historic Racing Festival last September, Owens was one of the featured guests, and he brought one of the old ’64 Dodges Pearson drove in 1964.
"I got to ride all my grandkids around, so they could actually say they rode around Darlington in a race car," he said. "That was something."
It’s a pretty safe bet he’ll have that car back again this September when the legends come back to town on Sept. 26-27.
"I wouldn’t miss it," he said.
Darlington Raceway or the track “Too Tough to Tame” as it is known to many, is where the purest of NASCAR competition meets true southern hospitality. A NASCAR staple since 1950, Darlington Raceway has seen some of motorsports most talented drivers thunder to Victory Lane. In 2009 a NASCAR tradition, the Southern 500®, will return as Darlington Raceway celebrates 60 Seasons of Racing.
Be a part of history when Darlington Raceway celebrates 60 years of racing in 2009. Tickets to the 2009 Southern 500®, as well as the NASCAR Nationwide Series Diamond Hill Plywood 200 are on-sale now. Tickets can be purchased by calling the Darlington Raceway ticket office at 866-459-RACE or online at http://www.darlingtonraceway.com/tickets/.