Legendary Cotton Owens (Photo: NASCAR Hall of Fame)
By Mike Mulhern
Marty Robbins and his guitar were holding court for us, all sitting around the motel pool one Friday night in Oxford, Ala., a few miles down the road from Talladega.
Robbins had just qualified Cotton Owens' wildly purple Dodge a respectable 15th for the Winston 500 – then one of NASCAR's Big Four events.
Now evening, Owens, his car owner, was over in the corner, quiet, like always, as Robbins launched into one of his new songs, "Twentieth Century Drifter," about a life on the road as a journeyman stock car racer.
Drivin a race car is my way of making a livin'
My way of puttin' the bread on the table at home
I'm gettin' back about half as much as I'm givin'
And I couldn't make it without a good woman at home....'
It spoke true, about what was then an easy-going era, back when virtually the entire NASCAR circus could pack into just one or two motels near the track, before the sport became this 3,000-man army marauding around the country.
Robbins this night was doing it all delicately acoustic. Not sure if he ever recorded a version quite like that. Best copy we can find is this http://bit.ly/LIa9rY and at least it has good visuals.
...you might even call me a 20th century drifter.
32 weekends I load up the car and I'm gone.
And my woman cries with each goodbye kiss that I give her,
and she prays that come Monday morning I'll be driftin' home....
The way we were....when the sport, yes, it had some big stars, but was filled more with journeymen like H. P. Bailey and J.D. McDuffie, and Walter Ballard and Dean Dalton, and Grant Adcox and David Sisco.
David Pearson: Cotton Owens' champion at the wheel.... (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
In his prime, in the 1950s and 1960s, right up till about 1970 or so, Owens was one of the big stars, first as a driver, then better as a car owner – winning the NASCAR championship in 1966, with an amazing 15 tour victories with David Pearson.
Cotton Owens passed on the other day, at 88 and long after his glory days...another time, long ago. Yet not really so long ago, until wandering through the NASCAR garage here at Pocono Raceway looking for someone to recall a few vignettes, well.....not easy.
Cotton, best as can recall, was a small whip of a man, from that era when Dodge versus Ford was a series of one epic battle after another....back when the Hemi ruled, so much so that Big Bill France kicked it right out of the sport and sent Richard Petty over to the dragstrips of the nation....when there was more high drama in the sport each week than you could ever imagine.
A world of 20th century drifters, hauling on roads from track to track, and a bit more humble than the current crop of racers.
"Now, Marty, when Cotton gets back, here's what we're going to do...." RJReynolds' sports boss Ralph Seagraves (R) and Marty Robbins (Photo: NASCAR)
The Cotton Owens I remember was pretty darned quiet. He was the man who prepared those purple Dodges for Marty Robbins. And they only ran half a dozen races a year.
But when Marty and Cotton showed up, it was a big deal....(and smart marketing, you think?)
That was pretty much near the end of Cotton's era, after making his name as a NASCAR champion racer and then car builder, working with men like Buddy Baker, Bobby Isaac, Junior Johnson, Fireball Roberts...and of course David Pearson.
The incomparable David Pearson, called by many, including Owens, perhaps the greatest all around driver ever in this sport.
Now Cotton might not have been a big talker, but his iron was fast and it could make a statement. One of the highlights of Owens' career – and consider this when looking drivers now running some of the fastest laps in NASCAR history, right here this weekend – came in 1970 when Baker turned the first official 200-mph lap, tire testing at Talladega.
And that was back, remember, when men died in this sport.
Owens was right there when Darlington Raceway opened in 1950. Drove a Plymouth right off the showroom floor over to the new track. Plastered up the headlights with tape. Unbolted the muffler. And roared out to do battle. Finished seventh that Labor Day weekend, and earned $930.
No rollbars. Doors weren't welded shut; they'd still open with a handle.
Cotton Owens (R), and he sure loved purple (Photo: Cotton Owens)
In Owens' prime as a driver, he was up against men like Fireball, Speedy Thompson, Joe Weatherly and Curtis Turner, men who Owens liked to say 'would really run you to death.'
There was no sandbagging back in those days. The thrill of the battle was more important than plotting for a championship.
Owens bought his first street car in 1937, a '34 Ford coupe, with which he terrorized on the backroads of Piedmont South Carolina. During the war he served in the U.S. Navy. When he returned to Spartanburg, S.C., he, like neighbor and fellow WWII veteran Bud Moore, picked up racing.
It may be hard to visualize now—in this age of HANS devices and softwalls and huge headrests and rollcages and six-point safety harnesses – but stock cars back then were, well, pretty darned showroom stock, except for the masking tape on the headlights, and all those trick engines under the hood. (It wasn't until 1966-1967-1968 that the modern NASCAR 'safety' stocker came into being.)
Owens was nearly killed early in his career, in a bad crash in 1951 that broke his neck and swelled his head dangerously, and left him with double-vision and terrible depth perception. That didn't deter him, though; he won two NASCAR Modified championships and a slew of other races.
He never let on he was driving pretty much with just his right eye. But as racing got faster and faster, growing out of the roots short-tracks toward the speedway era, Owens could tell he needed to reassess things.
So he called it quits in 1962...and hired Pearson to drive for him (though Owens did race a time or two after that, even winning Richmond in 1964, some say just to prove to Pearson that Owens could still beat him on a race track).
David Pearson, on his way to another NASCAR championship, in a Cotton Owens Dodge (Photo: Dodge)
Today's generation may best remember him for the 1976 Daytona 500, that stunning finish with Richard Petty.
But some of Pearson's greatest years were in the mid-1960s with Owens building his cars. Owens called Pearson one of the greatest of all-time, because he was so versatile at the wheel, be it asphalt, dirt, big-track, short-track or road course. And because Pearson was so famously cool under pressure, never rattled.
And that, remember, was back in the day of really wild men in NASCAR, for whom the sport of it all was more important than a championship.
Owens would later ponder that television had taken some of that spunk out of the drivers, because replays could dissect every move for debate. In his day, Owens said 'courtesy' and those 'gentleman's agreements' weren't part of the game.
Owens' headline years pretty much came to an end when Detroit car makers Ford and Chrysler abruptly withdrew from this sport in 1970. Maybe it was the gaudy excesses like those winged Supercars and the 429s, but Detroit pulled the plug on NASCAR, and things changed dramatically.
Then Owens hooked up with old buddy Marty Robbins, who turned a yen for stock car racing into nice adjunct to his singing career.
Owens provided the Dodges, Robbins would run a few races – Talladega, Atlanta, Charlotte, Ontario, Rockingham, Michigan, even Darlington – and NASCAR got a nice marketing pop...back when Nashville was a prime part of the stock car world.
They were a team right up till Robbins died in late 1982, just a few weeks after racing at Atlanta.
Ghost riders now, both....
Marty Robbins and one of his Cotton Owens Specials (Photo: ISC)