CHARLOTTE — By the time car owner and driver Cotton Owens was voted into NASCAR’s Hall of Fame last May, a series of strokes had left him unable to speak.
Owens watched the voting results on television with his family from his home in Spartanburg. “We had all been disappointed before,” Don Owens, Cotton’s son, said. “When Brian France announced that he had gotten in, he was visibly happy. That was the first time I had seen him smile in a long, long time.”
That night, the other two men with Spartanburg roots already in NASCAR’s Hall — Bud Moore and David Pearson — came to celebrate with Owens. That meant a lot to Owens, who made his biggest mark in stock-car racing’s top level as a do-it-yourself owner and mechanic in the days when car owners had grime under their fingernails.
That day last May was one of the last great moments of Owens’ life.
“He couldn’t talk,” said Moore, a close friend who ate lunch almost every day with Owens at a Spartanburg diner from 2000 to 2012. “But he was grinning from ear to ear.”
Owens died two weeks later on June 7, at age 88, from complications from cancer and his strokes. His wife, Dot — a major part of the family racing business and always her husband’s biggest cheerleader — already had passed away. The two were married 66 years; their deaths were separated by two months.
The rest of the Owens family will celebrate this week in Charlotte, as Owens officially is enshrined today in NASCAR’s fourth Hall of Fame class along with Buck Baker, Herb Thomas, Leonard Wood and Rusty Wallace.
“Look up the definition of ‘nice man’ in the dictionary and you will see Cotton Owens’ picture,” said Buddy Baker, one of more than 20 drivers who drove for Owens.
Although Owens’ first name was Everett, no one called him that. Born in 1924 in Union, as a child he had blond hair so light it was almost white. Someone called him “Cotton” and the nickname stuck so thoroughly that many of his friends didn’t know his real name.
Owens served in the Navy, got out and started winning races as a driver on short dirt tracks around the Carolinas.
Moore’s best season as a driver in NASCAR’s top series was in 1959, when he finished a close second to Lee Petty in the standings. By age 38 he had mostly retired as a driver, but based a successful race team out of his Spartanburg shop. In 1966, he fielded cars for Pearson, also of Spartanburg, and won the season title in what now is NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series. Owens never got rich racing, but he made ends meet.
Cotton Owens also prepared cars for drivers such as Junior Johnson, Fireball Roberts, Ralph Earnhardt and Buddy Baker, who won the 1970 Southern 500 in Darlington in an Owens-owned Dodge.