Cotton Owens, one of the pioneering greats in NASCAR, a recent inductee to the NASCAR hall of fame, a short time match race drag racer, and one of the 50 greatest drivers in NASCAR history has died at the age of 88. Owens was the first man to win a NASCAR race in the Pontiac and teamed with David Pearson, he won the 1966 NASCAR championship. He also flirted with the championship several other times, both before and after his historic ’66 season with Pearson.
Despite his early success in Pontiacs, Owens will forever be associated with the Chrysler brand. He recorded nearly 40 wins as a team owner for Dodge, he prepared the Daytona that Buddy Baker drove to eclipse the 200mph mark at Talladega, which was a significant moment for stock car racing as it was the first lap ever turned in one of those cars to break the double century barrier. Owens was long quoted as saying that moment was as important an accomplishment to him as was winning the title.
When NASCAR banned the Hemi engine, Owens, like other Chrysler stock car racers turned to the drag strips of America. Owens drove one of the most oddly cool match race bashers of the era, his infamous, “Cotton Picker” Dart wagon. This was a Dodge Dart station wagon with an injected hemi mounted in the area behind the rear seats and bolted almost directly to the rear axle. The car was known for massive wheelstands and it did occasionally run a number, but the life of the Cotton Picker was very short lived. It hit the scene in the spring of 1964 and when NASCAR announced that they would allow the Chrysler Hemi back into competition for 1965, Petty, Pearson, Owens, and the other factory Chrysler drivers went back to NASCAR and no one has seen or heard from the Cotton Picker since. Reportedly it is living with a Maryland car collector.
Interestingly, Owens was diagnosed with lung cancer 7 years ago and decided against hardcore treatment. At the time he accepted his fate and felt as though he had lived a good life. As it turns out, his decision to let it be worked better than anyone could have expected because by all accounts the last seven years of his life were lived fully and without major issues.
The fanatical racers that built NASCAR were a fast driving, hard drinking, hard punching, and close group. The men ran dozens upon dozens of races per year, traveled in packs, and saw lots of death and injury along the way. Owens, like others that have recently passed are among that group of giants whose shoulders we all stand on today. It is great that he was around to see his election into the NASCAR hall of fame and experience the appreciation of his accomplishments in racing.
The Cotton Picker is gone at 88 years old.