News & Media

Owens was legend to most, ‘Pop’ to family

February 08, 2013, Kenny Bruce,

NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee honored through grandchildren’s memories

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Cotton Owens found out he was to be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame two weeks before his death.

“It was the last time he smiled,” Owens’ grandson, Brandon Davis, said Feb. 8.

Owens, a noted driver, car builder and team owner, was one of five inductees who made up the 2013 class, a group that also included Buck Baker, Herb Thomas, Leonard Wood and Rusty Wallace.

He passed away in June of 2012, shortly after this year’s class was announced.

“To my whole family it means the world,” granddaughter Cari Spanton said, “because this is what he has done his entire life; this is a culmination of everything. This is the icing on the cake. 

“Even though he is gone, and some of these other pioneers and legends are gone, they’ll be remembered here in the Hall of Fame.”

Owens, one of several legendary figures who cut their racing teeth on dirt tracks in and around Spartanburg, S.C. well before NASCAR became a staple, earned nine career wins as a driver, and 38 as an owner. He enjoyed the bulk of his success with David Pearson, another Spartanburg native, winning the 1966 Cup title. Twenty-seven of Pearson’s 105 victories came at the helm of an Owens’ prepped car. 

In his later years, Owens provided a helping hand to his grandchildren as they tried their hands at racing, “and I know personally he would tell you those were some of the best years of his life,” Davis said.

“He was as proud of one of our victories as he was his 1970 win with Buddy Baker at the Southern 500 and took it just as serious.

“It’s pretty telling that three of the first 20 members (of the Hall) are from Spartanburg. It was the hub city of racing back in that day. He had 13 of NASCAR’s 50 greatest drivers (that) drove for him and then my grandfather was one of those 50.”

Owen’s 1957 win on the Daytona Beach road course was the first such victory for Pontiac in NASCAR. Two years later, Owens finished second to fellow Hall of Famer Lee Petty in the points battle. 

He also is credited with more than 100 victories in NASCAR’s Modified division.

But to his family, he was simply Cotton. Or Pop.

“Going to races as a youngster,” Spanton said, “we knew he was big to NASCAR. He was big to the fans. But to us he was just Pop. He was an extremely humble person. 

“As big as he was to everybody to us on the outside, he was our granddad who always had time for us. 

“We knew how big he was (to everyone else), but to us he was much bigger than NASCAR.”