Cotton Owens was David Pearson's hero

June, 7, 2012
06/07/12
4:52
PM ET

Cotton Owens couldn't really speak last month when he was named to the NASCAR Hall of Fame's class of 2013. He couldn't move the right side of his body.

But he knew he'd been selected.

Oh, he knew.

"Oh, yeah," fellow Hall of Fame member and Spartanburg, S.C., native David Pearson said on Thursday, just hours after Owens, 88, passed following a lengthy battle with lung cancer and a suspected stroke that robbed most of his motor functions.

"You knew it because he just smiled. You could tell it meant a lot to him. He perked up there a little bit after they announced it. I just hated he won't be there to accept everything."

Everett "Cotton" Owens was Pearson's hometown hero, car owner and best friend. From 1962 to 1967, Pearson won 27 races driving out of Owens' Spartanburg shop. In 1966, he won 15 races to give Owens his first and only title in NASCAR's premier series.

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David Pearson, Cotton Owens
ISC Images & Archives/Getty Images Driver David Pearson and car owner Cotton Owens together won 27 races from 1962 to 1967 and the NASCAR championship in 1966.

There was a time when Pearson picked up Owens and his wife every Sunday after church and took them to lunch.

Then there were the final weeks when Pearson visited Owens daily just to let him know he still was his hero.

"He meant more to the sport than a lot of people thought," said Pearson, selected to the HOF's second class in 2011 along with another Spartanburg native, Bud Moore. "He won a ton of races in modifieds. He built the cars himself. He built the motors himself. He drove them. He won at Daytona on the beach.

"And he was just a good, honest fella."

If Pearson was in charge of Hall of Fame balloting, Owens would have been among the first five selected along with Raymond Parks, Tim Flock and other founding fathers.

Pearson definitely would have put Owens in ahead of himself, and Pearson in the minds of many is the greatest to ever driver a stock car.

"That's just how I feel," Pearson said. "I felt like they ought to put the older ones, the ones who started it, in there first."

If you want to be entertained with stories on Owens, Pearson is the one to ask. He remembered one year when he was running in the Grand National Series in one of Owens' cars.

Owens, who won nine times as a driver, was in another.

"Anyway, I was leading the race and when it was time to pit, they told me to pit," Pearson recalled. "I looked and here came Cotton in, so I had to sit and wait until they got through with Cotton's stop before they could change my tires.

"When he went back out, he was in front of me and he ended up winning the dadgum race. He's always kidded me about that. He'd tell everybody that he went up there on dirt and showed me how to drive. We've always had a good time."

The good times usually spilled over into the hotel, where the two often spent the night "shootin' the bull."

"Sometimes we'd end up rasslin' like kids," Pearson said with a laugh. "I will never forget one time we got to rasslin' and fell off the back of the bed. I was laying on his arms and he was on mine. We had to take our feet and push the bed away to get back up.

"We was always just like brothers."

Even their split in 1967 sounds like a typical brother tale. Here's Pearson's lengthy version:

"We were getting ready to go to Columbia [S.C.], to the race down there," he recalled. "He had the truck pulled outside [of the garage] and went home to take a shower. All of us were out there ready to go. We were running a little bit late so ... me and the crew, we got in the car and took off to get some ice for the cooler, so we wouldn't have to when he come out.

"Cotton came out and he thought we run off and left him. He kind of got a little ill about that and he just pulled the race car and truck and everything back in the garage. So when we got back we thought he'd left us and we'd have to hurry up and go catch him."

When Pearson & Co. got to Columbia, there was no Owens. When they got back to Spartanburg, there was no job.

"The next morning I went up there and the boys were standing on the outside," Pearson continued. "I said, 'What are y'all doing standing out here?' They said, 'He just fired us. He got mad, said we run off and left him last night.'

"I couldn't believe it and I went back in there and I said, 'What are you doing, Cotton, getting mad at these boys and running them off?' He said, 'If you don't like it, you can go too.' I said, 'Well, I don't like it.' So I just turned around and walked out. I told the boys when I went outside, 'Well, I'm gone too.' So that's what we broke up about."

But the two remained friends until the day Owens died. Pearson's only regret is that his hero and friend won't be able to enjoy the Hall of Fame induction ceremony in February like he and Moore did.

"But at least he knew he was going in," Pearson said. "You could see it in his smile."

David Newton | email

ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter

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