Cotton Owens, the Hall of Fame driver and car owner whom David Pearson referred to as his hero, has passed away just weeks after being selected to the 2013 class of the NASCAR shrine.
Winner of two NASCAR modified titles as a driver and a premier-series championship as a car owner, Everett "Cotton" Owens was 88. He had recently been in poor health, and was unable to attend the May 23 ceremony in downtown Charlotte where he was selected as one of the five members of the Hall of Fame to be inducted next year. He instead watched the ceremony on television back home in Spartanburg, S.C., surrounded by his children. His condition was exacerbated by the passing of his wife Dot, who died in April.
Owens passed away Thursday morning. Funeral arrangements will be announced by the family at a later date.
"The family would like to express gratitude for the thoughts and prayers of precious friends and fans," Owens' family said in a statement. "While Cotton was a racing legend with an incredible racing 'family' we mourn the irreplaceable great granddad, granddad, father, uncle, brother-in-law and friend we have all lost. The family respectfully requests privacy at this difficult time."
Owens is scheduled for enshrinement on Feb. 8 along with former champion driver Rusty Wallace, Wood Brothers co-founder Leonard Wood, and late two-time champion drivers Herb Thomas and Buck Baker.
"NASCAR has lost one of its true pioneers with the passing of Cotton Owens," NASCAR chairman Brian France said in a statement. "On behalf of the France family and everyone at NASCAR, I offer heartfelt condolences to Cotton's family and friends. This is a sad day for the NASCAR industry, but we are all consoled by the fact that Cotton was voted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame before his death. Today we have lost a portion of our past. But people like Cotton Owens are the reason our sport thrives today -- and can look forward to a promising future."
Within NASCAR circles, Owens was seen as a giant. As a driver he won more than 100 races on the sport's modified circuit, nine more on what is now the Sprint Cup tour, and lost a close battle with Lee Petty for the 1959 Cup championship. As an owner, he fielded cars driven by some of the best of his era -- Junior Johnson, Mario Andretti, Ralph Earnhardt, Fireball Roberts, Baker and Pearson, the latter of whom won the 1966 premier-series title in Owens' Dodge.
"He was always an honest, hard-working individual, and everybody always saw him as that," Owens' grandson Brandon Davis said at the Hall of Fame ceremony last month.
Owens, who in his later years owned a sizeable automobile salvage yard, was born in Union, S.C., but became a central figure in nearby Spartanburg back when the city was the hub of NASCAR. "I always pulled for him before I ever started racing," said Pearson, also a Spartanburg resident. "He's always been my hero. I'd go by his shop. I always liked him because he's in my hometown right here."
As a car owner, Owens was very hands-on. "Cotton did all the work," Pearson said. "He'd build motors, he'd build cars. ... He did real well in everything he did. ... He did a lot of stuff himself getting the car ready, things a lot of people hadn't done. Anybody that deserves going into the Hall of Fame, he definitely needs to."
Hall of Fame historian Buz McKim said Owens was one of NASCAR's first heroes, thrilling crowds with the way he slid his car around dirt tracks. Winston Kelley, executive director of the Hall of Fame, said he has vivid memories of watching the red and white No. 6 cars owned by Owens run up front. He said Owens, who was also a member of the Hall's voting panel, was also an advocate for initiatives involving the shrine.
"We lost one of NASCAR's greats today," Kelley said. "Our hearts go out to Cotton's family, and we hope they find strength in the memories of his remarkable life and career."