Cotton Owens Conquered the Beach
by Tom Jensen March 23, 2023
Nicknamed “King of the Modifieds,” South Carolina racer Cotton Owens defeated the largest field in NASCAR history.
Every race win is special, and so is every race win trophy. But some victories and the trophies that accompany them are just a little more memorable, a little bit more historic and therefore treasured a little bit more. Those are the best of the best.
Some 70 years ago, on Valentine’s Day of 1953, South Carolina racer Everett “Cotton” Owens, a member of the NASCAR Hall of Fame Class of 2013, set a NASCAR record that stands to this day and likely will never be broken. On that day, on the old Daytona Beach-Road Course, Owens won the NASCAR Modified-Sportsman Division race, defeating a field of 136 cars assembled from two different NASCAR divisions. In those days, NASCAR often combined divisions into one race, resulting in large fields.
See highlights from the 1953 NASCAR Modified-Sportsman Division race, including Cotton Owens in action, from the Julian Buesink Collection
It was and still is the largest number of competitors in any NASCAR race ever. And the NASCAR Hall of Fame has Owens’ Daytona trophy upstairs in our Heritage Speedway exhibition.
Known in the early 1950s as “King of the Modifieds,” Owens raced a Plymouth coupe rather than the Fords favored by so many competitors in the Modified Division (now Whelen Modified Tour). Whenever Owens and his Plymouth showed up for a Modified race, he was the driver to beat.
That was especially true at Daytona, where Owens won the Modified races in 1953 and ’54. In 1957 Owens switched manufacturers and won the Grand National Division (now Cup Series) beach race, giving automaker Pontiac its first victory in NASCAR’s top series.
Of course, those race triumphs, prestigious as they were, are hardly the only reasons Owens was voted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame’s fourth class. Owens was also the Cup Series championship team owner in 1966, earning the title with driver David Pearson (Class of 2011). In his career, Owens won nine races and 10 poles as a driver, and 38 races and 33 poles as a team owner. In 1998, he was voted one of NASCAR’s 50 Greatest Drivers.
Owens was one of a rare breed, someone who succeeded at NASCAR’s highest levels as a driver, a car owner and a mechanic. He famously helped develop Chrysler’s 426-cubic-inch Hemi engine in the mid-1960s, when he was the leader of Dodge’s factory stock-car racing efforts. Put simply, when it came to going fast, Owens knew how to get it done, whether behind the wheel or under the hood.
Plan a visit to the NASCAR Hall of Fame and purchase tickets at nascarhall.com/tickets.