The Harley J. Earl award ceremony...
The Harley J. Earl award ceremony for the 1957 Beach and Road Course race at Daytona. From left; car owner Ray Nichels of Nichels Engineering; Semon "Bunkie" Knudsen, Pontiac general manager and General Motors vice president; Harley Earl, General Motors vice president and styling director; winning driver Cotton Owens; and Bill France, president of NASCAR.
High Performance Pontiac: What was the first Pontiac you professionally raced?
Cotton Owens: The first one that I drove actually in the Grand National races was in 1956 in Daytona Beach, Florida [on February 26, 1956]. That Pontiac was a '56 two-door Chieftain sedan. It had the V-8 317 ci engine.
HPP: What prompted you to get behind the wheel of a stock car, especially a Pontiac? You were best known as "King of the Modifieds" in the Grand National Featherlite series.
CO: As well as I can remember, Lou Moore, who was an Indianapolis mechanic, had brought two cars to Daytona for Bunkie Knudsen, and they called me and wanted to know if I wanted to drive one of them, because I was a part-time Grand National driver. I mainly ran modifieds all the time. So I told them, "Sure, I would be more than glad to." I liked to drive and was a part-time driver of any type of race car. They understood that I knew the Daytona Beach and Road Course from previous races that I had won there in 1953 and 1954 in the modifieds.
HPP: Did you drive the Lou Moore-prepared Pontiac again in 1957?
CO: No. I only drove the Lou Moore Pontiac car in 1956. Lou died, and Ray Nichels took over the Pontiac deal and brought two new cars to Daytona, along with me and Banjo Matthews. Banjo sat on the pole and I sat third, but I won the race and set the new race average speed record at 101.541. That was in 1957 in a '57 two-door post Pontiac Chieftain coupe.
Cotton Owens takes a moment...
Cotton Owens takes a moment from racing his '58 Pontiac Chieftain at Darlington as NASCAR inspector William (Bill) Taylor looks on.
HPP: Why did you like Pontiacs in 1957?
CO: I liked them because they were fast, and it was really the car to beat back then. When [Pontiac] came [to Daytona] in 1956, no one had heard of a Pontiac race car, yet when I went to Daytona, I ran second to Tim Flock. We lost a fan belt, which put us out of the race. Pontiac was real fast, but Tim was the fastest in that race. The '57 Pontiac was the fastest car. It took all top honors at the beach.
HPP: What was mechanically special about the '57 Pontiac that Bunkie delivered to you to drive at Daytona?
CO: It had three 2-barrel carburetors-they called them Tri-Power carburetors-and we had dual exhausts. The displacement was higher than was advertised. This was Pontiac's high-performance motor. We had a three-speed manual trans and we were allowed to change the shocks and springs, which made the car really stable at high speeds. The shocks and springs made the car run like a champ.
HPP: How did it feel to give Pontiac its very first win in NASCAR?
CO: It was great winning with that many cars on the beach. We led the first lap and the last lap. Meeting Harley Earl and Bunkie Knudsen was a real honor. They loved high-performance cars also and, because this was Pontiac's first win, it made it extra special.
HPP: Was Pontiac a good sponsor for you?
CO: When Pontiac hired me to drive their car in Daytona in 1957, we were going to run some more races with them, but due to the 1958 Automobile Manufacturer's Association (AMA) racing ban, GM pulled out of competition at that time. A little later on, I bought that '57 Pontiac [that won the beach], and from then on, it was my whole deal.
This is the second of four...
This is the second of four '58 Pontiacs campaigned by Cotton Owens. Notice that it is a hardtop, and was not converted for the NASCAR convertible races that were popular that year. The Chieftain featured Pontiac's new 370 ci motor. W.H. Watson Trucking Co. was to remain Owens' sponsor until 1960.
HPP: After Pontiac pulled out of factory-sponsored racing on June 6, 1957, did they supply you with performance parts for your stock cars?
CO: Back then, you didn't have access to any parts. You had to make whatever you ran-like front hubs, rear hubs and that type of stuff. We actually had machine shops that did all that for us. So, really, it was very competitive [to find the best machine shops].
HPP: With Pontiac no longer your sponsor, how did you get '58 Pontiac models to build and race?
CO: I bought them from a dealer who took in wrecked automobiles on trade.
HPP: What made your 1958 season with Pontiac special?
CO: Running for the 1958 NASCAR National Championship was special for me because, though I had a few friends who worked as my pit crew, I had only one man who worked for me regularly, and the two of us did everything. My pit crew was made up of friends who worked other jobs during the week and helped me out on the weekends. This was the only year I ran for the Championship, so with limited funds and help, it was quite an accomplishment to be the runner up.
HPP: How did you feel about the performance changes in the Pontiac motor from the 347 and 370 ci offered in '57 and '58 to the 389 ci offered first in '59. Did it help you in NASCAR?
CO: That was a great improvement, although the '57 engine had plenty of horsepower. In other words, we outran everybody that was racing at that particular time. I never did have a '59 Pontiac. In the 1959 season, I raced with a '58 Pontiac. My first new [389 ci] car was a '60 Pontiac.
HPP: At that time, was Hedge's Pontiac your sponsoring dealer?
CO: Yes sir, they sure were. The factories at that particular time weren't in racing, so we had to go to dealers and see if they wanted to help us, to have their name on the side of the car.
Mechanic Arthur Coker and...
Mechanic Arthur Coker and driver/car owner Cotton Owens discuss their winning the pole for the 1960 Daytona 500. Behind both men is the car that did it-the No. 6 Pontiac Catalina.
Cotton Owens was a key member...
Cotton Owens was a key member of the Nichels Engineering Team, and endurance-tested '62 Pontiacs at Darlington and Indianapolis with the biggest names in NASCAR. Here at Darlington, the six standing drivers are Joe Weatherly, Len Sutton, Rodger Ward, Glenn "Fireball" Roberts, Marvin Panch and Paul Goldsmith. Kneeling are Manfred Hodge, Ralph Knopf, Cotton Owens, Bud Moore, unidentified, Ray Nichels, Chuck Blanchard, Jack Smith, Smokey Yunick and Banjo Matthews.
The No. 6 Catalina is shown...
The No. 6 Catalina is shown in action at the 1960 Daytona 500 with Cotton Owens behind the wheel. Cotton had the pole with a pole speed of 149.982 mph.