Cotton always cottoned for speed

Cotton always cottoned for speed

February 15th, 2012 by Mike O'Neal in Local Regional News

There is definitely more hype and hoopla surrounding the National Football League than the National Hot Rod Association. But someone who brought home close to a dozen NHRA national championships, won four Southeast Division championships between 1975 and 1981, set more than 40 national records and in 1981 won the NHRA U.S. Nationals - the Super Bowl of drag racing - has always called Catoosa County home.

Cotton Perry's championship winning "Pocket Rocket."

Cotton Perry's championship winning "Pocket Rocket."

"I'm proud to be a Ringgoldian," Cotton Perry said while sitting in his recently rebuilt auto repair shop. "I was fortunate to travel all over the country in my racing days, but I'd always come right back here. This is where I want to be."

Perry, who on Feb. 16 will celebrate his 65th birthday, has perhaps won more races with 6-cylinder engines than any other drag racer, competing at strips from coast to coast and into Canada.

It's a career that grew from his exploits on public roads, including then-new Interstate 75, in and around Ringgold.

"I did a lot of street racing," Perry recalled. "Sheriff J.D. Stewart [who had Pontiac Trans Am patrol cars so as to not be outrun by speedsters] knew I was drag racing. I got caught by the state patrol and J.D. told the GSP trooper that he'd take care of it.

"He made me promise to never street race again. I never break a promise, so I've never raced on any public road since."

With road racing off limits, Perry took to the track and began head-to-head competition at the Brainerd Optimist Drag Strip which is located within site of I-75 near Cloud Springs Road.

"I teamed up with my uncle, Jim Headrick, who was ahead of his time in makin' horsepower," Perry said. "He had people skills and engine building skills. I'm at my best under pressure, and I had good reflexes."

The pair set records and won races in H/Modified Production class with a red '66 Chevy II powered by an inline six that was built at Headrick's shop, Race Engine Design, in Rossville.

That car, with rear fenders bearing its name, "Pocket Rocket," became a familiar sight at tracks and on the pages of hot rod magazines, but racing remained a hobby.

"You never worked as hard at a job as at racing. The only time it was fun was when we'd stand in the winner's circle," Perry said.

His frequent runs to victory led to him being inducted into the NHRA Hall of Fame in 1992.

While some professionals relied on sponsorships to support their racing, that was not the case for the Perry-Headrick team during their roughly 15 years of competition at the national level.

"We had to win to have money to travel and race," Perry said. "From 5 a.m. until 6 p.m. I had a Colonial Bakery bread delivery route.

"I was a dumb old country boy, making more than I ever dreamed of. I thought I was blessed. I'd drive my route, get off and we'd work on the car.

"Every weekend, we raced. We'd drive all night to a race, compete and drive back. I had a friend with a little two-seater plane, so sometimes they'd take the car ahead and I'd fly to the track. I had to be back to work Monday morning or I'd lose my job.

"Our jobs were our livelihood. Racing had to pay for racing."

After he and his uncle won their first major race, Perry said the NHRA "made a big deal" of their efforts and shortly afterward Wide World of Sport featured the Perry-Headrick team.

"We were budget racers," he said, something that appealed to race fans but did not sit so well with the corporate-backed teams and NHRA administration.

"It's like in my favorite movie, 'The Outlaw Josie Wales,' where one of the characters says, 'We've whupped 'em again Josie,'" Perry said. "We went against the establishment. We never gave in."

1981, the year Perry won the U.S. Nationals, was the year when the Oakland Raiders became the first wild card playoff team, by defeating the Philadelphia Eagles, to win the Super Bowl.

It was also the last year the NHRA had a Modified Production class.

To protest that decision, Perry said he and other Modified drivers decided to parade down the return road after their event and just as the Top Fuel cars were to begin racing. But what was to have been a show of unity, instead became a solo "Pocket Rocket" parade, as only Perry remained true to his word.

"Jim and I were old-school," he said. "A handshake was better than a contract, and we never gave in."

Perry had given up his bread route in 1978 and acquired the old Texaco station in Ringgold to open a two-bay garage in 1979. It was in 1981 that he built at his current location.

"It was where I'd had my first job," he said. "It was the Super Value grocery that had burned."

Over the years Perry built a loyal clientele and was contemplating retirement when the building at the corner of Nashville and Cleveland streets was in the path of a tornado.

"I haven't words to describe the tornado and what it meant for us," he said. "When I walk out there now, I still get teary eyed."

Rather than close, Perry was befriended by Mark and Lindsay Teter, who offered space at their nearby collision repair and service center as temporary quarters for Ringgold - now Cotton's - Service Center.

"A winner never stays down," Perry said. "You may get knocked down, but you get back up."

It took a while longer than expected to get back up and rebuild. But about eight months after being destroyed, it did reopen and with Perry's son Jamie as a business partner.

"Before the tornado I'd entertained the idea of retiring," the elder Perry said. "Now I'll stay as long as my health allows. My son is my retirement; he's worked as a mechanic but now he knows this is going to be his. Our goal in rebuilding was to have it like his cars: perfect."

Details make the difference in racing, and attention to details is evident in the shop that recently reopened at 261 Nashville St. The exterior has field stone trim. Inside, the waiting room and office walls have been given a faux leather paint job, furnishings include oiled mahogany desks and a leather sofa, while polished stone covers floors and countertops. The overall appearance is more like a designer's showroom than an auto service center.

"I have a nice house, but this is nicer," Perry said.

His son has followed his father's interest not only in the repair business but also in racing. Behind the five-bay garage the public sees is a smaller two-bay "speed shop" where Jamie's oval track racers are prepared.

"He's a contender, not a pretender," Perry said of his son, whose "P4" car runs on the dirt track circuit, winning the Southern All-Star National Championship in 1999.

"He followed me around racing when he was growing up and people would say, 'That's Cotton's son.' Now, I follow him to races and people say, "Look, it's Jamie's dad.'"