Success on a racetrack can result in immortality. Even the casual sports fan can recite the names of Foyt, Andretti, Unser, Mears, Franchitti, and… Owens.
Yes, all have been driven – or in this case have driven – in their chase for glory. The former at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, while the latter at a dirt course set up around a ball diamond at Plank Hill Park in a pit stop along Indiana 16 called Twelve Mile.
The 50th edition of the Twelve Mile 500 Lawnmower Race, which makes it the oldest of its kind anywhere in the nation, will kick off the first of three races at 1:30 p.m. on Wednesday.
Dean Owens wasn't born into the sport of racing; he just stumbled upon it when a neighbor told the 13-year-old about a group of guys that gathered each Fourth of July in a park nearby to race lawnmowers. The year was 1969 and they had been doing it for six years prior. The moment that Owens laid eyes on the competition he knew that he wanted to immerse himself in the sweat, oil, dirt and yes, fear of speeding through trees in a cluster of mayhem.
“I got pretty excited about it,” Owens recalled.
The excitement spread throughout the mechanically-inclined Owens family and eventually Dean's two brothers, his father, his son, and even his sister tested their skill and guile.
“It was quite a family affair,” Owens said.
Owens will be competing in his 38th race on Wednesday, which is a “new track record” of the sorts.
“I consider myself very competitive,” Owens said. “But I have a ball doing it.”
The race is broken into three categories: Briggs and Super Stock (both of which are four-cylinder races) and a two-cylinder Modified race in which Owens said “anything goes.”
The track is a quarter mile in length, so the 33 drivers in each class will race 60 laps or a total of 15 miles in front of what could reach a couple of thousand spectators sitting around on blankets and in the back of pick-ups catching a front-row view. Owens qualified sixth earlier this month in the Briggs class, but he likes his chances if his pit stops are solid.
“I don't believe that (qualifying) is critical,” Owens said. “Getting in and out of the pits and staying out of the penalty box are the key things.”
Aaah, the penalty box. Owens knows about that purgatory all too well.
Race officials clock each driver on every lap and impose a pit-stop penalty for exceeding the 15 miles per hour speed limit.
“They've gotten more strict through the years,” Owens said.
In Owens first of four victories in 1976 (he also won in 2003, 2004, and 2005), he was flagged on the final lap (and two other times that day), yet still came out victorious. Later that night Owens came out a winner again, as he proposed to his girlfriend Peggy, who has dutifully served as his lap counter through the years.
“I've always said that the guy who cheats the most without getting caught is the guy that is going to win,” Owens said. “I need to stay out of trouble.”
“Staying out of trouble” can also mean staying away from Owens on the track – even if you are related. In the 2005 race, Owens prevailed for the third consecutive year by holding off his charging son, Kris, who placed second.
“Kris does very well,” Owens boasted. “He's pretty competitive and I sometimes have to drive him off of the track in order to win the race.”
Yeah, Kris is “pretty competitive.”
Kris will serve as part of Owens' pit crew on Wednesday and Peggy will be there to offer moral support, seeing how computerized counters have replaced her on race day. The day could prove to be melancholy, as despite the decades of fun and infamy, Owens isn't positive that this won't be his final race for the checkered flag.
“If Peggy had her way, this might be the end of it,” Owens said. “I'm kind of getting up there in years. (But) As long as she keeps paying the life insurance policy, maybe we'll keep racing.”