(published in the September/October issue of Pooler Magazine)
Some of the most recognized names in racing – Dale Earnhardt, Junior Johnson, and David Pearson among them – have taken the turns at Oglethorpe Speedway’s half-mile dirt oval over the track’s 60 years. But a surname that has been one of the Pooler raceway’s most familiar is one than only an ardent local racing fan might recognize. The Cowart family has been around race tracks, including Oglethorpe, for generations, and this year, Pooler’s Robbie Cowart took the family know-how and his love for speed and brought home Oglethorpe’s Southern Eagle Budweiser Late Model Series Championship.
“I love dirt track racing because you have to adjust to different track conditions every time you race,” Cowart says of why the clay, like that at Oglethorpe, has been his preferred racing surface for the last six years. “Asphalt racing (what you watch if you are a NASCAR fan) is more and more about the amount of dollars behind you than actual racing ability.” There aren’t many dollars in Robbie’s kind of racing, but there is plenty of driving ability, ability he began developing while still in middle school.
“I started racing go-karts with my brother when I was 11,” Cowart says of his youth on the South side of Savannah. Born in 1963, he had racing in his blood in an almost literal sense, particularly since his father, Robert Cowart, was a racer himself. “For many years, he was also Oglethorpe’s Chief Steward,” the junior Cowart says, which is the official in charge of the speedway any time cars are on the track. Better known to race fans, particularly in the South, was Robbie’s uncle; the famous or, perhaps infamous Delma Cowart. Delma’s car number was ‘0’, and he raced a little of everywhere, even occasionally on the major NASCAR cup circuit. He is perhaps best remembered for throwing a legendary hotel party after qualifying for the Daytona 500 in 1992 (Delma supposedly told a reporter, “I ain’t never won a race, but I ain’t never lost a party”).
Robbie Cowart went to work for Delma’s team after high school, though he already had other aspirations. “I wanted to buy a dirt track car after I turned 18 so I could race at Oglethorpe, but my uncle talked me into going into asphalt racing. He said I was still young and could use the experience.” Six years later, Robbie got behind the wheel on asphalt for the first time at one of auto racing’s hallowed grounds. “It was really something to run your first race at Daytona,” Cowart says of the Automobile Racing Club of America (ARCA) series race in which he finished a respectable 16th. “My uncle told me you just have to go flat out all the way around the track. At first, I’d get a little nervous and let up in the corners, but once I got the hang of it, it was a lot of fun.”
Cowart drove for his uncle for several years, but then decided to return to his original plan to play in the dirt. “In the late ‘90’s, I finally started racing on dirt like I had always wanted to,” Cowart says, racing at Oglethorpe and other dirt tracks across the South. At first, he was primarily a driver, racing (and winning his first dirt-track race) in a car sponsored by Ward’s Auto Paint and Bodyworks of Savannah, but it wouldn’t be long before Cowart was a car owner again, as well as off the dirt.
“My dad and I decided to buy an asphalt car,” in 2001, and Cowart says they also decided to give the ARCA series another go. “It was fun, you know, getting to race on some of the best known tracks in the country; Talladega, Charlotte, places like that.” ARCA was and remains a proving ground for drivers looking to move up to the major circuits, and Cowart competed with the likes of future NASCAR Cup stars Kyle Busch and Ryan Newman. Paying for it was another matter. “Our family business (Southern Pavers) was our sponsor, and we just didn’t have the money behind us that a lot of those teams had.” After qualifying for ten races over three years and finishing in the top-ten just once, Cowart decided it was time to get dirty again.
“There’s just something about dirt-track driving,” Cowart says, clearly excited to be talking about his favorite racing surface. “You never know from one day to the next how your car will handle or what adjustments you’ll have to make.” Cowart recalls a lap he turned earlier this season at Oglethorpe, where everything on the car seemed to be perfect. “We came in at 18 seconds, and I thought about the superstition I had heard from my father and a lot of people where you don’t touch anything on the car as long as it’s running well. I didn’t even wash it, which is unusual for me, but the next time I took it out, we went a lot slower. It was all because of the condition of the track and the adjustments you have to make to those conditions.”
Cowart raced quite a bit at Oglethorpe and other tracks over the next few years, then gave another travelling circuit a try in 2009. “We raced in the National Late Model Series for two years,” Cowart says of the Southern dirt track series, “but that was tough, spending the money to get the car ready for different tracks, and not a lot of time to get used to each track.” This was on top of his day job at Southern Pavers, and the physical and financial strain of building driveways and patios during the week and travelling as far as Florida and Alabama to race on weekends caught up to Cowart and his family.
This year, Cowart decided to stay home to race, and he thinks that’s one reason for his success. “I’ve been around Oglethorpe all my life, and when you can race on the same track week after week, you pretty much know what you have to do to win every time on.” Five race wins, including wins in the last two races of the season, clinched the Late Model Series title for Cowart.
Cowart wishes there had been more people in the stands watching those victories. “It’s probably because of the tough economy, but it seemed like we had a little trouble drawing fans. I know the economy took a toll on the number of cars and drivers,” Cowart says. Indeed, only eleven cars competed in this year’s Late Model Series according to Oglethorpe Speedway’s web site. “But we don’t do this for the money. We love this business, and with tires alone costing $600 a piece, if you win some prize money, the best you can hope for is to break even.”
Break even or not, Robbie Cowart isn’t about to leave the driver’s seat. “I love it and I’m having fun, and as long as I’m having fun, I’m going to keep driving.” As he showed at Oglethorpe Speedway this year, that day is probably a long way off.