Retired race-car driver keeps busy with nine acres in Hendersonville
Sissy Owen knows fast cars. She doesn’t always know movie stars. The Hendersonville resident has spent decades around automobiles, drove a menagerie of BMW’s top models during her professional career, and spent weekends racing.
Beating Hollywood royalty was just a byproduct of her passion and talent.
Though she had seen several of Tom Cruise’s movies by 1988, when she began her racing career, “the funny thing was, I didn’t even recognize him,” Owen says of her encounter with the movie star. She and her husband, Ryland, were in Savannah for a Sports Car Club of America racing school so Sissy could obtain her racing license.
During the classroom session, Sissy sat beside a young man with sunglasses and a leather jacket. She mentioned him to her husband. “The next day, Ryland pointed him out as he walked by and said, ‘Is that who you’re talking about?’” Sissy recalls. “I said, ‘Yeah, that’s the kid.’ He said, ‘Well, that’s Tom Cruise.’ Ryland kids me that I don’t recognize anybody. So it wasn’t that unusual.”
The class in Savannah ended with a race in which Sissy finished second, beating the future Days of Thunder star but losing to another big name, NASCAR team owner Rick Hendrick. The couple spent years racing on the SCCA circuit, alternating weekends in the driver’s seat, and Sissy’s last race was in 1997.
In January 2008, they moved into their timber-framed home in Hendersonville. Wood for the house was trucked in from British Columbia.
“We were convinced we want[ed] to do something a little different than the traditional style. It’s not a log cabin. It’s not logs that are stacked up, Davy Crockett-style. The timbers form the framework of the house just like it was a stick-built house,” Ryland explains. “The timbers are bigger so you don’t have as much of the framework supplied by smaller members. Then you can leave all of the interior framework exposed, with the joists and upright beams and braces, and then all of the superstructure is there to see. But from the outside, of course, you don’t see that same look like you would see on a log cabin. It just looks like a conventional house from the outside.”
Sissy, who retired in July 2014 after 33 years with BMW, spending the last 16 years as a warranty auditor, had loved the area for years. The home is filled with natural light, photos from their world travels, clean lines, and open spaces. A previous home in Atlanta was designed by a student of Frank Lloyd Wright, and the couple used Mid Century Modern ideas in their current space.
Why did you build on this particular nine acres?
My dad bought this property in 1960. He was a flower broker. He didn’t grow the flowers, and he wasn’t a florist. He was the one that bought it from the field, moved it to a packing house, packaged it up and sent it all over the United States. Every summer, Mom and Dad would pack us kids up and we’d drive up here … eventually he bought a 21-acre property, and Mother had not seen it … but she designed the little cabin and they built it in ’61. We’d come up [from Bradenton, Fla.] in the summer and swim and ride horses and camp and hike and all that stuff. When Dad died, I inherited nine acres; my sister and brother each have six acres.
There are several paintings on your walls — what style of art do you prefer?
Ryland’s parents were both artists, so they knew other artists. We inherited some nice paintings, several by fairly well-known artists, for example Blendon Campbell. It’s a very eclectic assortment, but we find them all pleasing. I recently read a quote about a woman’s philosophy of buying art that said, “If you like it, can afford it, and it won’t scare the dog, buy it.”
As a gardener, are you excited for spring?
Having nine acres with two streams, there is never a shortage of projects. I have mainly perennials, so keeping them neat and weeded is a full-time job. I love being able to walk out the door and cut large bouquets of flowers.
How was your experience different, being a woman racer?
Most of the time I didn’t think about being the only woman. There were times when men would try to psych me out that our car wouldn’t handle well in wet conditions, but it did. And one official was rude to me. It was fun to have young people come up and ask for my autograph after winning a championship. Mainly, I liked being able to handle a car in all sorts of conditions; the only thing we did not race in was snow and ice. Sometimes the heat would be brutal — a driver is wearing many layers of fireproof clothing and full helmet. Sometimes the rain would be coming down in torrents, which would reduce visibility and traction. The feeling was, these conditions were the same for everyone racing that day, so get on with it.
You own a 1962 BMW 700 Sport Coupé. Why did you want this car?
My husband has admired this model for a long time. When this one came up for sale in 2016, we bought it sight unseen. It doesn’t get driven very often — his passion is tinkering with the car. One of the biggest events is The Vintage, a classic car show held in Hot Springs where 750 BMWs attend. Ours is one of the oldest cars, so it attracts a lot of attention. It’s so cute, and the red-and-white paint is eye catching. People smile and honk as we drive by.