Carroll Shelby, chicken farmer, pilot, race car driver, auto manufacturer, lover of chili, and entrepreneur extraordinaire passed away just over ten years ago (May 10,2012) at the age of 89.
Shelby was famous for many things: his feud with Ferrari, his love of chili, and his health problems to name just three. By examining those three more closely, you may begin to get a better sense of the Texan behind the big black hat and the legendary name.
As a driver, Shelby was so successful Enzo Ferrari personally offered him the chance to drive for the famous car maker.
Shelby, a child of the depression, asked Ferrari how much the job would pay. Ferrari responded that to drive for his marque was considered an honor. Shelby simply said that he couldn’t “afford that honor” and ended up driving for Maserati.
Shelby "Whups" Ferrari
Shelby would continue his personal feud with Ferrari winning the 24 hours of LeMans in 1959 and becoming Driver of the Year for Sports Illustrated two years running. And Shelby didn’t stop there.
Unable to drive because of health issues (more than once Shelby raced with nitroglycerin tablets under his tongue), he decided to build cars instead - beginning with the AC Cobra.
Soon he met someone else with a grudge against Ferrari – Henry Ford II. At the urging of Lee Iacocca, Ford hired Shelby to build a car that would not only beat Ferrari, but crush him.
The Birth of the Cobra
Shelby then began a relationship – although somewhat a rocky one – with Ford that would last for decades. Beginning with the success of the GT40, Shelby’s ideas were used in the GT350 and later the Shelby Mustang GT500.
And that’s more or less where Carroll Shelby came into my life. Truth be told, I have never been much of a car guy. Most of the time I just wanted something to get me from point A to point B; and reliability was much more of a concern than speed.
That pretty much changed when I saw my first GT350. I wanted one. As in - HAD. TO. HAVE. IT.
The closest I ever came to a Shelby Mustang was when my next door neighbor bought a Fastback and proceeded to upgrade it in just about every way possible.
Soon after completing it, he joined the Navy and for the next two years, I kept a lustful eye on that car from my bedroom window; dreaming about how cool it would be when I was behind the wheel of that machine.
Not one to sit around and just daydream, I went to work any job I could find; saving every cent for the day I was sure would come.
At last, he returned home on a Friday afternoon in mid-summer driving a new yellow Corvette. A a very pretty car to be sure, but it was no Mustang. If memory serves me correctly, I met him in the driveway before he could even get his key out of the ignition.
After far too much discussion – and parental intervention (both his and mine) – we agreed on a price. To my delight and my parent’s chagrin, the price wasn’t completely outrageous and I actually could come up with the money. I just needed to get to the bank on Monday morning and get the thing insured.
While I don’t remember sleeping much that night, I obviously did because I didn’t hear a thing when the car was jacked up and stolen from his driveway in the early hours of the morning. The Sheriff’s Department found it a day later: stripped and burned.
That was the end of my dream and my car, but I kept up with Shelby for years as he continued to influence car manufacturers, tuners, and drivers. He even helped found the annual Texas Chili Cook-off Championship in Terlingua and had a chili product (and recipe) named after him.
Shelby’s health continued to deteriorate and he received a heart transplant in 1990 and later a kidney in 1996. At the time of his death, he was the longest survivor of heart transplant surgery.
Shelby founded a charity to help children born with heart defects and whose families couldn’t afford treatment.
Despite everything, Shelby was a man constantly in motion. His mechanics loved him. His driver’s worshipped him. He was always engaged and always at full speed.
Knowing Your Customer
My favorite story about Carroll Shelby involves the actor, James Garner.
At the time, several actors had taken up the sport of racing and Garner was caught up in the racing bug along with his next door neighbor, Steve McQueen, and his good friend, Paul Newman. But no matter how hard he tried Garner was never able to come close to the success of those two.
One day, Carroll Shelby drove up to Garner’s house in one of his own designs and Garner came out to look it over. When the talk turned to price, however, Garner’s mood changed.
He would later say that Shelby was “asking a whole hell of a lot of money” for that car. But Shelby came prepared; he knew his customer. He asked Garner to go around to the passenger side and read the dash plaque (which had been covered until now) aloud.
Here is what he read: “This car was specially built for James Garner and I personally guarantee it to go faster than anything Steve McQueen owns.”
Garner wrote the check.
There are so many stories about Carroll Shelby. Please be sure to check the links for a few articles (and even a DVD) about him. The man was a truly a legend and there will never be another like him.
He is very much missed.
Here’s a vintage road test video (they didn’t want to give the car back): King of the Road
If you only know the late Carroll Shelby for his tuner cars, you’re missing an amazing story of how, during the mid-1960s, his little, nerd-filled race shop in Los Angeles helped Henry Ford II exercise his famous vendetta against Enzo Ferrari. Playboy editor A.J. Baime tells that story in his book, Go Like Hell: Ford, Ferrari, and Their Battle for Speed and Glory at Le Mans.
This year marks the 63rd anniversary of Aston Martin’s first victory at La Sarthe in 1959, when American Carroll Shelby and Englishman Roy Salvadori formed the Le Mans-winning Aston Martin DBR1 team.