Every generation seems to produce a few people who, through some combination of energy, intelligence and force of character, simply stand out in a crowd. My dad's term for people like this was "live wire," and Carroll Shelby was certainly one of those, a guy with plenty of extra voltage running through his tall frame.
The first time I saw Carroll Shelby was in 1964, and he quite literally stood out in a crowd. A buddy and I hitchhiked to Elkhart Lake for the Road America 500—and soon found ourselves wandering around the village streets on a Friday evening. Most of the drivers and teams stayed at Siebken's Hotel then, so of course we had to stand on the sidewalk and push the tall, thorny hedges aside (with only minor bleeding) to see who was sitting in the glittering, glass-enclosed dining room. The place was like a Who's Who of road racing, but we immediately spotted Carroll Shelby. How could you not?
He was there, of course, with the Cobra team. And if you loved sports-car racing in the mid-'60s, this was like being at the center of the universe. Those beautiful blue Cobras were taking on the Corvettes and winning nearly everything. To those of us who had a soft spot for British sports cars, the Cobras were the best of all worlds—a lithe and handsome AC body built in England with an American Ford 289 V-8, all modified and re-engineered by Texans and Californians into a winning package.
Everybody loved these cars; they fulfilled the fondest dreams of hot rodders, tea-baggers, road racers, surf bands, drag racers and muscle-car fanatics, all at the same time. The paddock and infield were rife with fans wearing those famous T-shirts with a big S on the front and Cobra repeated six times down the back.
And out on pit row, you could see that rangy Texan in the slightly bent black cowboy hat running the whole show. That weekend, Dan Gerber won Saturday's Badger 200 in his privately owned 289 Cobra (with the famous "Prune Mush" baby food jar painted on the side as a joke by Augie Pabst), and Ken Miles finished 2nd in the prototype Shelby-built Sunbeam Tiger. In Sunday's 500, Ken Miles, John Morton and Skip Scott drove a Cobra team car to a win in the GT class, 2nd overall. Those of us who were there went home virtually glowing with radioactive Cobra dust.
This wasn't the last we would see or hear of Carroll Shelby, of course. He came back to Road America with his winning Trans-Am Mustang GT350s, the Cooper-derived King Cobras in the USRRC and Can-Am series, as well as Shelby-tuned and Ford-powered Lolas and McLarens. It appeared Lee Iacocca and Henry Ford II had picked the right guy to put them on the Total Performance map in both SCCA racing and FIA competition in Europe.
The Pete Brock-designed Daytona Coupes raised the Cobra's top speed so that it could be competitive on long, fast circuits such as Spa or Monza, and Shelby American beat Ferrari in 1965 to win the World Championship for GT cars. After initial disappointment with the GT-40s at Le Mans, Ford turned the program over to Shelby and his team of GT-40s won Le Mans in 1966 (first three places!) and 1967. It seemed that Shelby could win any class of racing if he and his talented team of designers, drivers and mechanics focused their laser-like attention upon it. Cobras, Mustangs, Sunbeam Tigers, Can-Am cars, GT-40s...it didn't matter. He knew how to get it done.
He's so remembered in that role, it's easy to forget that Shelby himself was among the best racing drivers in the world before a heart condition forced him to retire at the top of his form in 1960. He was born in Leesburg, Texas, in 1923 and joined the Army Air Corps in 1941. He was so tall and thin he had to stuff himself with food to meet the minimum weight to get into the pilot training program. He became a bomber pilot and was then assigned to be a flight instructor in AT-11s, B-25s and finally B-29s. He regretted not getting into combat, but it's almost always those rare pilots who have "the touch" who are assigned to be instructors.
And as soon as Shelby started racing a friend's MG-TC after the war, it was evident he had the touch in cars as well as airplanes. Taking time off from his young family and chicken farm in 1952, Shelby immediately started winning in any car he drove, and was soon driving Cad-Allards, Jaguar XK-120s, etc., for wealthy owners. Like his contemporaries Masten Gregory and Phil Hill, he was an obvious talent and a standout.
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Only two years later, in 1954, he had an Aston Martin factory ride and found himself in Europe and South America, sitting at the front of the starting grid (or sharing drives) with the likes of Moss, Hill, Fangio, Collins, Hawthorn, Gurney et al., winning some and barely losing others. The high point came in 1959 when he and co-driver Roy Salvadori won Le Mans for Aston Martin. He also made a good showing in Maserati and Aston Martin Formula 1 cars in the late-'50s, despite being saddled with cars that were no longer competitive.
Back in the U.S., he drove Ferraris, Maseratis, Porsches, "Ole Yeller" and other cars for John Edgar, John Von Neumann, Max Balchowsky, "Lucky" Casner and Tony Parravano, usually winning. He was SCCA National Champion—as well as Sports Illustrated Sports Car Driver of the Year—in 1956 and 1957. His last race was in October 1960, at Laguna Seca in a Birdcage Maserati, where he wrapped up the 1960 USAC Sports Car Championship. Shelby drove most of that season with a nitroglycerin tablet under his tongue, while suffering chest pains from angina pectoris, insufficient blood supply to the heart.
, to which he donated much of his own money and time, the proceeds from his appearances and autograph sessions.
In those years since the glory days of the '60s Ford/Cobra era, Shelby has been in and out of many car projects and enterprises. There were the Shelby Dodge Chargers of the early '80s, the unsuccessful attempt to revive the Can-Am series with a Dodge V-6-powered sports racer in the late '80s and the 1999 Series 1 cars with supercharged Olds engines, which died amid the corporate GM chaos of that era. And then there's Carroll Shelby's Original Texas Brand Chili Mix, which I happen to like a lot. (We actually made a batch last night, as Carroll's life and contributions were much on my mind.) And, currently, we have the modern Shelby Mustangs, built and developed at the Shelby American factory in Las Vegas. Those I've driven are superb, well-developed cars.
Our Managing Editor Andrew Bornhop and I drove a supercharged V-6 Shelby Mustang down to the old Shelby ranch near Terlingua, Texas, a few years ago on sort of a road trip/pilgrimage/car test. Shelby wasn't there, but we called him on the phone and had a nice chat. He'd been busy training his miniature horses at his ranch in east Texas, but was quite gracious and funny—as ever—during our conversation. He told me some hilarious stories about doings at the ranch during the Ford racing years, of friends and booze and racing people flown in for parties and chili cook-offs.
For me, it was a strange and memorable experience, sitting on the front porch of his ranch house and hearing this great voice from history come over the phone line. Texas author Larry McMurtry said there's always something elegiac in stories about the West, a sense that some previous era was supposed to have been better and more colorful. Shelby's passing has certainly made that true for many of us.
I know there are some people who didn't care for Shelby, or had business conflicts with him, many over his late-life efforts to regain personal control over his name and legacy. I don't know what to say about this, as I'm not privy to the legalities and details. You can only judge people by how they treat you, and by what kind of friends and associates they have. And I must say that Carroll Shelby's circle of loyal friends includes some of the finest people I've met in this business.
I suppose it's possible that Carroll Shelby—like half a dozen other humans I've known—may have been imperfect. But he was the guy who risked his life as a pilot and then as a racer, in an era when many fliers and about half the drivers died young. And he created the Cobra by running tirelessly back and forth between Detroit and England at a time when Cobras didn't yet exist. He was the one who became Carroll Shelby, a name with some special magic that corporations, clubs and car collectors have always wanted to shower upon their cars. Without Shelby, no magic.
Looking back at his long career and 89 years of action-filled life makes me think of a favorite line from The Odyssey. In only the second line of this epic poem, Homer describes Odysseus as "a man skilled in all ways of contending." That was Shelby. He had the touch.