Motorsports icon Carroll Shelby crossed the finish line late Thursday, May 10. Given his indomitable spirit, many thought he might live forever. Sadly, that is not the case. He was 89.
Old ‘Shel leaves a rich legacy, marked with brilliant innovations, unwavering confidence and a competitive spirit that set a benchmark in American racing history that few, if any, can match.
The Texas chicken farmer turned California hot rodder was in love with cars since childhood. His goal was to one day build his own car, but not before he tried his hand at racing them. The young Shelby turned out to be very quick, including a win at Le Mans. That garnered offers to drive from Enzo Ferrari himself. He turned “Il Comendatore” down three times because he did not like the way the fiery Italian treated his drivers. Their paths would cross again.
Shelby’s driving days ended when doctors told him his heart was so bad he only had a few years left looking down at the grass. That’s when he got serious about building his own cars. He toured the Italian and British sports car companies and realized they were quite small and manageable. That’s when he found AC Cars. They had a nice little roadster, but with a tractor-like engine. The hot rodder in him thought a small V-8 would liven it up.
Shelby’s quest took him to Dearborn, Michigan and the office of Ford up-and-comer Lee Iacocca. Shelby was not trained in the art of consultative selling. Instead, he was more of an “attack dog.” So much so that Peter Brock recalls someone at the meeting saying: “Get him out of here before he bites somebody.” Shelby left with two small block Ford V-8s for his AC, later dubbed “Cobra.”
Shelby showed off his new creation at a big Ford dealer meeting. Both examples blew up. Embarrassed but undaunted, Shelby Cobras went into production. Dealers snapped them up as an alternative to the Chevy Corvette. The aluminum bodied roadster sold for around $6,000. The same cars today fetch six-figure prices and higher. The Shelby/Iacocca bet paid off in spades at the track. There was a new sheriff at the Sports Car Club of America’s United States Road Racing Championship. All the Corvette drivers saw was that distinctive roll hoop behind the Cobra driver’s head disappearing in the distance. It became the inspiration of The Rip Chords’ 60’s hit song “Hey Little Cobra.”
Shelby’s success got the attention of Henry Ford II, aka “The Deuce.” The Ford heir was jilted by the aforementioned Ferrari and vowed to wipe the track in red with a Ford. The GT 40 was the result, which failed miserably in its first two outings at Le Mans, a Ferrari stronghold. Ford persuaded Shelby, already at work attacking Ferrari in the World Sports Car championship with his Peter Brock designed Daytona Coupe, to fix what ailed the GT 40. Shelby presided over the second Le Mans misfire, then got some help from Phil Remington and delivered Ford’s dream, beating Ferrari at Le Mans, not just once, but twice. Edsel Ford called it “The greatest victory in Ford racing history.” Meanwhile, Alan Mann Racing in England ran the Daytona Coupe to the World Sports Car Championship, beating the Prancing Horse again. Needless to say, but Shelby did not get any more Christmas cards from Maranello after that.
Shelby stopped making Cobras in the late ‘60s, spawning a burgeoning business in the replica market. In fact, the Shelby Cobra is the most copied sports car ever. Shelby retaliated, taking many to court. Even so, the move did not stop replica builders such as Superformance from doing business.
Shelby got his own “new motor” in a 1990 heart transplant operation. He was back. When Iacocca left Ford for Chrysler, he called the snake charmer back to his office. Did Shelby have any venom left? The answer was a resounding yes with the rumbling V-10 powered Dodge Viper. It too earned its bones on the track, including Le Mans and SCCA World Challenge championships.
The rejuvenated Shelby thought a new Cobra might be just what the market needed, but the Oldsmobile Aurora-powered Series 1 Cobra did not set well with the Ford legacy. The pretty car died a quiet death. Shelby returned to the Ford fold in the new millennium, modifying Mustangs to a high level of tune. His Las Vegas shop can take your factory Mustang and add venomous “spices” of 600 or 800 horsepower. Last year, he was cooking up a 1000 twin turbo for the Mustang and the Ford GT, which he planned to drive himself…somewhere north of 230 mph. He never got the chance to mash the gas for the last time.
So, to honor Shelby’s passing, get yourself a package or two of Shelby’s Chili Fixins (available on Amazon if you can’t find it locally). Put it in a big pot, throw in some chunks of beef, or rattlesnake if you can get it, slow cook it for a day and grab some Buds.
Then lift one for Shel, who left us with this thought: “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, live for today.”