Auto legend Carroll Shelby died Thursday night at Baylor Hospital in Dallas at the age of 89.
Carroll Shelby's shadow stretched out Texas tall across nearly the whole of the world's automotive landscape. A natural as a race driver, he won three U.S. sports-car championships in Ferraris and Maseratis, and for Aston Martin he won the 1959 24 Hours of Le Mans with British co-driver Roy Salvadori.
Turning automaker in the 1960s, he fathered the Cobra, an Anglo-American hot rod of crude conception but stunning effectiveness that swept the tracks of North America and wrested a world manufacturer's title from Ferrari. Additional success came with his makeovers of the Ford Mustang, which resulted in Trans-Am racing titles and the ferocious Shelby GT350 street car. As a team owner, he presided over Ford's epic 1966 and '67 Le Mans victories.
Shelby is believed to be the only person to win Le Mans as a driver (with Aston Martin), a manufacturer (class victory with the Cobra Daytona coupe) and team owner (Ford's GTs).
Not everything this Texan touched turned to trophies, but his solid record of achievement, plus his talents as a promoter, made his name an icon of high-performance worldwide.
In the 1980s, he parlayed all of this into a venture with Chrysler that produced a number of specialty cars and trucks, including the Shelby Can-Am one-design racer, all dedicated to a biggest-bang-for-the-buck philosophy.
Beyond that, Shelby grew his business into a multifaceted “skunkworks,” doing advanced research and development for other clients. From 2005, these included Ford, with whom Shelby patched up an old grievance so that they could partner on a fresh range of super-hot Shelby Mustangs. He also resumed production of old-style Cobras and, less successfully, launched a newer sports model dubbed the Shelby Series 1.
Yet, impressive as his accomplishments were on the automotive scene, that was only one of a bewildering set of arenas through which he moved with equal facility: ranching, real estate development, hotels, food production, aircraft dealing. In every field that caught his interest, he was able to exercise a powerful combination of intelligence, curiosity, vision, timing, guile, cunning and charm, plus what he described as “the work ethic.”
Not the least of Shelby's secrets was an easy, natural manner, a flashing grin and an almost old-fashioned sense of courtesy, which quickly made firm friendships and networks of important contacts.
At the same time, the sharp pencil he applied aggressively to business dealings led some to dub him “Billie Sol,” after a notorious Texas swindler.
Perhaps the most remarkable, most inspirational fact about Shelby's life was that he worked so hard despite a serious physical limitation—a hereditary heart defect that led to four hospitalizations in 15 years for surgery, then a 1990 heart transplant.
Six years later, at age 73, he received a kidney from one of his sons, Mike Shelby.
In company with so many of the world's outstanding achievers, Carroll Hall Shelby had modest beginnings. He was born on Jan. 11, 1923, in the small east Texas town of Leesburg, the son of a rural mail carrier. When Shelby was 10, the family moved to Dallas, where his father became a postal clerk and the boy discovered auto racing.
“I used to ride my bicycle to the old bullrings around Dallas when I was a kid, 12 or 14 years old,” he recalled decades later. “So I've always had my interest in cars, that's always been my No. 1 interest.”
Finances did not permit expressing that interest in sanctioned competition, but Shelby did what he could on the streets. His first car was a family hand-me-down, a 1934 Dodge that he immediately determined would do only 87 mph, tops. His next ride was no less disappointing, even after he shaved the head. “It was a '38 Willys, old four-cylinder Willys. Wouldn't outrun anybody, but I used to try to.”
The Shelby need for speed was finally serviced by the Army, which allowed him to put his hands on his second great love, airplanes. Admitted to a pilot-training program for students who didn't have college credentials, he graduated as staff sergeant pilot.
“Chuck Yeager, Bob Hoover, myself—a lot of guys came out of that program that were good aviators,” Shelby said with pride. However, he was disappointed that, as he put it, “I never got a shot at gettin' shot at.” He spent the whole war stateside, flying training missions for bombardiers and navigators.
With discharge came an end to flying, temporarily anyway. With a wife and children now, Shelby began a restless series of entrepreneurial ventures. At various times, he was an owner-operator of a trucking business, a roughneck in the oil fields and a chicken farmer.
Shelby came to auto racing relatively late, in 1952 when he was 29, but he came on strong. After first trying a Flathead-powered hot rod on a drag strip, later that summer he accompanied a buddy who owned an MG-TC to a sports-car race on an airport course at Norman, Okla.
“He was a friend of mine from high school, Ed Wilkins. He wasn't going to race it himself; he was just up there to spectate. After we got up there we decided that I'd drive it. So it was really just kind of a lucky accident that I drove my first race.
“I raced against the other MGs and the Jowett Jupiters and so forth and won that race. Then they had the Jaguar race and I raced the MG in that and I won again. I wore the tires out on it. It was fun.”
Two more road races later in the year brought him two more wins, a four-for-four record that was only a taste of things to come. In 1953, in hotter iron such as Jaguars and Allards, the Texas meteor won nine out of nine. For the 1954 season he turned pro, which was a distinction of major importance to the SCCA in those days. He was in great demand by wealthy Ferrari and Maserati owners such as Temple Buell, John Edgar and Tony Parravano, and the American eventually attracted the interest of John Wyer, manager of the Aston Martin factory team.
To Shelby, racing appeared to be mainly a lark, informal and lighthearted. Arriving late at a track one day, he jumped into the cockpit without changing out of his work clothes—a set of striped farmer's overalls. They became his trademark. After a race, the tall, skinny, curly-haired chicken farmer would disappear just as suddenly, likely as not with a pretty woman on each arm.
But at work in the cockpit, Shelby was all business.
“The Texan is a first-rate conductor and takes his motor racing extremely seriously,” concluded Gregor Grant, founder and editor of Britain's Autosport magazine, after watching the lanky Yankee run the 1955 Targa Florio in a Ferrari Monza. He was a “hard worker . . . who goes to bed with the hundreds of corners imprinted in his mind.” And his driving was “clean as a whistle.”
Shelby's Ford GT-era team manager, the late Carroll Smith, recalled conversations with his boss' old teammates. “As a race driver, his mechanics loved him. [They felt] he drove every bit of a race car you could give him.”
In 1956, he won 18 out of 20 U.S. races and his first SCCA national championship. Sports Illustrated named him Driver of the Year. In 1957, he won 19 races straight, his second SCCA title and a Driver of the Year award from the New York Times, the first of two such honors. His good friend, Ferrari importer Luigi Chinetti, arranged an audience in Maranello.
“Old Man Ferrari offered me a job and I said, ‘Well, Mr. Ferrari, I have a family, three children, what kinda money?' He says, ‘Oh, it's an honor to drive for Ferrari.' And I said, ‘Well, I'm sorry, I can't afford the honor.' And I had a deal with John Wyer, anyway, and I had another deal with Maserati. I had a choice of four or five different offers. So I turned Ferrari down.”
This and other incidents were blown up a bit in later years, when Shelby's Cobras were going against the Commendatore's Prancing Horses, but there was a genuine animosity between these two titans of motorsport. Shelby used to say that he respected Ferrari for his automotive accomplishments, but not as a human being.
However, crusty Shelby was said to cherish a warm friendship with Enzo's son, Dino.
Shelby was a Formula One driver for two seasons. In 1958, he ran a 250F Maserati in four Grands Prix and scored the only world championship points of his career with a fourth-place finish in the Italian Grand Prix at Monza. The next year—the same in which he and Salvadori drove to victory at Le Mans for Aston Martin—he ran that company's obsolete, front-engine F1 in another four events but without success.
This was also the year when, at age 36, Shelby first experienced the angina that would end his driving career. He continued racing through 1960 and won his third title, USAC's United States Road Racing championship, but he drove with nitroglycerine pills ready to jump-start his heart if necessary.