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Carroll Shelby tribute draws 1,200 people

Thu, 31 May 2012

At approximately 6:55 p.m. Pacific Standard Time on Wednesday, May 30, around the world, the engines of several thousand Shelby Mustangs, Cobras, GT40s and even a few Series 1s cranked to life and roared their terrible roars in tribute to their fallen maker, Carroll Shelby.

“I've got friends in South Africa who are firing theirs up right now,” said a Shelby Mustang owner, standing amidst a sea of the barking beasts parked on the roof of the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles.

While untold numbers of enthusiasts watched on the Internet, the Petersen was ground zero for the worldwide Shelby tribute, where 1,200 of the faithful gathered to remember the man they loved and pay tribute to his legacy in the best way they knew how.

When the engines finally fell silent after 7 p.m., the crowd retreated to the museum's main hall for an evening of reminiscing, hosted by car collector Jay Leno. The whole thing was called “Carroll Shelby A Life Remembered.”

“People ask me why I don't have any Ferraris,” Leno said. “Well, in all the pictures of him I never saw Enzo Ferrari smiling, and I never saw Carroll Shelby when he wasn't smiling.”

The museum was packed with racing greats and people who just liked Shelby. Parnelli Jones, Phil Remington, Don Prudhomme, Linda Vaughn, Ed Pink. The tributes ranged from the heartfelt to the hilarious, each one touching on a different aspect of Shelby's many-faceted life.

Edsel Ford II talked about Shelby, whom he'd first met as a young man at Le Mans, spending five hours driving the GT500 at Ford's Arizona proving grounds during that car's development and “smiling the whole time.”

“I've lost a dear friend,” he said.

Dan Gurney had the line of the night.

“People say when they made Carroll Shelby they broke the mold,” Gurney said. “And if they ever tried to make the mold again, he'd sue them.”

Artist Bill Neale also touched on Shelby's propensity for litigation.

“It's a lot easier when you're not being sued,” Neale said about paying tribute to his lifelong friend.

Neale went on tell stories from Shelby's very entertaining life, from parking a Rolls-Royce full of popcorn and beer at the local drive-in and calling it “advertising,” to lapping an Isetta through the hallway on the third floor of his European hotel. The best was the story of Grant McDill, whom Shelby passed off as “Father Duffy” at the first Chili Cookoff at Shelby's Terlingua ranch in West Texas.

“We believed it, we really fell for it,” Neale said of the poseur priest, “until later we saw him with a bottle of Jack Daniels in one hand and a Pearl Beer in the other and he was talking different.”

The Duffy ruse worked on others, too.

“He married a couple from Fort Shafter, and as far as I know they're still together.”

Pilot Bob Hoover spoke about Shelby's days as a pilot instructor during World War II. Producer Walter Miller spoke about playing golf with Shelby. They played the video of Mac Davis singing his Shelby tribute song, which ended with the line, “Keep your eyes on your wallet and your wife.” Heart-transplant recipient Leah Smith thanked Shelby for finding her a new heart when she was only 11 days old.

It wasn't all about racing, and it wasn't all about cars. There was much more to it, just like the man himself.

By Mark Vaughn