Carroll Shelby: 1923-2012Tue, 15 May 2012
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.
“You ever try nitro?” Shelby asked in a 1990 interview with Autoweek. “It knocks the top of your head off. It dilates your arteries and veins and gives you a headache for 30 seconds. You don't want to do it in a race car. That's why it was not hard to give up drivin'; nitro gives you an incentive to quit. I wanted to build my car anyway, and make a go of my Goodyear distributorship.”
Shelby had maintained commercial interests all along. As he once noted, he was a child of the Depression, and the experience was formative. He'd always had something going—from paper routes, delivering for drug stores on his motorcycle and caddying on golf courses in the beginning, to buying and selling cars during his racing career. With Jim Hall and his brothers, Shelby was a partner in a Dallas dealership.
Now able to concentrate on business, he soon had a Goodyear race-tire distributorship and, at Riverside, Calif., America's first race-driving school (with Peter Brock as the first instructor). He also served as consulting editor for his publisher friend “Pete” Petersen's Sports Car Graphic magazine. Later, he started up businesses to manufacture cast wheels for both cars and motorcycles. But all of these were stepping stones to realizing a long-held, major dream: Shelby wanted to produce his own sports car.
“I prob'ly started thinkin' about it in '54, '55,” he recalled. He'd been driving Max Balchowsky's Old Yeller specials and had a firsthand impression of what the combination of a big-inch Detroit engine and a lightweight, European-style chassis could do.
Shelby's familiarity with the various English sports cars so popular in the 1950s bred a certain focused disdain: “I could see that, compared to the little ‘taxicab' engines they had, one of our new V8s took up about the same amount of room and put out about four times as much horsepower and didn't cost any more money.”
After a preliminary venture with a handful of Chevrolet Corvette chassis rebodied by Italy's Scaglietti, he finally arranged a marriage between a new small-block engine being launched by Ford and the British-made AC Ace. Shelby's prototype Cobra first bared its fangs in February 1962, and the small, ferocious two-seater was an immediate sensation with the media and the public—and with impatient racers.
Famously, Shelby kept repainting his single-press tester in different colors before its next assignment, creating the illusion of a substantial fleet of finished Cobras.
The first competition appearance of the new marque was that October at Riverside, when a Shelby American Cobra handily led the new 1963 Corvette for an hour until a wheel hub broke. The part was redesigned, and Shelby's “snakes” began a domination of production-sports-car events that lasted for several seasons, both in North America and overseas. The highlight year was 1965, when Cobras became the first American-conceived cars to win the international manufacturers' championship for Grand Touring cars. To do so meant beating Ferrari, a special satisfaction for Shelby.
“What we did was take a bunch of California hot-rodders and we whipped Ferrari's ass,” as he put it. “The Cobra was the most archaic chassis, probably, with its two buggy springs and a pushrod engine, to ever go over there and win a world championship.
“But the reason that it was so successful was because of people like Phil Remington, Ken Miles, Pete Brock . . . ah, I could name 50. There isn't time to name everybody who should get credit.”
There was a second-generation Cobra with Ford's big 427 engine and a more sophisticated coil-spring chassis, but by this time, the old hybrid concept had run its course, and Shelby American was moving into other racing fields. In 1965, the team took over the running of Ford's sophisticated, mid-engine GT40s. The immediate payoff was the previously troubled coupe's first victory, at Daytona that year. The team went on to win Le Mans the following two years, beating not only Ferrari but also a rival Ford GT operation by Holman-Moody, the stock-car powerhouse.
Throughout the rest of the decade there were further racing ventures, some more successful than others, while at Ford's request, Shelby also developed and produced the GT350, a two-seat, high-performance modification of the 2+2 Mustang. A big-block GT500 followed.
But as the 1970s opened, Ford dropped out of racing. Shelby American tried to pick up the slack with a program for Toyota but was not very successful. In any case, “performance died,” as Shelby put it, and he eventually had to close down his famous company.
Shelby spent the next dozen years in a variety of nonautomotive activities, including land speculation and development, a safari operation in Africa and a plant to manufacture chili. During this period, he twice had to have coronary-bypass surgery, but he refused to let his illness slow him down.
In the meantime, automobile performance had come back to life, and in 1982 Shelby Automobiles was formed in conjunction with Chrysler to manufacture and market high-energy versions of that company's smaller sedans and midsize trucks. Production began in 1986, but disappointing sales forced a stop at the end of 1989.
Reluctant to disband his group of talented people, Shelby kept them going on special projects, such as a Dodge-engined SCCA spec racer called the Shelby Can-Am, while he transformed the company into a specialized R&D facility.
He was eager to do more, but during the 1980s he was in hospital twice more for carotid surgery. Despite his ailment, Shelby continued to live a full life, and in February 1989, he married for the fourth time. But his strength continued to fade, and in June 1990, he finally received a new heart.
“It's a first-time installation,” quipped Dan Gurney at a subsequent roast for his friend. Sixty-eight-year-old Shelby gleefully reported feeling like a young man of 34—the age of the unfortunate donor, who had collapsed at a Las Vegas craps table. The following May, Shelby drove the Indy 500 pace car and passenger Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway at 150 mph.
That same month, haunted by children he'd seen dying during his time in ICU, he started the Carroll Shelby Heart Fund (now called the Carroll Shelby Foundation) to raise money for youngsters in need of transplants. For that and other reasons, admiring parents sent him photos of kids they'd named Shelby. His Los Angeles office became literally papered with hundreds of the photos.
Older youths now benefit from the Carroll Shelby School of Automotive Technology, located at the Northeast Texas Community College in Mount Pleasant, not 20 miles from the racer's birthplace.
Like many high-profile men, Shelby seemed to have trouble staying married. The second of five wives was the movie and TV star Jan Harrison. His third wife was Sue Stafford. The fourth was Swedish-born Lena Dahl Shelby, who died in a 1997 highway accident. Only months later, he married Cleo Patricia Marguerita Shelby, a vivacious Briton who was always by his side, even as she pursued her interests in flying, art and jewelry.
Shelby's survivors consist of his wife, Cleo Shelby; his sister and only sibling, Anne Shelby Ellison; daughter Sharon Lavine and sons Michael and Patrick Shelby (all three from his first marriage to Jeanne Fields); six grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
Of Carroll Shelby's legions of close friends and respectful associates, one of his greatest admirers was Al Dowd, who joined in the Cobra days as a mechanic and who kept on working for Shelby for decades as an administrator. Why did he and others show so much loyalty? Interviewed for a 1990 Autoweek profile on his boss, Dowd put it this way: “I guess because we love him. Can't put my finger on it. He's a neat person. I like him.”
Lew Spencer, once a Cobra race driver and later Dowd's fellow in the Los Angeles business office, spoke of the same personal affection. “There's an esprit de corps, almost a love affair. Carroll is a human magnet because he has a good feeling for people, a great understanding. He can pull the best out of you, so you excel in what you're doing.
“I've always said that if you had 20 people in a basketball court, all up at one end, and if Carroll walked in the other end, without any sort of introduction or announcement, within five minutes everybody would be gathered around him. When we travel, you see it; people walk up to him and start a conversation, even if they've never seen or heard of him. He attracts people to him.”
Spencer went on to say that working for Shelby was exhilarating. “He is a visionary in many ways, and a doer. He's an idea man—Carroll gets great ideas—and he does not like details. He doesn't like an office. He's not interested in sitting around on a day-to-day basis. He wants another challenge, to move on to something exciting. That's part of the fun of working for him, it'll always be moving, nothing stagnant. There's a feeling of fun, also a respect for the accomplishments of the man.
“He is an entrepreneur who borders on the con man—he is a legitimate con man. You have to be in this business. It's the old American success story. When he gets knocked down—like with the chicken business [which was hit with a poultry disease]—he's flat, he gets back up.”
Don Landy, who handled Shelby's overall business holding company, Shelby American Management Co. in McKinney, Texas, described his boss this way: “He's one of a kind. An original Texas gunslinger. Life never gets boring. Carroll is a risk taker, has been all his life, in everything he's done.
“He can be cantankerous, gruff, direct and outspoken, but to get to know him is to love him. He creates tremendous loyalty in people around him. He's really a very caring individual, which may be completely opposite to what he appears to be.”
Team manager Smith spoke of his fellow Carroll fondly as “the best man I ever worked for—the only man I could ever work for. He has leadership qualities; he can inspire you to do more than you're capable of doing. He gives everyone an enormous amount of rope, picks the right people and leaves 'em alone to get on with it. Keeps the BS and the politics away from the racers.
“An excellent judge of people—including of mechanics, although he's no mechanic himself—especially of drivers. He's never made a mistake with a driver. He's got enormous loyalty to people who have done a good job for him,” Smith said.
“And he has an absolute desire to win. He wants to win so bad that it's catching. If he went back to racing tomorrow, I'd go back in a minute. Because I truly enjoy winning, and I enjoy working with a man who wins with style and grace, and who doesn't forget how to have fun while doing it.”
Shelby himself, in the 1990 Autoweek interview, said he felt grateful for “being able to do the things that I've wanted to over practically a lifetime and been lucky enough to have been successful enough out of them that as I grow into, ah, into old age that I can look back with satisfaction over a life well spent. I really consider myself a damn lucky individual. I don't think you can ask for much more outta life.”
Funeral plans were in process. Donations to the Carroll Shelby Foundation are encouraged in lieu of flowers. Information about the foundation can be found at www.carrollshelbyfoundation.com.
Below, Shelby talks about connecting with Ford Motor Co. to go racing:
By Pete Lyons