When I was young, I fantasized about cars. I collected Hot Wheels. I set up painstakingly complex pathways for them to navigate. I drew sketches of fantastic creations. However, I never chased down this dream. For me, like many of us, it is locked away somewhere, in a toy chest, in a box in the attic or long since lost in a sea of challenges, compromises and choices, just another dream deferred.
Carroll Shelby, however, did chase this dream, and he did it with a fervency that would make him a storied racer, a renowned designer and a man of legend. He didn’t just build cars, he built the fastest cars. He didn’t just design cars, he designed classic cars. He didn’t always win races, but when he did, he did it in style.Today, his life is as inseparable from these machines as the engine, the radiator and the brake pad. Jay Leno called Carroll “the car world’s Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays.” Edsel Ford said he was “one of the most recognized names in performance car history.” Lee Iacocca counted him as a great friend.
To say he lived a colorful life would be an understatement. The Washington Post noted that “Mr. Shelby made and lost fortunes, trained pilots during World War II, ran a safari business in Africa and was married at least six times.” He was a chicken farmer, he founded the International Chili Society and he is one of the world’s longest-surviving recipients of a heart transplant. The source noted all this, before turning to his “major” accomplishments.
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Born in Leesburg, Texas, Shelby rose from humble origins, and by all accounts his first interaction with the auto business wasn’t successful. The U.K. news source, The Guardian notes that after World War II “he went on to work in the truck business, before turning his hand to chicken farming, unsuccessfully.”In 1952, life changed course, and Shelby found his calling, his path to success. With a V-8 Ford hot rod, he competed in a quarter-mile drag race. One blogger summed up the event best when he wrote “history doesn’t tell us whether Carroll Shelby actually won that first race, but I’d like to think that he did.” No one would be surprised.
From what we do know, he won his first road race in an MG-TC. Later the same day, he raced the MG-TC outside of its class against a group of Jaguars. Again, he took first place, all the while wearing the bib overalls he used for chicken farming. The bib and overalls drew jeers. The other racers found it outlandish. The style became his calling card.By 1957, Shelby wasn’t just a chicken farmer. He had been named the magazine’s “driver of year.” Twice. He had won 19 consecutive races. He had appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
However, just as quickly as he had found the fast lane, the road turned again. In 1960, the heart murmur he was diagnosed with at age 10 caught up with him. He began feeling chest pains. He retired from racing at a time when his name already would have been enshrined among the greats. Instead of relaxing, Shelby kept on racing, in a way, this time to fulfill his true lifetime goal.
“I had a lot of fun driving race cars, but it wasn’t my number one priority,” Shelby told The Los Angeles Times in an interview in 2006. “Driving race cars was an avenue for me to learn how to build my own car, and that was my ambition all along.”
Shelby’s bit of inspiration would lead him to a second career, even if it took him awhile to find the track. Iacocca, then the president of Ford, found Shelby with a journalist at a restaurant in Los Angeles, and by fate or coincidence, sat down. The two traded stories, but the meeting may be the most interesting story itself.
USA Today noted that the conversation quickly turned to business, with Shelby pestering Iacocca persistently for the money he needed to build the original Cobra. In the end, Iacocca said he “finally gave him the money to get him out of [his] office.” It was one of the best investments he’d ever make.
By 1965, the Shelby Cobra would beat out a Ferrari in the Sports Car Club of America manufacturing championships. The seven-liter engine he used to best the competition was banned in Europe. Ford was so impressed he was called in to help improve one of their models, which was suffering from poor performance. The car he worked on was the Mustang.
But, even the greatness of the Mustang, a project most car fans would kill to work on, couldn’t hold his attention. He left Ford to pursue other interests. From this point on, his interest in cars waned. He came back, though, periodically. In the 1980s, he helped consult on some car called the Viper.
In recent years, he turned to philanthropy, inspired by his condition to help the less fortunate. He established the Carroll Shelby Children’s Foundation, which serves young people who have heart disease but can’t afford treatment. The L.A. Times noted that a portion of the proceeds of Cobra sales goes to the fund.
On May 10, the man who developed Ford’s first racing car, built the Shelby Cobra and whose creations regularly fetch for outlandish prices, died in Dallas, Texas, in his home state. He was 89 years old. He is survived by perhaps his greatest achievements, his wife Cleo, his daughter Sharon Levine and two sons, Patrick and Michael.
When I was young, I had a toy race car that would change color in water. I would dip half of the car in and leave half of the car out, it would change blue to orange and back again. To Carroll, the car world functioned much like this, excepted everything his hands touched turned to gold.
He wasn’t just a racing phenomenon. Carroll Shelby was the most interesting man in the world.
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