May 13, 2012
By Kim Roberson
We lost an American legend this week when it was announced on Friday that Carroll Shelby had died.
Carroll Shelby transcended almost every form of racing whether it was rally racing, grand a.m. or NASCAR.
Shelby began as a chicken farmer after leaving the Army air corps after World War II. When his efforts at chicken farming failed he was convinced by a friend to try racing. Despite the fact that Shelby had heart problems early in life, he didn’t let that stop him from taking part in the heart pounding sport of auto racing... To help stave off a heart attack, he reported to have raced Grand Am and rally races with a tablet of nitroglycerin under his tongue. But that bad heart didn't stop Shelby from gaining a large love of racing.
Shelby began racing as an amateur in the early 1950s but soon became a top-notch driver for the likes of Cad-Allard, Aston Martin, and Maserati.
During his racing career, Shelby captured three national sports car championships in the United States, raced on the Aston-Martin team in Europe, won the 24-hour of Le Mans, and set land speed records at the Bonneville Salt Flats. He was also twice named Sports Illustrated's driver of the year in 1956 and 1957. Shelby even competed in F1 in 1958 and 1959.
Eventually his heart problems forced to retire from racing in 1960. Having previously dabbled in car manufacturing when he co-owned a Dallas car dealership during his chicken farming days (he helped to create a hand full of Scaglietti Corvettes), Shelby decided his next career would be in car design, and in 1962, he founded Shelby America. Because of his previous experiences with Corvette Shelby first approached Chevrolet about building a new car on what was a British chassis, the AC Ace chassis. But Chevrolet not wanting to build another competitor for its Corvette turned Shelby down. Chevrolets loss was Ford's gain as Carol and then turned to Lee Iacocca and asked him if he could use a Ford engine in this new car. Iacocca said yes and Shelby's relationship with Ford was born.
One Of Many Versions Of The Shelby Mustang
That first car was named the CSX2000, nicknamed the Cobra, and was introduced at the New York auto show in 1962. Shelby later builds a competition version of the car (the Ford GT) and it was used to field a team in Europe to race against the best teams running in the FIA. Drivers like Bob Bondurant, Dan Gurney, Ken Miles and others drove for Team Shelby and captured the Grand Touring World Championship in 1965. Gurney and Bondurant returned in 1966, winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans in a Ford GT40 for Team Shelby, and the team won that race again the next year, in 1968. Shelby is the only man to have won the Le Mans race as a driver, team owner and automotive manufacturer.
As all of this was going on Lee Iacocca asked Shelby to make an even better version of their Ford Mustang, and in January 1965, the very first Shelby Mustang (the GT350) was rolled out. At the same time, Shelby began working on improving the Shelby 289 Cobra, introducing the 427 just months after the new Mustang. In all, only 998 Cobras were created between 1962 and 1967 (655 289’s and 343 427’s), selling for between $6,000 and $8,000 when they were first introduced. The 1965 427 Cobra had a 355 horse power engine and could go from zero to 100 and back to a full stop again in 14 seconds -- a feat many of today’s cars can’t achieve. They weren’t hot sellers when new between the cost and the fact they were almost impossible for anyone but an experienced driver to handle safely, but are now a prize for car collectors: A Shelby 289 was sold for more than $610,000 last year. In 2007, Shelby’s personal 1966 800 horsepower Super Snake 427 sold for $5.5 million.
“It's a special car. It would do just over three seconds to 60 (mph), 40 years ago,” Shelby explained to the crowd at the Barrett Jackson car auction the day that car sold.
In the 1970s as the federal government crackdown on regulations about sports cars and insurance rules cut into the high performance car market, Shelby gave up his efforts with Ford and instead moved to Africa where he operated a safari business.
In the early 1980s Iacocca took over Chrysler and asked his friend Shelby to come back and help them rebuild Chrysler into a brand of car that people wanted to drive. With Shelby's help Chrysler was able to take the K car and turned it into a sports car; Shelby also helped to create the muscle truck and to develop the Dodge Viper which paced the 1991 Indy 500 with Shelby at the wheel.
During this time, Shelby’s heart began failing him, and he was put on a transplant list. In 1990, he received the heart of a 34-year old that had died of an aneurism (he was one of the longest surviving heart transplant patient at the time of his death.) Six years later, he received a new kidney from one of his sons. After his heart transplant, Shelby created the Carroll Shelby Children's Foundation in 1991 to provide assistance for children and young people needing acute coronary and kidney care.
In 1995, Shelby opened a new facility for Shelby America right on part of the property making up the Las Vegas Motor Speedway complex. From this facility, he built the Oldsmobile powered Series 1 roadster in cooperation with GM and added other Cobra models. He also began creating a new era of Shelby Mustang’s including the Shelby GT-H, Shelby GT-500, Shelby GT-500 “Super Snake,” Shelby GT and Shelby GT500KR. Just last month, he helped to introduce the limited edition Shelby 1000, with a Shelby Performance 1,000 HP fuel system and a starting price of $149,995.
A friend had this story to share about just what it meant to be able to get behind the wheel of a Shelby car. “In 2010 a friend of mine that I've known since the day I was born, his dad bought a 2010 Shelby GT 500 Super Snake. While out in Las Vegas. I was ALLOWED the opportunity to roll down the strip in this car. I had 10 bucks in my pocket but felt like a "high rolling god". Until I strap into a 900 HP stock car. NOTHING will ever top that feeling.”
One thing having absolutely nothing to do with fast cars that bears Shelby’s name is his Chili Mix. One of the founders of the World Chili Cook-off (aka the Terlingua Chili Cook-Off) in 1967, he also helped to create the International Chili Society. At the 1972 cook off, Shelby announced the creation of his "Original Texas Brand Chili Mix" and explained that it was going to be put on sale to the public. One of the first times I had ever heard of Carroll Shelby was not because of a car or a race -- it was when I saw a package of his chili mix on the shelf at my local Publix supermarket. To this day, I always have a box sitting in my pantry in case I get a hankering to make a crock-pot of chili and don’t have time to do it from scratch.
Regardless of whether you admired him for his fast cars, his philanthropy, or his chili, Carroll Shelby was a man who left an indelible mark on millions of people from all walks of life. He was a one of a kind man, who will be greatly missed by those who knew and admired him.
Follow Kim on Twitter: @ksrgatorfn
The thoughts and ideas expressed by this writer or any other writer on Insider Racing News, are not necessarily the views of the staff and/or management of IRN.