The long life of the legendary Carroll Shelby is a story of miracles both large and small. The man whose name is synonymous “performance cars” rose from humble roots to create the furious Shelby Mustang, Shelby Cobra, the Ford Shelby and many iterations of racing autos that are today treasured classics in automotive history.
Born in Leesburg, Texas in 1923, Carroll Shelby had little but his imagination to lift him from the flat, reality of his birthplace. But, in the shelter of this east Texas town that’s seldom topped a population of 200-some residents, young Carroll began showing high spirits and abundant energy that only grew when his family moved to the big city of Dallas. There, he dutifully went to school and developed an eye for automobiles. According to one Shelby biographer, the first hint at the young man’s passion came with a speeding ticket for barreling down a Texas road at 85 mph the first time his father let him take the family car for a spin. Still, there was no portend of what was to come several years – and career choices – later. The Mustang Cobra, the GT 500 Shelby and hot cars that would take the world by storm were not yet a dream as Shelby graduated from high school.
His love of mechanics led Shelby to enlist in the Army Air Corps where he eagerly embraced the ultimate thrill-ride in flight school. It was during WWII that Shelby’s spirit began to soar. He not only repaired aircraft engines but also took on the risky assignment of testing planes that had been grounded and, hopefully, repaired. While catapulting through the skies over Texas, Shelby showed his daring by dropping love notes stuffed inside boots from his plane onto the farmland owned by his fiancée’s family.
After serving his country, Carroll Shelby tried to settle down to family life. First came a small fleet of dump trucks he ran in Dallas and then he gave the oil business a try. After those ventures didn’t have the right stuff for the man who would make a cobra an icon for speed, Shelby took an aptitude test. Rather than indicating that Shelby’s mechanical genius could drive his success, the test suggested that maybe chicken farming was the ticket. With a young family to support, Shelby put his all into raising chickens.
After making a little money the first year, he struggled to survive the second season as chickens dropped dead. Perhaps as a distraction from the everyday grind or finally suspecting something better was waiting to be hatched, Carroll Shelby started modifying sports cars in his spare time. Of course, the sports cars needed driving and Shelby was quick to take the wheel, winning so many races that his reputation soon spread. Handling the long hours of farming and racing was challenging – so much so that Shelby started showing up at the race track and drove wearing bib overalls.
By 1952, Shelby was knee deep in the Southwest racing circuit, driving against legendary winners like the Jaguar XK 120 and winning. At the same time, America was beginning its love affair with racing, opening a door that Carroll Shelby soared through when he became a professional driver in 1954. At the Carrera Pan Americana Mexico, with one arm in a cast and the other taped to the steering wheel, Shelby rocketed to victory.
As Shelby’s fame spread he found himself far afield from his east Texas home, tearing up the race tracks of Europe and becoming the daring darling of international racing. In the mid-1950s he was twice named “Driver of the Year” by Sports Illustrated. In 1958 and again in 1959 Shelby and his partner won the grueling 24-hour Le Mans. In 1961 he took the flag at the U.S. Auto Club driving championship.
It was after this race that Carroll Shelby chose to veer off the racing circuit and develop his business acumen. Heart disease had been a bane within his family and even the intrepid Carroll Shelby couldn’t outpace his genetics. The race track was no place for a man with heart that wanted to fail. His first venture was the Shelby School of High Performance Driving. His focus then turned to what would become Shelby’s legacy to the automotive world – designing high performance cars that took enthusiasts and race tracks by storm.
His first design venture married a British 260 Roadster chassis from AC Cars with a Ford V-8. According to Carroll Shelby the name for the new model came to him in a dream and he jotted it down on a bed side “idea pad.” Upon awakening the next morning, he liked what he saw and the Shelby Cobra went from dream to reality in just eight hours of mechanics and engineering. That night Shelby and a friend took the Cobra on a test drive, looking for a Corvette to challenge. None was found that night in 1962 but within a month Shelby was working with Ford and had the first Cobra Roadster ready to blast off from zero to 60 mph in a record 3.9 seconds.
More Cobra models followed, including impressive wins on race tracks that left Corvettes in the dust. In 1965, Shelby moved on to build a better Mustang. The Shelby Mustang GT350 was designed to beat the Corvette in production road racing. Shelby worked with other auto makers such as Oldsmobile and Dodge, creating the stunning design of the Dodge Viper. As the years and design triumphs rolled on, so too did Shelby’s heart ailment. By the early 1990s, he was on a list for an urgent heart transplant.
Shelby’s Heartfelt Change
At Cedars Sinai in Los Angeles, Shelby again embraced change in his life. Observing that many children were in dire need of heart transplants he promised to dedicate himself to their cause, should his own procedure be successful. Fortunately for those ailing youngsters and the racing world, Shelby’s new heart proved strong and the Carroll Shelby Children’s Foundation was born. That same year, 1991, Shelby was inducted into the International MotorSports Hall of Fame.
Carroll Shelby remains active and productive. His Foundation has helped thousands of children and continues to grow. At the same time, new Shelby gems grace the automotive world. In 2008 the Shelby GT500KR made its debut. This limited edition release keeps the Shelby legacy alive and pushing the envelope of design and performance.