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Carroll Shelby

1923 - 2012


 


An era has ended. Carroll Shelby, the chicken-farming, chili-making Texan who gave Aston Martin a victory at Le Mans, gave Ford success over Ferrari, and gave the rest of us his Cobra and Shelby Mustangs, was the last of his breed, the hands-on, oil-stained car company founders.

 

By Larry Edsall
Zoom an e-mail to Larry

That's it, the end of an era, an era that died Thursday evening along with Carroll Shelby.

Shelby, of course, was the chicken-farming (and later chili-cooking) Texan who raced cars, and who raced them so well that his victories included the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

But then the doctors told him his heart couldn't take such stress, so he moved to the other side of the pit wall and organized a racing team and motorsports workshop that stuffed Ford V8s beneath the hoods of a small, nimble British-built roadster. Voila! The Shelby Cobra, the first American car to win the world sports car racing championship.

Shelby and his Shelby American team also helped turn Ford's GT40 into a Ferrari-beater, and they took what had been a wildly popular if mildly performing Ford Mustang and -- voila all over again -- the Shelby GT350, basically a racing wolf in sheep's clothing.

Eventually, just like those AC Aces he turned into Cobras, Shelby needed an engine transplant. Later, his new heart would be joined by a transplanted kidney.

When he died, at age 89, Shelby held the record -- no surprise -- for having lived the longest with a transplanted heart.

Oh, and while awaiting his transplant, he set out to help others -- especially children -- who found themselves in the same situation, and thus the Carroll Shelby Children's Foundation was launched in 1989.

Among my prized possessions is one of the small Shelby Foundation pocket knives Carroll used to hand out. Funny, I'd thought it had been confiscated by TSA in the days following 9/11 as I was boarding an airplane. But a few weeks ago, while looking for my passport or something else in my dresser, I found the knife, and smiled.

I count myself among those fortunate to have found, or to have been found by Shelby.

In the spring of 1991, I got to ride with him in the Viper pace car at Indianapolis for an AutoWeek cover story. In 1999, Aston Martin celebrated the 40th anniversary of its victory at Le Mans by inviting Shelby and co-driver Roy Salvadori back to Le Mans. I was among those invited to sit at the dinner table with Shelby and Salvadori throughout the race week, asking questions and listening to their tales -- some of them even true and all of them oh-so-tall.

Several years later, I was offered an opportunity to write a book about the rebirth of the Shelby GT500 Mustang, a car that reunited Shelby and Ford. I accepted, not because of the relatively small author's fee I was to receive, but because I knew it would give me one more -- perhaps one last -- opportunity to spend time talking with Carroll Shelby, time listening to more of his stories.

There have been only a few phone calls in my life that I vividly remember: The day the pediatrician called to say he'd just sent my wife and our baby to the hospital and to get there as quickly as I could; the day Leon Mandel from AutoWeek called to tell me, "you're coming to work for us and we need to talk about it;" the day my Mom called to say my Dad had died; the last time I picked up the telephone and heard that Texas drawl, "Larry? It's Carroll."

And now he's gone. And so is an era.

Another vivid memory: The day Enzo Ferrari died. We had just finished working overnight, putting together the weekly issue of AutoWeek, and several of us had gone to breakfast at the Big Boy near the bridge to Detroit's Belle Isle. Midway through the meal, one of the restaurant staff came over and asked if we were from AutoWeek.

Yes, we said, why?

Someone from your office just called, to tell you Mr. Ferrari has died.

We left our unfinished food, paid our bill -- at least I hope one of us took time in the rush to actually pay for what we'd eaten -- and we went back to the office and cobbled together as much of an obituary as time allowed before the presses rolled. As I recall, we did a much longer piece for the following week's issue.

Ferrari died in 1988. In the years since, I've thought many times that Ferrari's death left Carroll Shelby as the sole survivor of a time when someone, together with a small but talented team, could actually start a car company that could grow to be recognized around the world.

Back in the dawn of the auto age such people seemed almost plentiful, from Karl Benz to Henry Ford, from Adam Opel to Ransom Olds, and from the Dodge boys to the Maserati brothers. And, of course, later there were the Porsches and Enzo Ferrari and Soichiro Honda and Ferruccio Lamborghini and Carroll Shelby.

But now, with Shelby's death, the founders all are gone.

Oh, I don't doubt there are new car companies coming down the road. But I suspect they'll be like Tesla, founded not the competitive environment of some gasoline-stained race shop but in an electrified, computerized Silicon Valley clean room.

Yes, they'll be green and efficient and perhaps even fun to drive. But somehow, without Shelby slinging his stories, it just won't be the same.

 

 

 

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