Carroll Shelby 1923-2012

Le Mans legend and motor industry giant Carroll Shelby died on May 10. He was 89. Though a relatively late starter in motor sport, he was a quick learner yet his achievements trackside would be dwarfed by those amassed in the boardroom.

Born on January 11 1923 in Leesburg, Texas, Carroll Hall Shelby was 29 years old when he made his circuit debut on an airfield course at Norman, Oklahoma in 1952. After leaving the Army Air Corps, he had variously operated a trucking business, worked as a roughneck in the oil fields and been a chicken farmer. Yet as a driver he soon excelled, turning professional two years later. In 1956, he won 18 races from 20 starts and claimed his first SCCA national title. Sports Illustrated named him Driver of the Year and would bestow him with the same gong in ’57 after he claimed 19 race wins and another SCCA crown.

He enjoyed a successful late ’50s flurry in European sports car racing, although wins would prove elusive in Formula 1. Having made his debut in the nonchampionship ’55 Syracuse GP, finishing sixth aboard his Maserati 250F, he took his maiden World Championship start in the ’58 French GP at Reims. He would retire his Scuderia Centro Sud Maserati and was unlucky not to receive points for his fourth-place finish in that year’s Italian GP after he took over Masten Gregory’s 250F.

He famously won the 1959 Le Mans 24 Hours for Aston Martin, sharing his DBR1 with Roy Salvadori. By contrast, his F1 campaign with the Feltham squad’s DBR4 single-seater that year proved disappointing and on returning Stateside he rounded out his career with another SCCA title in 1960 before retiring from driving because of a heart condition.

Having already established America’s first motor racing drivers’ school, and with a race tyre distribution business in his portfolio, Shelby followed through by becoming a car manufacturer. An earlier attempt at reclothing Chevrolet Corvettes with Scaglietti coachwork had proved short-lived, but the insertion of a small-block Ford V8 into the pretty AC Ace resulted in the mighty Cobra which would in time become the most replicated car on the planet. Arriving in 1962, it spawned umpteen variations, not least the Peter Brock-styled Daytona Cobras which claimed the ’65 International Championship for GT Manufacturers.

Over the course of the decade, the link between Ford and Shelby American would result in such milestone muscle cars as the Mustang GT350. Shelby would also oversee the Blue Oval’s successful Le Mans bids with the GT40 in 1966-67, but the relationship with Ford wouldn’t see out the ’60s. A born showman, he would return to the motor industry in 1982 in conjunction with Chrysler in a bid to inject some sparkle into the firm’s dowdy small saloons and trucks. It was only a partial success and the collaboration came to an end in ’89, the year before he received a heart transplant. More recently he healed old wounds and renewed his link with Ford and put his name to a series of hot Mustangs.

The five-time married racer was a tireless fund-raiser for his Carroll Shelby Foundation which sought to aid young people in need of heart transplants. A true original, he lived every one of his 89 years to the fullest.

Richard Heseltine