Carroll Shelby and the US's first-ever high-performance driving school

US Motor Racing News

Set up by Carroll Shelby, run by car designer Peter Brock, with teaching tips from Ken Miles, Preston Lerner tells the tale of the US's very first high-performance driving school

Carrol Shelby

Shelby helped mastermind Ford '66 Le Mans victory

ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images

Next year will mark the 60th anniversary of the Cobra, so you can expect to see a ton of stories commemorating the creation of the iconic Anglo-American beast over the coming months.

But before Carroll Shelby orchestrated the installation of a 260-cubic-inch Ford V8 into a chassis built in Thames Ditton by AC Cars, he was responsible for another historic achievement in 1962: he founded the first school of high-performance driving in the United States.

“You’ve got to understand that both Shelby and O’Shea were top egos”

A charismatic Texan who often described himself as a failed chicken farmer, Shelby had been one of the first Yanks to race profitably in Europe, notably winning Le Mans in 1959 – while wearing bib overalls – with Roy Salvadori in an Aston Martin DBR1. After a heart condition forced him to retire after the 1960 season, he moved to Southern California and chased his dream of producing a sports car powered by an American V8.

Meanwhile, he made ends meet with several side hustles. Although his plan to build a racetrack went nowhere, he was a contributing editor at Sports Car Graphic magazine. He also picked up a few bucks as a distributor for Goodyear. But his most ambitious project involved conceptualising a school for aspiring race car drivers at Riverside International Raceway.

Shelby Coupe

Brock would go on to play big part in the design of the Selby Daytona Coupe, seen here at Le Mans in ’64

British formula car ace Jim Russell had opened just such a school at Snetterton in 1956. But there was nothing like it in the States. So Shelby hatched a plan to go into business with Paul O’Shea, an East Coast hot shoe who’d won several SCCA national championships in Mercedes-Benz 300 SLs. There was just one problem.

“You’ve got to understand that both of these guys were top egos,” says Peter Brock. “Shelby thought that O’Shea would be his assistant and run the school for him, and O’Shea thought just the opposite. When reality set in, O’Shea said, ‘F*** you,’ and walked off.”

From the archive

Brock would later play an essential role at Shelby American as the designer of the Cobra Daytona Coupe, which trounced the Ferrari 250 GTO en route to winning the GT world championship in 1965. At the time, though, he was working for Max Balchowsky, the creator of Old Yeller, as he pursued his own fledging career as a race car driver.

Shelby had run some of his final races in Balchowsky’s surprisingly fast junkyard dog, and he’d befriended Brock while hanging out at the shop. So Brock happened to be at Riverside during Shelby’s comically disastrous meeting with O’Shea.

“Shelby turned to me and said, ‘I don’t have time to do this. Do you want to do it?’” Brock recalls with a laugh. “And I said, ‘You bet!’ because here was a chance to be on the race-track every day.”

At the time, Brock had a grand total of about seven races under his belt. Nevertheless, with Shelby’s blessing, he was anointed as America’s first official race car driving instructor, and he established the curriculum for the school without any input from, well, anybody.

“Shelby had nothing to do with it,” Brock says. “In the two years that I worked for the school, I think he came out maybe twice, for pictures.”

Promoted through an advert in Sports Car Graphic, the Carroll Shelby School of High Performance Driving prospered. Brock incorporated valuable driving and pedagogical tips from Cobra star Ken Miles into the instructional program. As attendance climbed, Brock also hired two additional instructors – John Timanus, who went on to become the SCCA’s technical director, and Bob Bondurant, who eventually bought the school and used it as the foundation of his own high-performance driving empire.

Miles Cobra

Pedagogical driving tips from Cobra star and Le Mans legend Ken Miles were included in the lessons

One of Brock’s first students was a bespectacled 20-year-old Midwesterner who, like Brock, had made a pilgrimage to Southern California in search of a life in motor sport. As it happened, John Morton already had plenty of experience racing go-karts and jalopies, but he didn’t have an appropriate car for the programme, so he agreed to pay a $500 premium to use one provided by the school.

This turned out to be a Cobra. And not just any Cobra. It was the first one ever built – CSX2000, still wearing the yellow paint that customiser Dean Jeffries had applied before the car’s debut at the New York Auto Show in April 1962. By the time Morton drove it, the car was in sad shape, and by the time he was finished with it, the engine had fatally overheated. (In 2016, CSX2000 sold at auction for $13.75 million.)

“Did I learn to drive at the school?” Morton asks rhetorically. “No. I don’t mean to sound arrogant, but I already knew what lines were and all that stuff. But I got to drive the first Cobra ever made, and that was worth the price of admission.”

While Morton was attending the school, the Shelby American team showed up for Billy Krause to test the first competition Cobra, which was being prepared for its racing debut in the upcoming Los Angeles Times Grand Prix at Riverside. Morton used the opportunity to ask Shelby for a job. A week later, he was pushing a broom at the Shelby American shop in Venice.


Morton went on to Trans-Am success at the wheel of the Datsun 510

Coincidentally, both Morton and Brock later parted ways with Shelby on less-then-friendly terms. But after a few years on their own, the two of them got back together to campaign a car that was, in many respects, the anti-Cobra. Driving an agile Datsun 510 for Brock Racing Enterprises, Morton won back-to-back 2.5-litre Trans-Am championship in 1971 and 1972.

Morton went on to a long and successful career in prototypes and GT cars. Now 79, he still vintage races with verve and precision. Brock retired from racing a long time ago, but he continues to build and sell the popular Aerovault, a lightweight enclosed trailer he designed using many of the same aerodynamic tricks he once applied to the Daytona Coupe.

The Carroll Shelby School of High Performance Driving ended up being a footnote in their lives. But it put both of them on the road to bigger and better things.