Appreciating Carroll Shelby

by Gordon Kirby on 14th May 2012

Carroll Shelby has passed away, aged 89.

Shelby was one of motor racing’s greatest salesmen fathering the legendary Shelby Cobra and helping with the birth of Ford’s GT40 and the creation of Dan Gurney’s All American Racers. Born and raised in Texas Shelby was one of America’s most successful road racers through the 1950s.

He started eight Grands Prix during 1958 and ‘59 and made his name by co-driving with Roy Salvadori to win Le Mans in 1959 aboard a factory Aston Martin DBR1. A second DBR1 driven by Maurice Trintignant/Paul Frere finished second while Shelby enjoyed another winning day with Aston Martin in the Tourist Trophy at Goodwood 10 weeks later co-driving this time with Stirling Moss and Jack Fairman.

Shelby had a bad heart and was advised by his doctor to stop racing whereupon he found his true metier as a team manager and salesman. In 1962 founded Shelby American and began building Shelby Cobras stuffing a Ford V8 into an AC chassis. The Cobra was a roaring success and became one of the most renowned sports cars of the modern era. Shelby ran a team of Cobras with top American drivers like Dan Gurney and Bob Bondurant and after winning the United States Road Racing Championship in 1963 Shelby took his Cobras to Europe and finished second to Ferrari in 1965’s World Sportscar Championship.

Shelby’s racing successes with his Cobras helped forge a long-term partnership with Ford. In 1965 the first Shelby Mustang, known as the GT350, made its debut and Shelby American started developing and racing the Ford GT40 followed by the Mk2 and Mk4s, winners at Le Mans in 1966 and ‘67. Shelby was also a partner with Dan Gurney in founding All American Racers although Gurney subsequently bought Shelby shares in the company. Meanwhile Shelby’s partnership with Ford continued over many years through the introduction of the Shelby GT500 and more recently the GT500KR.

Shelby came from humble beginnings. He was born and raised in rural Texas, the son of a mailman who became a chicken farmer before he started racing. He cultivated the image of a Texas rancher by wearing striped bib overalls when he was driving and soon began to make a name for himself in SCCA road races. He finished second at Sebring in 1954 co-driving a Ferrari with Phil Hill and drove a Maserati 450S to win the second race held at Riverside in 1957 where he beat Dan Gurney who was aboard Frank Arciero’s Ferrari.

The following tear Shelby drove his own Maserati 250F in four Grand Prix races and finished fourth at Monza before starting four more Grands Prix in 1959 driving one of two factory Aston Martin DBR4/250s beside Roy Salvadori. The launching point for Shelby’s career came when he won Le Mans with Salvadori and Aston Martin that year.

Shelby had major surgery twice, undergoing a heart transplant in 1990 and kidney replacement six years later. During this time he established the Carroll Shelby Foundation, which financed organ transplants for children and later provided educational assistance for disadvantaged young people. Shelby had homes in the Bel Air hills district of Los Angeles and Las Vegas and maintained a ranch in Pittsburg, Texas. He is survived by his wife Cleo, two sons and a daughter.

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