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Carroll Shelby: 1923-2012

May 17, 2012

Interesting (and sad) that the same week that Slot Car maker, Carrera comes out with the Ford GT40 MkII, LeMans 1966 (modeled after the car that was the first American car to ever win that race), the racing world loses the designer of that car.

The following from an article by Pete Lyons that originally appeared on Autoweek.

Auto legend Carroll Shelby died Thursday night, May 10, 2012 at Baylor Hospital in Dallas at the age of 89.

Carroll Shelby’s shadow stretched out Texas tall across nearly the whole of the world’s automotive landscape. A natural as a race driver, he won three U.S. sports-car championships in Ferraris and Maseratis, and for Aston Martin he won the 1959 24 Hours of Le Mans with British co-driver Roy Salvadori.

Turning automaker in the 1960s, he fathered the Cobra, an Anglo-American hot rod of crude conception but stunning effectiveness that swept the tracks of North America and wrested a world manufacturer’s title from Ferrari. Additional success came with his makeovers of the Ford Mustang, which resulted in Trans-Am racing titles and the ferocious Shelby GT350 street car. As a team owner, he presided over Ford’s epic 1966 and ’67 Le Mans victories.

Shelby is believed to be the only person to win Le Mans as a driver (with Aston Martin), a manufacturer (class victory with the Cobra Daytona coupe) and team owner (Ford’s GTs).

This wonderful tribute article from Autoweek Magazine goes on to say:

In company with so many of the world’s outstanding achievers, Carroll Hall Shelby had modest beginnings. He was born on Jan. 11, 1923, in the small east Texas town of Leesburg, the son of a rural mail carrier. When Shelby was 10, the family moved to Dallas, where his father became a postal clerk and the boy discovered auto racing.

“I used to ride my bicycle to the old bullrings around Dallas when I was a kid, 12 or 14 years old,” he recalled decades later. “So I’ve always had my interest in cars, that’s always been my No. 1 interest.”

Finances did not permit expressing that interest in sanctioned competition, but Shelby did what he could on the streets. His first car was a family hand-me-down, a 1934 Dodge that he immediately determined would do only 87 mph, tops. His next ride was no less disappointing, even after he shaved the head. “It was a ’38 Willys, old four-cylinder Willys. Wouldn’t outrun anybody, but I used to try to.”

The Shelby need for speed was finally serviced by the Army, which allowed him to put his hands on his second great love, airplanes. Admitted to a pilot-training program for students who didn’t have college credentials, he graduated as staff sergeant pilot.

“Chuck Yeager, Bob Hoover, myself—a lot of guys came out of that program that were good aviators,” Shelby said with pride. However, he was disappointed that, as he put it, “I never got a shot at gettin’ shot at.” He spent the whole war stateside, flying training missions for bombardiers and navigators.

With discharge came an end to flying, temporarily anyway. With a wife and children now, Shelby began a restless series of entrepreneurial ventures. At various times, he was an owner-operator of a trucking business, a roughneck in the oil fields and a chicken farmer.

Shelby came to auto racing relatively late, in 1952 when he was 29, but he came on strong. After first trying a Flathead-powered hot rod on a drag strip, later that summer he accompanied a buddy who owned an MG-TC to a sports-car race on an airport course at Norman, Okla.

“He was a friend of mine from high school, Ed Wilkins. He wasn’t going to race it himself; he was just up there to spectate. After we got up there we decided that I’d drive it. So it was really just kind of a lucky accident that I drove my first race.

“I raced against the other MGs and the Jowett Jupiters and so forth and won that race. Then they had the Jaguar race and I raced the MG in that and I won again. I wore the tires out on it. It was fun.”

Two more road races later in the year brought him two more wins, a four-for-four record that was only a taste of things to come. In 1953, in hotter iron such as Jaguars and Allards, the Texas meteor won nine out of nine. For the 1954 season he turned pro, which was a distinction of major importance to the SCCA in those days. He was in great demand by wealthy Ferrari and Maserati owners such as Temple Buell, John Edgar and Tony Parravano, and the American eventually attracted the interest of John Wyer, manager of the Aston Martin factory team.

To Shelby, racing appeared to be mainly a lark, informal and lighthearted. Arriving late at a track one day, he jumped into the cockpit without changing out of his work clothes—a set of striped farmer’s overalls. They became his trademark. After a race, the tall, skinny, curly-haired chicken farmer would disappear just as suddenly, likely as not with a pretty woman on each arm.

But at work in the cockpit, Shelby was all business.

Read more: Autoweek Magazine

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