Mama, would you say the blessing?" As he inclined his head and listened to the words murmured by his attractive brunette wife Jeanne, Carroll Hall Shelby was, for a rare moment, perfectly still. The laugh wrinkles around his eyes were smoothed; his strong plainsman's face was grave. It was too early now to be concentrating on Sebring. The business at hand was breakfast—scrambled eggs, bacon and biscuits. Shelby put away a bite of eggs.
"You know," he told his visitor, "when I'm driving a racing car I feel that I don't have a problem in the world. I haven't even tried to analyze why I do it. I guess there is just something there—a certain challenge."
That challenge had carried Shelby a far piece from the piny woods of east Texas, where he was born at Leesburg on January 11, 1923. Leesburg had then, as now, a population of 150. Shelby had long since left the white frame house of his Leesburg boyhood, and now he sat in his own big, comfortable brick home in the pleasant University Park section of Dallas.
He got up from the breakfast table and walked into his Texas-sized den, tossed a glance at the clutter of trophies there and stretched out on a Texas-sized couch. He picked up a cigaret lighter, flicked it, choked the flame and repeated the motions sporadically.
March 25, 1957
"I guess you could say I've always liked to go fast," he said with a grin. "My parents were pretty strict—no liquor or tobacco, church every Sunday—but my dad liked to go fast, too. He was a rural mail carrier—drove a 1928 Whippet to deliver the mail—and I started to ride along with him as soon as I was old enough, egging him on to go faster. He didn't need much urging.
"We moved to Dallas when I was 6. I still remember that trip—120 miles and the Whippet flew all the way. I sat in the front seat needling Dad to speed up. At top speed—that was 55 to 60—we passed everything on the road.
"When I was 7 I started having a leakage of the heart. After that I was in bed most of the time, except for school, until I was 14. By that time I had outgrown it."
Shelby called into the kitchen.
"Mama, would you bring some coffee?"
Jeanne Shelby poured two cups, and her husband settled back, sipping.
"Back in 1938 I had a Willys that dad gave me because I beat it up so much he didn't want it any more. I raced everybody who wanted to race. I used to take that Willys down to a railroad yard and drive it over a hump at 70 mph. One night the police caught me. They took me home to my daddy, and after that I didn't drive for six months."
Shelby put down his cup and saucer and chuckled at a sudden memory.
"You should have seen me in April of 1941 when I enlisted in the Air Corps. I was only 5 foot 2 and weighed about 100 pounds. I had to eat a dozen bananas just to pass the physical. In the next year, though, I grew seven or eight inches." (Shelby is now 6 feet tall; he weighs about 160 pounds.)
"In four years in the service the farthest I got from Texas was Denver. I drove a crash truck at Randolph Field for a while. Then I learned how to fly and became a flying sergeant. A few months later, in December of 1942, I was commissioned. I spent most of the war flying twin-engined training planes for bombardiers, but toward the end I was an engineering officer and test pilot."
The war years were significant for Shelby in several ways. He was going fast (Sunday restlessness could be purged by taking out a plane and buzzing the antelopes on a number of vast Texas ranches, an activity that did not endear Shelby to his superiors); he married Jeanne Fields, a former schoolmate and the daughter of a well-to-do independent oilman; and he discovered again that he was lucky. Twice he had serious trouble in the air—once he was forced to bellyland a disabled plane and once he bailed out of a plane that caught fire—but was not injured.
After the war Shelby went into a trucking and ready-mixed-concrete business with a boyhood chum named Bailey Gordon who, now an airlines pilot, remains his closest friend. Two years later he began a short, unhappy episode of roughnecking in his father-in-law's oil fields. ("I didn't like the seven-day week and the monotony of it.") Subsequently, he got out of a chicken business, too, when he lost 40,000 of 70,000 broilers in three days.
Shelby lunged to his feet.
"Say, doesn't that coffee make you nervous? Let's go over to Burney Russell's."
As we got into his station wagon Shelby grinned at a small sticker on the inside of the windshield, which read, CAUTION—DO NOT FLY. We did not fly the 30 miles to Burney Russell, who lived in Fort Worth and turned out to be a highly regarded local sports car mechanic. A car Shelby was going to drive in Florida and Cuba had come through from California the night before; he wanted to check the spare tires and wheels that would be sent from Russell's place later.
After a Howard Johnson's sandwich and the short ride home, Shelby paced in the den. He picked up a pair of asbestos driving shoes and mused, "I'll have the purtiest feet in the coffin.... Well, the first time I really got involved in racing after the war was in May of 1952. I saw my friend Ed Wilkins in a little MG one day and told him to come around to the house. He let me drive the car in a race at Norman, Okla. That was my first sports car race, and I won it. In those days I didn't know anything about style or technique; I just drove. All I'd ever done in the racing line was to drive midgets a few times."
In the next year Shelby, who has never owned a sports car himself, won a number of minor Sports Car Club of America races. When the SCCA in 1954 chose four U.S. drivers to compete for the Kimberly Cup against four Argentinians in the big sports car race at Buenos Aires, Shelby joined Phil Hill, Masten Gregory and Bob Said on the American team. Shelby won the cup with the by then very tired Cadillac-Allard of Roy Cherryhomes, a Texas rancher and frequent Shelby backer.
Shelby's good showing in Argentina earned him a minor position on the English Aston Martin professional sports car team. He astonished the English in his first European drive by placing second to the Le Mans winner, Duncan Hamilton, in an Aston Martin DB3S, in an important race on the Aintree course. Next, at Le Mans, co-driving a DB3S with the Belgian Paul Frere, Shelby came into the pits to check a tire; when the mechanics jacked up the car the axle broke. That was all for Le Mans. In his remaining 1954 European events the irrepressible Texan drove well; fifth in the Supercortemaggiore classic at Monza, Italy; third in an English race at Silverstone.
More important, he had come under the tutelage of John Wyer, racing manager for Aston Martin. Now he began to smooth the rough edges.
"John Wyer made fewer mistakes than anyone I've ever seen," said Shelby, nicking the lighter aflame absently. "He taught me that no wild, crazy-driving fool gets to the top. You have to plan each race and drive as you plan it. He taught me how to plan for myself."
The door opened to admit two visitors—Mr. and Mrs. Allen Guiberson. Guiberson, a wealthy Dallas oilman and automobile aficionado who shares a handsome office with Shelby, had been maneuvered into a dark suit and off to a wedding.
"Doesn't he look nice in that suit?" Marion Guiberson asked.
"Just fine," Jeanne Shelby said.
"Where are the children?" Mrs. Guiberson inquired.
"Oh, they went to a Fess Parker movie," Mrs. Shelby said.
"So did my 7-year-old."
While the women talked woman talk, Guiberson reminisced with Shelby about the old days—in particular about the time Cannonball Baker drove crosscountry while shackled to the steering wheel of a car, on behalf of C. C. Pyle. ("Cash and Carry Pyle," said Guiberson, "was the greatest press agent in the history of automobile racing.")
After the Guibersons left, the Shelby children, Sharon Ann, 12, Michael Hall, 10, and Patrick Bert, 9, came trooping in, wearing Levis.
Following brief greetings, they dispersed with Indian swiftness; Shelby picked up the lighter and his narrative.
"Remember the Pan-American road race in 1954? I was driving a little Austin-Healey on the second day, lying third over-all to [Umberto] Maglioli and [Phil] Hill. I guess I got smart-alecky. I started driving too fast, trying to catch up with the leaders, and flipped on a curve. It was just a lucky thing that I happened to go off at a place where there was a wall along the road, because the mountain went straight down. The wall stopped the car. I shattered my right elbow in the wreck. It didn't hurt too much at the time; I guess I was in shock. But I had to lie there beside the road for six hours until all the cars went by.
"Some Indians came along and poured beer over my head to wake me up. Gave me a drink of it, too. After a couple of hours two girls from New York City came by and gave me some brandy. Can you imagine that? From New York City. They had been watching the race up ahead and came back when another driver—it was either Walt Faulkner or Bill Vukovich—stopped and told them about the accident. After all that I got the dangdest ride of my life in a Mexican ambulance, going down to the hospital at Pueblo.
"I drove my next four races with my arm in a cast. One of them was Sebring in 1955 in Allen Guiberson's Ferrari, when they told Phil and me we had won and then changed their minds right away and gave the race to the D Jaguar.
"My regular doctor had put a plaster of Paris cast on my arm. When I'd drive, I'd have another doctor cut off that cast and put on a lighter one. I'd put my hand on the steering wheel, and then he'd slap on a quick-drying cast made of something like Fiberglas. I paid for it, though. They had to take a bone out of my leg to rebuild my elbow. That's why my golf isn't so good any more."
Jeanne Shelby answered the doorbell and admitted Skitch Henderson, the bandleader, and his former business manager, a Dallas man named Ken Moore.
"Hello, Carroll," Henderson said. "Well, what will you have for Sebring?"
"A Maserati, I think, Skitch," he answered.
"I found a good mechanic for my Lotus Eleven," Henderson said. "It really goes now. I should be able to race it at Cumberland [Md.] in May."
"Just how fast will that Locust of Skitch's go, Carroll?" Moore queried.
"Oh, 135 or 140, I guess," Shelby said.
Moore registered dismay.
"They let Skitch drive a car that goes that fast—in a race? Did you ever see him drive? Remember that time, Skitch, when we were driving between jobs out west? The moonlight was as bright as the light in this room. You could see for 30 miles. All of a sudden there's this deer on the highway and Skitch knocked it 9,000 feet down the road. I hate to think of all the traffic tickets we paid."
"Worth every penny," Henderson said, stroking his Vandyke beard reflectively, "every penny."
Henderson and Moore left directly; Shelby sat down in the den once again.
He recalled his 1955 European season, during which he drove a Ferrari in the rugged Sicilian Targa Florio, placed sixth in his first Grand Prix car ride at Syracuse, and survived a gruesome accident in the renowned Tourist Trophy sports car race at Ulster, Northern Ireland.
"Masten Gregory and I were driving a Porsche Spyder at Ulster. I took it out first, just moseying around, trying to get the feel of the course. On the second lap I went over the blind hill they call Deer Leap—you take off into the air for a few feet—and it looked like the road in front of me was on fire. I thought, 'Shelby, there comes a time when you do or you don't,' and just kept going. My car hit an engine that had been jolted out of one of the cars that caught fire, but I got through O.K. It just singed my eyebrows a little. I think that was the only time I was really scared in a race."
Five cars were in that accident; two drivers died in it. Shelby and Gregory, not to be dissuaded, won the 1,500-cc. class with the singed Porsche.
In 1956 Shelby stayed in the U.S. He drove a fine race at Sebring with the Briton Roy Salvadori for Aston Martin. The gearbox rebelled after the first hour and a half, so the pair completed the remaining 10½ hours using top gear only—and still managed to gain fourth place.
Then Shelby blitzed the SCCA schedule, winning 40 races (including 18 feature events) while losing six. From Brynfan Tyddyn, Pa. to Palm Springs, Calif. he was almost invincible, setting records in profusion. His dashes up the slopes of Mt. Washington, Giant's Despair and the Cumberland, Md. ascent were the fastest ever.
And nearly everywhere the Texan wore the bibbed, striped carpenter's overalls that have become his homely trademark.
"I picked those up for $3 at J. C. Penney's when I was in the chicken business," Shelby said. "They're getting pretty frazzled and worn out now."
The visitor wanted to know if Shelby had a theory of driving.
"I haven't really thought about it," Shelby said, "but there are more problems than just going like Jack the Bear. The most dangerous drivers are the hot shoes without much experience who try to drive the powerful machinery before they're ready. It's best to start with a small production car and become thoroughly familiar with it before moving up.
"Other than trying to be relaxed all the time, I have no particular style. I will say that driving requires great concentration. The problem is to be relaxed while you are concentrating. I'm not really superstitious, but I think the overalls and the St. Christopher's medal I wear around my neck help me get in the right frame of mind.
"As for the car itself, I like to have the accelerator between the clutch and the brake. I'm kind of slew-footed, so the natural movement of my right foot works best that way.
"Going into a slow corner I go down through the gears, getting into second as I enter the corner. Everybody says you're not supposed to brake or change gear in a corner, but I do. If it is a very slow corner there is no use slipping or sliding around it. I always try not to break the rear end loose. I like to go into a corner slow and come out fast. That way I can get back on the accelerator fast and smooth. The only time I break a car loose is when I'm going too fast into a corner; then broadsliding the car is the best way to slow it down quickly.
"I like to take a high-speed corner best because it is the most difficult. Most of the mistakes in racing are made in fast turns. Most people tend to throw the car into a four-wheel drift right away, but I think the best and fastest way is to keep the rear wheels following the front wheels as long as possible in the widest possible arc. Then when you have to go into a drift the drift will carry you through the rest of the corner as fast as your adhesion will allow you to go.
"On the straight, if you have a cross wind, you have to remember not to clutch the wheel. A cross wind can knock you sideways seven or eight feet. If you fight the wheel or hold the wheel very tightly, the car will wander because the steering is so quick. You must hold the wheel very, very gently."
The Texan stretched and eyed his glittering trophies for a moment. "I'm going to see just how far I can go in racing," he said. "When it stops being fun, I'm going to get out of it."