Search

Carroll Shelby, Auto Racer MARCH 25, 1957

April 29, 2002
April 29, 2002

Table of Contents
April 29, 2002

Si Adventure
Pro Basketball
Inside

Carroll Shelby, Auto Racer MARCH 25, 1957

Twelve years ago it appeared that Carroll Shelby was finally
going to lose the foot-to-the-floor race against fate that he
had been running for more than three decades. Lying in a
hospital bed in Los Angeles with tubes sticking out of him, he
could feel life slipping away as his diseased heart seemed to
beat more faintly with each passing hour. After two teenage
patients on his floor died, Shelby, then 67, said a prayer,
promising that if he received a new heart, he would devote
himself to helping other potential transplant patients and
children with cardiac problems. Three weeks later Shelby got his
heart, transplanted from a 35-year-old man who had suffered a
fatal stroke in a Las Vegas casino. "They told me in 1960 that
I'd probably live five years," says Shelby, who is 79. "I had no
idea I'd live this long." He not only has survived but has also
thrived. And in 1991 Shelby started a foundation to help
increase awareness of the need for organ donations, particularly
for children.

This is an article from the April 29, 2002 issue Original Layout

A strapping Texan from Dallas who raced wearing overalls, Shelby
was in his 30s and driving on the Formula One circuit for the
English team Aston Martin when he first knew that the chest
pains he had been experiencing were serious. He began popping
nitroglycerin pills just to finish races, and in his 1959
victory at Le Mans he needed seven or eight hits to combat
dizziness and shortness of breath during the 24-hour race.
Having seen both of his parents die of heart disease in their
40s, Shelby retired from driving in 1960 and moved to the
hot-rod hotbed of Los Angeles to focus on building his own cars.
His father, Warren, had been an automobile buff, a postman who
buzzed over his route in a 1928 Whippett, and Shelby had grown
up mesmerized by cars. Later, while racing throughout Europe,
he'd studied the innovations of Maserati, Porsche and Ferrari;
he also became close friends with Ferrari founder Enzo Ferrari's
son Dino, with whom he shared many discussions about race car
design before Dino died of muscular dystrophy in 1956 at age 24.

Back in the U.S. in 1961, Shelby met up with a young executive
at Ford named Lee Iacocca. Shelby proclaimed that he could build
a car that would outperform Chevy's Corvette. Iacocca loaned him
$25,000 to begin development on a machine that Shelby envisioned
would combine a lightweight European-sports-car-style chassis
with an American-style V-8 engine. "When you try to put 300
horsepower in a car designed for 100, you learn what development
means," says Shelby, who recalls that his early prototypes would
break apart because of the tremendous force exerted on the
fragile frames. Eventually, though, Shelby's creation,
christened the Cobra, would become what is widely considered the
ultimate American sports car, with about 1,000 built between '62
and '66. Under Iacocca, Shelby also contributed to the
development of the Mustang, a special edition of which, the
Shelby Mustang, is now a collector's item. On the racetrack Ford
not only blew by Corvette but also went on to topple Ferrari,
winning Le Mans in 1966 and '67 and the world manufacturers
championship in '66.

Shelby left Ford in 1970, weary of the constant travel, still
plagued by heart trouble and exasperated with increasing safety
concerns and emissions constraints that in his view impeded
performance and left cars "no fun." He spent the next 11 years
in Africa, moving from Angola to Mozambique to the Central
African Republic, alternatively hunting big game and investing
in companies that put together expeditions. He might never have
returned to the U.S. but for a call from an old friend in 1981.
Iacocca, by then the CEO of Chrysler, persuaded Shelby to join
the company and to start designing the sorts of innovative cars
that had transformed Ford's image in the 1960s. Over the next
decade Shelby helped build such Chrysler/Dodge products as the
Charger, the Ram Pickup and the Viper. Then, in 1989, his doctor
told him that without a transplant he would be dead in less than
two years.

That transplant has allowed Shelby to return to building
automobiles and to develop the Carroll Shelby Foundation, which
has increased awareness of organ donations and raised more than
$1 million for patients' families. (As befits a Texan, he is
also a founder of the International Chili Society, a nonprofit
organization that sanctions chili cook-offs worldwide and over
the past 35 years has raised close to $1 billion for charities
such as the American Cancer Society and the National Kidney
Foundation.) Shelby, who has three children and six
grandchildren and lives in Bel Air, Calif., with his fourth
wife, Cleo, now develops cars through his own company, Shelby
American, which builds the new, critically acclaimed Shelby
Series 1 and two to three retro Cobras a week. He hasn't lost
his taste for a spirited fight: To protect his legacy, Shelby
has sued some of the close-to-100 carmakers that have tried to
produce replica Cobras. "I don't want my grandchildren to say
'Grandpa, I saw a Cobra, but you didn't make it,'" he says.
"I'll probably run out of money before I nail them all, but I'll
keep trying."

--John O'Keefe

COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT HALMI (COVER) The hard-charging Texan who built the great American sports car barely slowed down for a heart transplant.COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO MUSCLE MAN Shelby, here with a Cobra and a namesake Mustang, gave U.S. autos oomph.