From Checkered Flag to Checkered Career, Carroll Shelby Takes All of Life's Curves Flat Out
Carroll Shelby peers intently into the glove compartment of his newly delivered four-wheel-drive van. “Shoot,” he says, “they forgot my radar detector.”
As Shelby fires up the engine, a passenger wonders just what he’s let himself in for. The man at the wheel, after all, is an auto racing legend, winner of three American driving championships and a slew of European events including the ultimate mind-and-ma-chine mauler, the 24 hours of Le Mans. This is also the man who planted a fearsome Ford V8 engine in a nimble roadster and called the combination a Cobra, an explosive package now worth at least 10 times what prescient car buffs paid for it back in the ’60s. Then there were the Shelby-modified GT 350 Mustangs, so hip that James Garner drove one in the 1966 Cinerama eyepopper Grand Prix.
But that was ages ago. The man in the driver’s seat now is a white-haired, bespectacled grandfather with 64 years on his odometer and the scars of two open-heart operations on his chassis. In February he was inducted into the Automobile Hall of Fame. He was chosen to drive the pace car at Sunday’s Indy 500, a ceremonial job requiring discipline and restraint. Surely he’s closer to needing a pacemaker than a radar detector.
Wrong. Within moments Shelby is twisting along the back roads of East Texas at a hair-raising 80 miles an hour. Steering with one hand, he pivots in his seat to point out local landmarks. His reaction to stop signs is selective. Only one thing slows him down.
“Oops, there’s a sheriff,” he says, throttling down to 60 or so.
A cruise-control temperament has never been on Shelby’s list of standard equipment. At present he operates a high-tech Brahman cattle-breeding center on part of 4,000 acres he owns in and around Pittsburg, Texas. Customers come from as far as Thailand to stock their herds. For pleasure he raises miniature horses, which command up to $40,000 apiece at market.
Last October, Shelby sold Carroll Shelby Industries—an automobile wheel-making company with factories in McKinney, Texas and Gardena, Calif.—to Philips Industries for $15 million. He still owns the Goodyear Racing Tire distributorship for 14 Western states, and at Shelby Automobiles in Whittier, Calif., 10 Shelby-modified Dodge Lancers roll off the assembly line every day. The Shelby American Museum, scheduled to open in 1988 in Dallas, will display 70 models of Shelby-designed-and-raced Cobras, Mustangs and Ford GTs.
Then there is the chili powder. In 1976 Shelby drummed up a chili cook-off to help sell a ranch he owned in the one-horse Texas town of Terlingua. When that became an annual event, he began handing out—and later marketing internationally—Carroll Shelby’s Original Texas Brand Chili Preparation—little brown packets of flour and spices promising to “shake the meanness out of the most ornery, leather-mouthed chili-head that ever was born.”
“He wants to be the best,” says Texas cattleman Monty Banks, “and he wants to do it fast.”
When Shelby was 9 and his family was living in Dallas, he learned he had a heart murmur and was forced to rest each afternoon while his playmates ran free. He’s spent the rest of his life making up for that. With the blessing of his father, a postman, he cut high school classes to hang around “bull rings,” the dirt ovals where the locals raced stock cars. After serving as a test pilot and flight instructor during World War II, Shelby trucked building supplies to the burgeoning Dallas suburbs before making a profitable move into chicken farming. Then, in 1951, an outbreak of Newcastle disease wiped out his stock in two days. “I said, ‘To hell with it,’ ” he recalls. ” ‘I’ve always wanted to drive race cars. I’m going to do it.’ ”
Competing in his bib overalls and black cowboy hat against titled playboys in silks and leather, he became one of the world’s best-known and most colorful drivers. The glory days lasted until 1960, when angina attacks forced Shelby to do what two brutal crashes hadn’t: quit driving. He shifted gears without missing a beat. “What I wanted to do was build an automobile,” he says. In 1964 the Shelby Cobra became the only American sports car ever to beat Ferrari and win the GT class of the World Manufacturer’s Championship. It also inspired the popular Shelby GT 350 Mustangs, a collaboration with Ford.
But when Shelby saw the muscle car era begin to fade in 1970, he broke off with Ford and split for Africa, where for the next six years he ran big-game safaris. After attending a particularly bloodthirsty “sportsmen’s meeting” in 1980, he was conscience stricken enough to quit hunting completely. “I must have shot over a hundred elephants [over the years],” he admits. “I wasn’t very proud of myself.”
These days Shelby has plenty of places to hang his hat. He rents a house in Bel Air, Calif. and owns a vacation home on Lake Tahoe, a three-bedroom condo in Dallas and two islands of 20,000 acres each off Mexico’s Pacific coast. He breeds cattle on one and fishes off the other, scouting his 5,000 acres of dunes and 40 miles of private beach on an all-terrain vehicle.
Yet there is one thing Shelby doesn’t have. Back in the ’40s, when he was in the Army Air Corps, he wooed his future bride, Jeanne Fields, by dive-bombing her Dallas lawn with love letters tucked inside airman’s boots. When their daughter and two sons were growing up, Shelby admits, “I didn’t have time for my children much. I wasn’t a very good parent; I had a pretty unhappy home life.” He and Jeanne were divorced in 1960, and now, Shelby says, “she doesn’t speak to me.”
In his own way Shelby is doing what he can to make up for the bad times. In Holly Springs, Texas, 10 miles down the road from his Pittsburg ranch, he has dammed a spring to form a 60-acre lake where his children and seven grandchildren—and someday their children—will be able to fish and play. Not your garden variety backyard project, Shelby’s earth-and-clay dam rises 32 feet and spans a gorge 600 feet wide. Nearby, in the kitchen of his Holly Springs ranch, Shelby makes corn-bread and chili for guests and serves it himself, buffet-style, by the family room fireplace. At night he beds down with an armload of automotive magazines and reads himself to sleep as a Mozart or Jim Reeves cassette plays on the night table. He rises early and makes about 50 calls a day, keeping tabs on his investments and interests. Among the latter are a pair of lawsuits—one against a former chili associate whom Shelby accuses of copying his bag design, the other seeking $30 million from Ford for using the GT 350 name on its 20th-anniversary Mustang.
Lest the pressures of such matters leave him feeling his age, Shelby will hop into his staid-looking but formidably souped-up Chrysler Fifth Avenue and go looking for yuppies at stoplights. Cradling his cellular phone on his left shoulder, Shelby slouches in his seat to show his white hair, then begins gunning his engine. When the light changes, Shelby buries the competition in a cloud of smoking rubber. “Porsche and BMW drivers are arrogant,” he says with a big Texas laugh. “I love to blow them off.”