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Car Show: Carroll Shelby Tribute at the Petersen Museum

Carroll Shelby Tribute at the Petersen Museum

Story by Richard Parks with parts compiled from several sources.

Petersen Automotive Museum, Los Angeles, CA
Wednesday, May 30, 2012
Photos by: Albert Wong

Carroll Shelby
Story by Richard Parks, with parts compiled from several sources
Photographs by Albert Wong
Photographic consultant Roger Rohrdanz


Carroll Shelby passed away recently at the Baylor University Hospital in Dallas, Texas on May 10, 2012 and his life was celebrated at a big gala at the Petersen Automotive Museum on May 30, 2012.  He was 89 years old and had seen the best and worst of the automotive racing era.  In fact, he helped to create a lot of the excitement in motor racing and he would look you straight in the eye and tell you that he had more failures than successes.  He would also tell you that without those failures you would never have had the success either.  He was unabashedly a positive and straightforward man.  But at the same time he knew and understood the value of self-promotion and what a good legend could do for one’s success.  He was as American as you could be.  He grew up in a rural part of Texas and dressed up in a farmer’s overalls.  He would tell everyone that he failed as a chicken farmer and was forced to turn to auto racing to make his fortune.  If you ask me he could have been a success as a chicken farmer or in anything else that he wanted to do in his life, but auto racing was where his heart lay.  To get there he had to work in the oil fields and fight in the Great War where he was a pilot and flight instructor during World War II.  He was good at everything he tried, though his failures were many.  He looked good failing as much as succeeding.  His will was indomitable.  He just knew he was going to make it and he left everyone around him with a feeling that if they stayed close enough that Carroll’s magic would rub off on them as well. 

     In 1952 he raced a MG TC in the road racing circuit and liked that as much as he did flying.  He did quite well in that MG, though it was his talent for racing more than the MG that made him achieve what he did.  His next car was an Allard J2 with a Cadillac engine and with that car he won at Caddo Mills, Texas in an SCCA race.  He liked the power of the big American power-plant mixed with a streamlined foreign import.  Caddo Mills was also a hotbed of drag racing and Shelby came to the attention of a man trying to organize the wild sport.  Wally Parks and Carroll Shelby became lifetime friends and for a time Shelby served as a vice-president of the fledgling National Hot Rod Association (NHRA).  Shelby and Paul Frere teamed up to race at Sebring and Le Mans in an Aston Martin DBR3 under John Wyer in 1954.  Shelby raced in the Carrera Pan Americana Mexico road race later in 1954, but crashed the Austin Healy that he was driving and was seriously injured.  He was a quick healer and was back at Sebring with Phil Hill as a co-driver in a 3 litre Monza Ferrari.  He had to tape his broken arm and hand to the steering wheel in order to compete.  His tough persona and excellent driving skills were recognized by many.  He was named the Driver of the Year in 1956 and again in 1957 by the magazine Sports Illustrated.  He won Le Mans in 1959 with Roy Salvadori in an Aston/Martin.  It looked like nothing would derail his rapid rise to being a star race driver.

     But in 1960 Doctors found that he had angina and a hereditary heart condition and told him to quit racing.  Stubborn to the end he finished out the season by winning the USAC championship and then retired on his own terms.  He would struggle with heart problems from then until the day that he died, but he never let his health slow him down.  He was the master here and his heart would just have to last.  He stayed close to racing.  He became a distributor for Goodyear Tires.  He hired Peter Brock to work as a driving instructor for a racing school that he started.  He had ideas for building his own version of a fast, powerful and aerodynamic sports car.  A year later in 1961, Shelby contacted AC Cars which was located in England and showed them his plans to create a V-8 powered sports car and AC gave him the contract.  He sold V-8 engines to Ford Motor Company with the help of Dave Evans, an old friend of his at the company.  Shelby purchased the race car team of Lance Reventlow.  Now he had a 260 cubic inch Ford V-8 and a chassis, plus Reventlow’s building in Southern California and was ready to start building race cars.  Phil Remington was one of those that came over from the purchase of the Reventlow business and he was to make the biggest impact on the new company.  Shelby tells people that he had a dream in which the new name for this car was to be Cobra.  The first car was named the CSX 2000 Cobra and was ready in April of 1962.  Shelby had the car painted a bright yellow, eye-catching color.   Always the promoter, he would have the car repainted a different color to give the press the idea that he had several versions of the race car.

     He named the company Shelby American and began to build a race car that dominated the racing scene.  He got Dan Gurney and Phil Hill to drive his cars and as they racked up victories the Cobra name and Carroll Shelby’s persona caught the public’s eye.  Ford Motor Company liked what Shelby was doing with their engines and saw how good Shelby was for publicity.  The partnership was also great for Shelby and in 1965 the Shelby Mustang GT350 was introduced to the public.  It thrived as a road course car in the B-production class and as a street machine.  My mother owned a Mustang and it was her favorite car.  Compared to the other cars of the era this was a sleek and powerfully built car.  He also produced the 427 cubic inch Cobra Roadster and the Cobra Daytona Coupe.  Bob Bondurant would win the Sebring 12 hour road race in a Coupe in 1965 and follow that victory up with many more wins.  The team that he assembled from the Reventlow Company would go on to build the Shelby GT500 and Trans-Am roadsters.  He also developed the Ford GT-40 car series.  The success of Ford and Shelby at this time was breathtaking in the speed at which they burst on the scene and dominated racing.  The GT-40 won the top three spots on the podium at Le Mans in 1966, leaving the foreign sports cars in their wake.  The bond between Henry Ford II and American racing had never been stronger.  Shelby won again at Le Mans in 1967.  But just as meteoric as his rise had been, by 1969 his deal with Ford was over. 

     Faced with pressure from smaller imported cars and a changing corporate view of backing motor racing, one car company after another cut their budgets.  Carroll Shelby found other ways to make money; he sold his own brand of Chili mix.  He founded the Shelby/Dowd wheel company four years after his deal with Ford ended.  He grew as he traveled around the world.  He went on big game safaris as a hunter and lived for a time in South Africa.  He was proud when the Shelby/American Automobile Club was created in 1976.  And he wasn’t forgotten.  Lee Iacocca had been hired in to bring back a financially ailing Chrysler Motors.  Lee had been forced out of Ford some time back and was eager to show his former company what he could do with the smaller automaker.  Iacocca had been the force behind the Mustang when he was at Ford and his ouster was as much a slap at him as it was at Shelby.  Lee and Carroll joined up again in 1982 and together they came out with faster, sleeker Omnis, Shelby Chargers, Lancers, Shadows and a Dakota pick-up truck.  These cars were very popular even on the drag strips and streets of America.  Shelby had found the old magic again.  He also helped with the Dodge Viper.  Snakes it seemed, was a lucky animal for Shelby. 

     He also had his first heart transplant at the beginning of the 1990’s, followed by a kidney transplant.  He was proud to say that he was the oldest and longest living double transplant patient in the world.  He also realized just how lucky he was to have the medical science so close to him in the United States.  He realized that other, less fortunate young people might not have that opportunity that he had for good health.  In the Shelby spirit he created the Carroll Shelby Children’s Foundation and put that good, ol’ Texas arm on many of his friends to find donations to help young people find and get the organ transplants that they needed for survival.  Not everything went well for him.  There were business deals that fell through and people that he trusted that let him down.  There were lawsuits and copyright cases.  He also fought to keep his legacy the way that he wanted it to be.  He even sued his old partner, Ford Motor Company, though most people felt Ford had betrayed the American motorist and deserved losing to Shelby.  If you wanted a fight, Shelby would give it to you.  If you wanted his help he would give that to you as well.  Some sued him and in turn he sued others.  You might say that he learned to excel in the courtroom just as he had in motorsports racing.

     His company designed the 1999 Series 1; a lightweight car with a 500 horsepower engine, but now he was living in another era.  Besides development problems there was a slew of government regulations and red-tape that had grown onerous over the years.  Corporate disagreements and other problems caused delays and the car was poorly received.  A Shelby motorcycle also failed to catch on.  But strange things happen when you live long enough.  In 2004 Ford came calling again and Shelby began working with his former partner on the GR-1 coupe, a throwback to the hugely successful Cobra Daytona Coupe.  There was also collaboration with Ford on the Ford GT brought out on the 100th anniversary of Ford Motor Company.  There were also new Mustangs, some of which were constructed in Shelby’s Las Vegas plant.  The old wounds have seemed to heal and Shelby admitted that he was blessed to be able to work with Ford again.  He also was inducted into the Automobile Hall of Fame and the International Motor Sports Hall of Fame among just a few of the honors that he has received.  Carroll Shelby was married twice and had three children from that marriage; Sharon, Michael and Patrick.  He was survived by his second wife, Cleo.

     The Petersen Automotive Museum and the Carroll Shelby Foundation held a gala Celebration of Life for Carroll Shelby on May 30, 2012 at the museum.  Around 700 of his family and friends came together to celebrate his life and to tell their stories about him.  Each person had an unique perspective of this great man.  Jay Leno was the emcee and moderator and the speakers included Edsel Ford II, Dan Gurney, Bill Neale, Bob Hoover and a young transplant patient from the Foundation that Shelby loved so much.  Bob Hoover was a flight training partner with Carroll in World War II and told the crowd about Shelby’s military history.  Some of the guests included; Bobbie Colgrove, Parnelli Jones, Scott Parks, Tony Thacker, Dusty Brandel, Linda Vaughn, Ed Justice Jr, Robert Bistagne, Don Zabel, Brian Dawson, Bruce Junor, Albert Wong, Bob Bondurant, Bruce Meyer, Don Prudhomme, Dave McClelland and Dutch Mandel.  Parnelli Jones won the Indy 500 in 1962 and had many duels with Rodger Ward.  Ward called Parnelli the most talented race car driver that he had ever raced against.  Scott Parks is the grandson of NHRA founder Wally Parks.  Linda Vaughn is the model and racing sportsperson that all young men grew up idolizing.  Ed Justice Jr is the president of Justice Brothers Car Care Products, hosts a radio show on racing, is an expert magician and has one of the best car racing museums to be found anywhere.  Bob Bondurant is a champion sports car racer and businessman.  Bruce Meyer was one of the first to realize the importance of restoring old race cars and has an outstanding collection.  Don Prudhomme was a champion drag racing driver and team owner.  Dave McClelland is well-known as a race car announcer and TV emcee.

     The museum hired Contemporary Catering and West Coast Beverage to provide the food and drinks and the chili was outstanding, just the way an ol’ Texan like Carroll would like it.  Jenny Dennis was in charge and kept the food flowing.  I spoke to Anthony Boosalis, who is a member of the Cobra Club of Los Angeles.  This club has 150 members and is one of many Cobra clubs throughout the United States and the world.  Anthony owns three original Cobras, two of which are on display at the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum in Pomona, California.  He told me that Shelby brought out the 262 and 289 cubic inch Cobra in 1962 and the more powerful 427 cubic inch V-8 powered Cobra in 1965.  He also told me that the Shelby Company also built ten Dragonsnakes for drag racing.  Tony Thacker was there with a friend, Walter Miller.  Walter is a TV and movie producer who would like to develop a project on car racing.  Thacker was the director of the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum.  He is now working to establish a brand new car museum in Portland, Oregon.  He laughed when I told him that the rumors have it that he is working for a t-shirt company.  “I’m enjoying what I’m doing now,” he told me.  “The pressure of running the Motorsports museum is gone,” and he seemed at ease and cheerful.  Tony will be missed by many as he was a very competent director.

     Besides the guests mentioned there were more of Shelby’s close friends in attendance, including; Ginny Dixon, Don Weaver, Michael Rose, Tim Considine, William Edgar, Bob Tasca Jr, Bob D’Olivo, Rob Kinnan, Walter Miller, Phil Remington, Harry Hibler, Philippe de Lespinay, Douglas Magnon, Alice Hanks, Vic and Nancy Edelbrock, Jerry Pitt, Jay Leno, Dave Kunz, Doyle Gammell, Ed and Sylvia Pink, Coby Gewertz, Ernie Nagamatsu, Michael Lynch, John Force, Scooter Patrick, Chip Foose, Henry Ford III, Dick Messer, Lee Iacocca, Barry Meguiar, Bob Meeks, Leon Kaplan and Denise McCluggage.  Ginny Dixon, Tim Considine (actor), William Edgar and Denise McCluggage are members of the Fabulous 50’s road racing group.  Lynch is a prolific writer on road racing.  John Force is the winningest driver in NHRA history.  Dick Messer is the former director of the Petersen Automotive Museum.  Chip Foose is a custom car builder of the first order.  Ernie Nagamatsu owns vintage racing cars including Ol’ Yeller.  Vic Edelbrock is a major speed equipment manufacturer.  Jerry Pitt and Rob Kinnan are editors and writers in the automotive racing field.  Carroll Shelby would approve of the party held in his honor and the laughter, humor and good will that we saw at his celebration.  I can still see Carroll and Wally Parks joking and laughing at the ‘good ol’ days.’  Both of them are gone now, but their spirit will never die as long as we remember them and what they stood for.

Gone Racin’ is at [email protected].

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