From Chicken Farmer to Racecar Driver: Carroll Shelby

From Chicken Farmer to Racecar Driver: Carroll Shelby

The racing world lost an icon last Thursday as Carroll Shelby went to that great garage in the sky. The 89 year old passed away at Baylor Hospital in Dallas, Texas. The native Texan had quite a life however. Born in Leesburg, Texas in 1923 the iconic Shelby grew up during the Great Depression. When World War 2 broke out, he signed up for the Army Air Corp and soon found himself flying as a trainer and test pilot. He also soon found himself addicted to the high speeds that would spark his love for racing. Returning home he took up chicken farming but never forgot his high speed days. Then one day in 1952 he decided to enter a local race. He drove a ragged little MG TC and despite being outclassed by fancier cars, he managed to show up many of the other drivers. For Shelby it would change his life.

He soon upgraded to a more professional car, a Cadillac-powered Allard J2 and won his first real race in Caddo Mills, Texas. After that his reputation began to grow as he raced across the country and was soon approached by Aston Martin to race for them in Le Mans and Sebring. He was seriously injured in a race down in Mexico when he flipped his Aston Martin four times after hitting a rock but Shelby was not about to quit. His next race he was not fully recovered and had to wear a special caste and have his hand taped to the steering wheel. Sports Illustrated gave him back-to-back Driver of the Year Awards in 1956-1957. He won several races, the most famous being the 1959 Le Mans and the USAC driving championship. It was after that when he was forced into retirement by a heart condition he suffered from. It may have been the end of his racing days but not his love of cars.

He decided he wanted to build cars for himself and field his own racing teams so in 1961 he contacted AC Cars out of England to see if they would be interested in letting him modify two of their car chassis. Shelby loved the idea of combing the powerful (and more affordable) American V-8’s with the lighter and better handling frames of European makes. Fortunately, Ford had just come out with a new small block V-8 that Shelby thought would be perfect for his cars. Ford had been looking for something to take down the Corvette and even Ferrari, and they saw this as their big chance. In the New York Auto Show Shelby unveiled the first CSX 2000 Cobra. It wasn’t long before his cars were dominating the race tracks.

He went on to design the AC Cobra (Shelby cobra), the Daytona Coupe, GT40, and the famous Ford Mustang Shelby GT350 and Shelby GT 500. Nobody could be his cars and his teams won multiple races including the Sebring 12 hour, and most importantly, beating the top ranked Ferrari’s with a 1-2-3 finish in Le Mans in 1966. Shelby wanted car to beat the Corvette, what he got was a car that could beat anything.

His most famous public works are his designs for Ford with the Mustang. In 1965 the released the Shelby Mustang GT350 for both street and professional racing. Once again it dominated the competition and has created a lasting legacy for Ford. Even to this day, the Shelby Mustang is Ford’s top of the line model that boasts more power than anything else they make. It’s quite a tale for a guy who was originally raising chickens in Texas.