Racing and performance car legend Carroll Shelby died today at the age of 89. Although the cause of death is not immediately known, Shelby had been hospitalized for unknown reasons for more than a month, and he had a long history of heart problems, including a heat transplant in 1990. Shelby is survived by Patrick, Michael and Sharon, his three children, his sister Anne Shelby Edison, and his wife Cleo.
Whether or not you realize it, Carroll Shelby made your life better. For you, it might have been purchasing a box of chili with his name on it, or watching a sports car race. It might have been going to your local classic car show and seeing a Shelby Cobra replica—or maybe even the real thing. For me, it was my 10-year-old self’s best attempt at drawing a car for his once-annual fundraiser art contest. And for my dad, it was standing in the lot of a Ford dealership deciding whether or not he wanted to buy a new 1969 Shelby Mustang GT350. For the sake of full disclosure, he eventually purchased an American Motors AMX.
But if there’s one thing Shelby did for each and every one of us, it’s that he helped instill a greater sense of American pride on an international stage.
Much like everything else storied from Texas, Shelby was larger than life. Following his time in the armed services as a flight instructor, Shelby got into racing in 1952, shuffling his time between his chicken farm and drag racing at first. He would go to sports car races, sometimes driving cars in his farm overalls if he was too pressed for time to change.
He continued racing up through 1960, despite suffering from a angina pectoralis, a heart condition, popping nitroglycerin pills in 24-hour-long endurance races like LeMans to stay awake—and stay alive. After his retirement from racing, he persuaded British automaker AC to allow him to shoehorn Ford V-8 engines into little Ace roadsters, transforming them into what we know as the Cobra. He eventually gained factory support from Ford, and his engineering staff had a large role in Ford’s performance car portfolio, with various Mustangs and the GT40 race cars, whether on the road or internationally competing against the best from Ferrari, Jaguar, Porsche, and Maserati.
For the next 30 years, Shelby built cars and worked with other companies, ending its relationship with Ford in 1970 and going on to tune special editions of Dodge vehicles, such as the Dodge Omni GLH—which stood for “goes like hell”—a predecessor modern sport compacts. Then, in 1990, when he was so weak he needed help even going to the bathroom, he finally got a new heart from a 38-year-old who suffered an aneurism while gambling in Las Vegas—a heart he never thought would come.
His heart condition had been so well-known that many news outlets kept an obituary on record to run just in case. “Dying wasn’t a big deal,” Shelby admitted in a 1993 L.A. Times interview. Brave words maybe, but to him it really wasn’t. He had been outrunning death for most of his life, 30 heart surgeries before finally getting his midlife tune-up.
Waiting for surgery, he recalled his delirious conversation with a doctor: “I thought I was getting the last rites. So I told this fella: ‘I’m really a little more Protestant than Hebrew,’” Shelby said to the bearded man. “He said: ‘I’m not a rabbi. I’m an immunologist just figuring out what to do. You’ve got pneumonia and a temperature of 105.’
Shelby was already an old man when he received his heart transplant, which prompted criticism that he “bought” his way to the front of the transplant line. Yet, he had no remorse in satisfying the politics of surgery with a wad of cash. “A heart transplant costs $300,000,” Shelby explained. “That cuts out a helluva lot of people right there. But I had the money. So they can charge the hell out of me and that way, every third or fourth one (transplant) can be a hardship case.”
It’s moments like those that fit the personality we knew as Carroll Shelby: Brash and rough around the edges, blunt, but always proud. He had a passion for helping those with heart disease with the Carroll Shelby Foundation, especially children. At charity events, he could be seen likely sporting his signature black 10-gallon hat.
Shelby was an innovator, a pioneer of sports car racing for the U.S. If it could be driven, he’d drive it. If it could be built, he built it. He pushed what America could make and how it could compete, with his influence being seen in everything from Ferraris to the Corvette. The Dodge nee 2013 SRT Viper was influenced by his work, as are the Ford Mustang Boss 302 and the Shelby GT500 that bears his name.
Carroll Shelby lived a full life. He was vital in making U.S. influence important on a world stage outside of space shuttles and cold wars.
“In 1960 they said I wouldn’t last another five years,” he said almost 20 years ago. “Then, every five years, some new procedure came along to keep me alive. If I can get 10 years I’ll be near 80 and that’s pretty good for a guy who at 40 didn’t think he would make it to 50.
“I could also die sitting here right now and I’d be a happy man.”
Source: Los Angeles Times, Motor Trend