19 Things You Didn’t Know About Shelby
Editor’s note: This article was originally written by our friends at Supercompressor, and it’s fantastic, so we thought you’d like to learn a bit more about Carroll Shelby and his incredible cars.
As a world-renowned race car driver and an even more legendary car builder, Carroll Shelby and Shelby American are absolute icons of the American automotive psyche, and this year a Cobra Daytona became the first car considered to be a piece of national heritage by the Library of Congress, so when Shelby American let us take a peek at over 60 years’ worth of Shelby history in their photo archive, we couldn’t resist. Here’s the best of what we found:
1. Carroll Shelby, one of the manliest men to ever live, was a hopeless romantic
Fact-based legend has it that he spent WWII as a flight instructor just outside of San Antonio, and on longer missions he would drop love letters stuffed in leather boots out of his plane when flying over his fiancé’s farm.1
2. Before he was 30, Carroll was one of the best drivers in the world
His first-ever road race was in 1952, when he took a woefully underpowered British MG to a race in Oklahoma, beating everyone in his engine class before destroying the vastly superior Jaguar XK120 class above him. Needless to say, it was onwards and upwards from there.
3. Shelby single-handedly made overalls cool
He later claimed that they were more comfortable during a long race, but they were actually just the workwear he wore on his chicken ranch. One day he went straight to the track from the ranch, causing an uproar from the crowd and crews. Ever the marketer, the overalls stuck.
4. He was tougher than your old man
In 1955, he co-drove the 12 Hours of Sebring with a hand that was so badly broken they had to make a special fiberglass cast, then tape it to the steering wheel just so he could steer the car.
5. And he was tougher than your grandpa, too
In 1959, he was driving for Aston Martin when he came down with dysentery just before the 24 Hours of Le Mans. He still won. “I didn’t eat anything for 24 hours apart from dysentery tablets. Then we won the race and — oh my God — they suddenly stuck a champagne bottle in my mouth and it sent me a bit loopy”.2
6. Speaking of champagne, he helped invent the victory spraying ritual
No one had ever shaken up a bottle of bubbly to celebrate a victory before Ford GT40 driver Dan Gurney spontaneously sprayed everyone nearby. Guess who was right next to him whispering in his ear? Shelby.
7. Unsurprisingly, he was a cardiologist’s worst nightmare
Shelby became notorious for popping nitroglycerin tablets to ease chest pains from a chronic heart condition. But in his final race at Laguna Seca (pictured above in his “Birdcage” Maserati), he clinched the championship by finishing second, then promptly complained to the press that he would have won the damned thing had he not had to slow down to take his heart medications while driving.
8. He literally invented the Cobra in his dreams
Shelby frequently had ideas in the middle of the night and would forget them by morning, so he kept a pencil and paper by his bed. One morning he woke and found he’d written the word “Cobra.” Pictured above is the first test car. Genesis.
9. Carroll really didn’t like Enzo Ferrari
In the fifties Shelby had frequently driven for the Italian Stallion before severing his relationship with the brand. After the deaths of several drivers including his friend Luigi Musso, at the ’58 French Grand Prix, Shelby made it his personal mission to spurn Enzo, blaming him personally for the deaths of his buddies.
10. That beef with Enzo lead to the birth of the legendary Cobra Daytona, which strangely used WWII-era German tech to beat Ferraris on European tracks
Using a theory originally developed by the Nazis(!?!), the Cobra Daytona (pictured above) had a slick aerodynamic profile that blew the competition away on the longer European tracks. On shorter tracks, they used the less aerodynamic FIA Cobra (the one that you know from the poster on your childhood bedroom wall). The combination of the two allowed them to dominate the leaderboard, leading Shelby to destroy Enzo in the FIA World Sportscar Championship, as the first American manufacturer to ever win it. Unsurprisingly, the technology Shelby used immediately became the benchmark for success.
11. The Shelby Mustang almost never happened
Ford wanted to race Mustangs in the Sports Car Club of America race series, but the SCCA (which had been Corvette dominated) didn’t want to be bossed around by another manufacturer and wouldn’t listen to Ford’s request to change the rules. Ford then drafted Shelby in to reshape the image of the Mustang (read: make it insanely powerful) and to leverage his diplomacy skills within the organization. Shelby ended up obliging as a thank you for the financial support he’d received from Ford for the Cobra program.
12. The GT40 was too small for its driver Dan Gurney
Shelby and Ford got the best drivers of their day to get behind the wheel of the legendary GT40s, like Bruce McLaren (yes, that McLaren) and Dan Gurney (shown here with Shelby at Sebring), who was too tall to physically sit in the car, so they added a bubble in the top of the door to fit his six foot four inch frame.
13. Despite popular belief, not all Cobras were great in the corners
The Dragon Snake was purely in the straight line game, with a host of options dedicated to getting it down the quarter mile as quickly as possible. And parachutes.
14. The Supersnake Cobra was built as Shelby’s personal rocketship
In 1965, Carroll designed the Supersnake as the ultimate Cobra for his personal enjoyment, so it’s got two superchargers reaching out like the hands of God to force air past the carburetors and pump out nearly 800 hp.
15. Oh and that Supersnake? It was too much for Bill Cosby to handle
Shelby only made one other Supersnake for his (totally random) buddy Bill Cosby, who nearly died trying to control it and promptly gave it back. The guy who ended up buying it after him did die when, while trying to control it, he went flying off a cliff on the Pacific Coast Highway, landing in the Pacific Ocean.
16. At one point you could order a Cobra with an automatic transmission
We’re not sure why you would, but you could, and 16 people did.
17. He had an unreasonably deep love for chili
Urban legend has it that Shelby once almost hit a chef for putting beans in his chili, but his chili passion ran far deeper than that. All those Cobras and Mustangs that say Terlingua on the side? He owned 220,000 acres in West Texas near the town of Terlingua, where he co-founded the world’s first chili cook-off. It still runs to this day, alongside his eponymous chili brand, available nation wide.
18. Chili’s the restaurant exists because of Carroll
Larry Levine, the founder of Chili’s, was Carrol’s son-in-law in the early seventies, and had gone to Terlingua’s cook-offs a few times before opening the first of the now-ubiquitous restaurants in Dallas.3 Think about that the next time you’re rolling up fajitas and slurping down a frozen strawberry margarita.
19. This is the fastest Shelby you’ve never heard of
It’s called the Cooper Monaco King Cobra. The chassis was designed by John Cooper, and Shelby did his thing with it, tossing in a Ford 289 V8. In a way, it was a precursor to the Lola-designed GT40, but despite its speed it was generally beaten by the cars that eventually evolved into the first Can Am racers. You know, the ones with the insane wings on top.
RIP Carroll. You were one awesome and crazy SOB.