May 16, 2012
The essence of the Shelby Legacy will resonate in this business for years to come.
By Peter M. De Lorenzo
(Posted 5/12, 7:00 p.m.) Detroit. I am not going to rehash the story of Carroll Shelby, as that has been accomplished from all angles in the last few days. No saint by any means – thank goodness – and a larger-than-life Texas character, Carroll Shelby will be inextricably linked with the golden era of American road racing until the end of time. As it should be.
The essence of the Shelby Legacy to me is what Shelby and his band of California hot-rodding geniuses accomplished. It is simply mind-boggling to contemplate and a singular achievement that will stand the test of time. The birth of the Cobra and the subsequent five-year run of triumphs by Shelby American on the world racing stage will never be repeated or recreated in this era of ROI racing and corporate political hand-wringing.
How can it be? The time of Shelby and the rise of the Cobra represented such a different time and a different era for this country that there is no scenario that could be put together today that would even come close to it. This country was still very much on an upward trajectory, and the burning question back then was “Why not?” as opposed to today’s too-often-heard refrain of “Why bother?”
And the way things fell into place for Shelby was simply magical.
Think about it. Shelby was a retired race driver who really had nothing much else going on, except that he had an idea. And that idea was to stuff an American V8 into a lightweight foreign sports car chassis, thinking that he would be able to show the established powers that be in sports car racing a thing or three. That meant Ferrari – because Enzo had treated Shelby with such condescension back in Shelby’s driving days that he never forgot it – and Chevrolet and its Corvette, because Shelby gave GM first crack at his idea but was dismissed, being told Chevrolet would never authorize a competitor to the Corvette.
Brashly carrying that basic idea around with him like a crucible of hope, Shelby then heard that Ford had developed a new lightweight V8 with tremendous performance potential. And to say that the rest was history, glosses over the greatest era in American racing history.
There was absolutely zero chance that the Shelby Cobra would arrive meekly on the American scene. It was not only immediately the fastest sports car in America, it was an instant, in-your-face humiliation to Chevrolet, thanks to the fact that it was hundreds of pounds lighter than the now oh-so-stodgy Corvette.
But the Cobra was much more than that. There was an air of edgy, anti-establishment defiance about it that was simply unmistakable and that reflected back directly to Shelby himself, the black-hatted Texan who made a career out of operating on the edges of acceptability. I’m not so sure Ford really understood what they were getting themselves into, but when it became clear that Shelby’s hot little Cobra was the instant buzz of the automotive world, they didn’t spend much time hand-wringing about it.
And Ford deserves a lot of credit here. This was a company that committed to its “Total Performance” marketing campaign throughout most of the 60s and achieved victories around the world in virtually every major racing arena. They wanted to bury the once-conservative image of the company once and for all, and they did it in magnificent fashion. But perhaps the company’s greatest achievement during that era was that they let Carroll Shelby and his gang of racing iconoclasts do their thing.
Back to Shelby and that five-year period of momentous achievement. He relegated the Corvette to second-tier status literally overnight, both at the racetrack and on the street. GM’s Zora Arkus-Duntov had to come up with the incredible lightweight Corvette Grand Sport racers to counteract the Cobra but by then it was too late, because the racing world was about to make its wholesale shift to mid-engine racing cars. And Shelby repeatedly humiliated Ferrari on its home turf, racking up race wins at prestigious events all over Europe, until Shelby American became the only American racing organization in history to score a World Championship in sports car racing.
The fact that Shelby did it with his merry band of California hot-rodders and the best homegrown driving talent in American history made it all that much sweeter. It just can’t be stated enough: theirs was a singular achievement that will remain in the pantheon of great automotive performances for all time.
It may be sacrilege to some for me to say this, but what Shelby achieved after that (separating his car forays from his notable charitable contributions, of course) really didn’t come close to the achievements of that magnificent era, but then again, how could it?
And Shelby was careful – at least in his later years – to acknowledge that he had the pure luck to have some of the most talented people working with him in American racing history. That wasn’t always the case of course, unfortunately. The glowing remembrances upon his passing left an awful lot out, and for years it was no secret that Shelby left a bitter taste in the mouths of a lot of those talented individuals who contributed to his legacy, because not surprisingly, it was always about Carroll. But he made peace with his compatriots in due fashion, so there’s no need to dwell on it now.
What Shelby and his team were able to accomplish began with the fundamental and indelible concepts of creativity, ingenuity, dedication and perseverance. There were no shortcuts involved. Rather, it was a relentless desire to push the envelope as far as it would go and then go even further than that. And never, ever quit.
As I pointed out last week, success in this business will continue to be defined by the True Believers, those talented men and women in product development, engineering and design who actually are involved with making automobiles as great as they possibly can be on a day-in, day-out basis.
(The financial types can’t do it - in fact, they were never meant to do it. It’s just that too many in this business have lost sight of that fact or don’t want to ascribe to the reality of that statement. But it’s a High-Octane Truth that will remain self-evident in this business indefinitely.)
As for those True Believers in this business actually charged with the responsibility of making great cars, they need to only look as far as the original True Believers – the quintessential “maverick” Carroll Shelby and his heroic collection of hot-rodder geniuses – for inspiration.
They did it their way.
And they did it with a passion and dedication that I believe will resonate in this business for many years to come.
It’s the Carroll Shelby Legacy that I prefer to remember the most, and the one that will endure the longest.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
(Photos courtesy of the Ford Racing Archives)
Carroll Shelby drives a Ferrari 4.9 (next to Marvin Panch in his No. 98 Ford "Battlebird") at the New Smyrna Beach Airport Races, in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, in 1957.
Dan Gurney and Carroll Shelby talk before a night pit stop at the 12 Hours of Sebring in 1966.
Ford's Don Frey and Carroll Shelby at the end of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, in 1967. Dan Gurney and A.J. Foyt dominated in magnificent fashion in their Shelby American-entered Ford Mk. IV after the European press said they would break early.
Carroll Shelby at Le Mans in 1965.
The great Dan Gurney crests the hill in his Shelby American Cobra at the famed turn 7 at Riverside International Raceway (California) during a three hour endurance race in 1963.
The first Cobra 427 race car is readied for a Riverside test at Shelby American's Venice, California, facility in late 1964.
The first competition Shelby Mustang GT350 R is readied for a Riverside test in 1964.
Bill Krause at speed in the very first Cobra race car in its very first race during the L.A. Times Grand Prix in Riverside, California in late 1962. Krause was leading when the left rear hub broke and put him out of the race, but the writing was on the wall for Corvette: The Cobra was the new hot thing.
The first production Cobra being assembled at Dean Moon's shop in Sante Fe Springs, Calif., in 1962.
Venice, California, 1963. Carroll Shelby with the three Shelby American Cobra team cars that would win the 1963 USRRC Manufacturer's Championship, before they were shipped to Sebring.
One of the True Believers, brilliant race and development driver extraordinaire Ken Miles at the 24 Hours of LeMans, in 1966. Miles' contributing role in the success of Shelby American was almost incalculable.
Carroll Shelby at the wheel of a brand new Cobra production car in Venice, California, 1963.