Texas, Louisiana, California, Wisconsin, Virginia, Nassau, Oahu, up in Seattle, down in Havana. The times were good or bad according to the cars and who they belonged to and how well they ran. I won without a clutch at a California airport called Cotati and crashed hard in practice for the Riverside opener. Phil Hill would beat me, and I’d beat him. I wore bib overalls and ate my steak cooked through. I had a wife and kids and bills to pay, and drove to win the race and the respect of my car owners. It was the time of my life – but not always.
The Tourist Trophy in 1955 on the seven-mile Dundrod Circuit was a bad one. It was the only time I drove a Porsche, the four-cam RS that Huschke von Hanstein wanted Masten Gregory and me in – two Americans teamed in a works spyder in rain-drenched Ulster trying to stay clear of Neubauer’s faster 300SLRs. Moss in the Mercedes beat Hawthorne and the D-types, and Masten and I were first in class ahead of two other team Porsches. But three drivers were killed, and Jean Behra lost an ear, on that dicey course. The TT was never run there again.
Right after, I went to Sicily to drive the Targa Florio in Tony Parravano’s Monza along with a co-pilot named Gino Munaron, who had been hand-picked by Enzo. I learned the Targa by the seat of my pants, practising two weeks straight in Tony’s 2-litre Alfa. Four thousand miles later, I was thinking it could be my favourite long-distance event. On race day I did the first three of 13 45-mile laps and was running fifth when Munaron took over and drove the Monza into a ravine.
We won a lot, lost some. Phil grabbed the 500-miler at Elkhart Lake when I should have been in John’s stronger 450S Maserati instead of the 300S, trying to save the big Maser V8 for Riverside. We learned our lesson and took the V8 to Virginia and won the inaugural there, then I stuffed it into a berm warming up for Riverside and didn’t drive the 450S again until the SCCA National there two months later. I’ve mentioned that win already as being one of my best drives ever after spinning out.
Riverside was a fine European-type circuit and I think one of the best we had in America in those days. There was a Grand Prix there in November 1960 after I’d already quit driving because of my heart – angina pectoris. Moss won from pole, followed by ol’ Innes Ireland in another Lotus 18-Climax. That Riverside race brought the world’s best to the States – McLaren, Brabham, Bonnier, Salvadori, von Trips, Gendebien, Graham Hill, Surtees, Clark – to go against Phil Hill, Dan Gurney and Jim Hall. In sixth place Phil was the best American, with Hall next. But I’d already had my big day at Riverside earlier that year in April.
It was called the Examiner Grand Prix after its sponsoring Los Angeles newspaper that was always on hand to write race reports for its readers – not every paper’s aim back then. I was driving Lucky Casner’s Birdcage Maser for his Camoradi team. I remember it was hotter than hell, over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and I eased through the early laps behind Gurney, then got on it, knocking off seven seconds every time around. I took the lead and others fell out, including the Scarab. There was never a better-running Birdcage and I stroked it on home and won ahead of Ken Miles’ Porsche RS60 and Pete Lovely’s 250 Testa Rossa. It also made possible my 1960 USAC Road Racing Championship.
After the April Riverside race there was a dispute about prize money and who should get it – Casner’s Camoradi Team or me. We couldn’t agree on the spot, but Casner and I finally settled and I never drove for him again. Six months after that win, my last victory as a driver, I had to swallow nitroglycerin while racing another Birdcage owned by Frank Harris at Laguna Seca, and that was it for me. My years at the wheel were over.
I see the young drivers coming up today with their flawless cars and all the safety equipment we didn’t have when I was driving. What can I tell them? I used to say that to be good you had to get hurt first. Now, you listen and learn and keep your senses while you drive, but do it with the same determination that in those earlier days could have broken bones and drawn blood. It’s all the same, really, except today there’s a cushion there.
Texan-born Shelby retired from racing in 1960 and went on to achieve immortality as the creator of the Shelby Cobra and Mustang. Never short of an opinion, he is still very much involved with the business of producing fast cars.