Back in 1967, when I had 120,000 acres in West Texas on the Rio Grande River next to Mexico, we decided to have the first World’s Championship Chili Cookoff there—and the battle is still raging. It started in a little old ghost town called Terlingua. That was just after we’d won the ’67 Trans-Am Championship for Ford.
Building those race cars was hard work, but cooking a pot of chili was easy. Throw together a bunch of beef, onions, garlic, cumin, tomato sauce, beer and what all, then add enough red chili pepper to make it medium-fire or so hot you’ll cry. We wound up five years later packaging dried Carroll Shelby’s Chili Mix in brown paper bags and marketing it to the public, and got to be the biggest chili mix makers in the US before I sold it in 1986 to Kraft. The taste for it stuck—you can still buy Shelby chili-making kits today.
What caused me to think of this now is, we’ve just opened our big Shelby Corner Café in Las Vegas, Nevada, right next to our Shelby Automobiles facility and the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. It was NHRA drag racing weekend at the Speedway and lots of car people were there. Along with Bob Tasca and his Shelby GT500 pro-fuel dragster, Don “The Snake” Prudhomme came to our grand opening. The café has burgers and salads and bowls of that same Texas chili that I made famous in the ‘60s.
A couple of days after the café opened, I was off to Detroit to get the 2008 Automotive Executive of the Year Lifetime Achievement Award at the Athletic Club. It was a real honor to be there and have my name added to past winners like Henry Ford II, Roger Smith, and Lee Iacocca. The presenters said my energy and commitment amazes everybody—and that includes me, trying to keep up with myself at 85. They said I’m always pushing the envelope, as well as everyone in the industry, to new levels of performance. To me, that’s the healthiest thing anyone in this business of building performance cars can do. If you don’t, you die.
Getting back to the chili, Terlingua seemed to me the perfect place to have our first cookoff, so I formed the International Chili Society that started the world’s championships—and it’s still working. Terlingua’s spirit of daring and hell-raising came out of its mining days, and that inspired a lot of rebellious ideas we had for racing and how we went about it. Our Trans-Am title winning competition version of the notchback Shelby GT350 Trans-Am Mustang that year wore the Terlingua Racing Team name with black and yellow crest that team co-founder Bill Neale designed. It was a mean-looking rabbit with one paw raised, ready to fight. People were calling it ‘the prancing rabbit’ because of its yellow background like Ferrari’s emblem.
Since I owned the town, we even set up our own local government for Terlingua and ran it from restaurants and bars we knew up in Dallas. Our official Terlingua bird was a buzzard, but they never landed in Terlingua’s trees, because Terlingua didn’t have any trees. Ken Miles was the first to win a race in a Terlingua Racing Team Mustang, before Jerry Titus drove them, and Steve McQueen was a team member, too.
We were still a bunch of hot-rodders back then, and today we’re putting the Terlingua Mustang back in the spotlight by offering a 2008 V6 Shelby serial-numbered new car plus 00 Terlingua Racing Team package. There’s also a 525-horsepower 408 cubic inch continuation model priced at hundred grand. Forty years ago we put together the Terlingua Team to thumb our noses at the racing establishment, and now we want the new generation to have a taste of that anti-establishment attitude and make their own histories.
So much has happened already this year that it’s kept me running all the time. Motor Trend magazine named our 2008 Shelby Mustang GT ‘Ponycar of the Year.’ We were up against other refitted Ford Mustang models from Saleen and Roush, and the Shelby GT won on performance and overall value. Matt Stone, editor of Motor Trend, said the Shelby GT scored best in package, components, style, and bang for the buck. I’ve always liked ‘bang for the buck.’ It’s worked for us in the past, and still does.
That chili cookoff in Terlingua—trying to sell the idea of it, we had a big bunch from the press come down and there was no motel or hotel for them, just those old buildings and some tents. They could only bring a toothbrush and sleeping bag, and I had to send my DC-3 back to El Paso four times in three days to fly in more booze. That was a party in a time I’ll never forget.