‘When did YOU start driving?’ People used to ask me that a lot – and still do.
Everybody knows how it was with themselves and how they got into cars, and they’d want to hear what I would have to say about that time when I was still a kid.
My father, Warren Hall Shelby, was a rural mail carrier in East Texas and, after he gave up using a horse and buggy, he drove cars. In 1928 he had a four-cylinder Whippet with 35 horsepower, made by Willys-Overland, the company that would later make the Jeep for World War Two. I was five then and I remember that Whippet of my dad’s to this day.
Quite a while later, in 1956, after I won the SCCA National Championship, Sports Illustrated named me Driver of the Year and sent Ken Rudeen to my home in Texas to write a cover story about me. They had in the magazine a picture of me wearing overalls at the wheel of my first car – a little pedal car. I was about four and I had a big homemade pipe stuck in my mouth, pretending I could smoke and be grown up already. Ken and I had a good time with that story. He was Sports Illustrated’s motor racing editor for years and wrote the well-known book Men at Speed. We lost him to cancer five years ago, sadly.
When I was 14 I learned to drive for real, in a ’34 Dodge. After that my dad gave me a Willys I’d already beat up while it was still his. I was caught speeding in it by the police and I didn’t drive again for six months. After that I drove Model T and Model A Fords, and I'd go to the local dirt tracks and watch the oval races.
In May 1952 my friend in Dallas, Ed Wilkins, let me drive his MG TC in a road race at Norman, Oklahoma. I’d joined a sport car club that Ed was in and, when a rally from Boston arrived in Dallas, one of the drivers stopped and asked Ed where a liquor store was. Ed told him, and the guy went and bought some champagne and cracked that bottle across the radiator cap of the MG and announced, ‘I hereby christen thee Theodore Roosevelt, you rough-ridin’ son of a bitch!’ I’ll never forget that.
Anyway, I drove Ed’s TC at Norman. It was my first sport car race and I had no idea what to do but just drive, and I won it and another race there, too. I outran the Jaguar XK120s with the MG. That MG is now owned by publisher Syd Silverman, whose grandfather started the showbiz tabloid Variety. Syd loves vintage race cars and probably wouldn’t sell it for anything less than a lot of money. I’d like to have it because when Ed Wilkins died last year he left my foundation $100,000 dollars. Ed was just a draftsman all of his life, but the highlight of his living was those races way back then. He and I built a little go-kart kind of thing in 1937 and we put a Maytag washing machine motor in it to power it.
After driving Ed’s MG TC at Norman and whipping the Jags, I got to drive an XK120 in a road race at Muskogee, Oklahoma. I was getting to really like racing sport cars, and in September I was at Elkhart Lake to drive an XK120M with wire wheels that belonged to Hay Bales Richter, a trucking magnate from Enid, Oklahoma. I really finished third, but they scored me around ninth or something. After I did that race in the XKM people started coming to me in droves to drive their race cars.
That’s when I drove Charlie Brown’s Allard at Caddo Mills, Texas, in 1953. There’s a guy now who owns that same Allard in Phoenix, Arizona, and he wants to drive it over to Los Angeles and have me sign the dash.
I later took Roy Cherryholmes’ Allard J2X to Argentina and drove it there in the 1000-kilometer race with my co-driver Dale Duncan. During Dale’s stint our Allard caught fire under him, so he stopped and peed in the carburettor to put out the fire in the Cadillac engine. We finished tenth! After that I went to Sebring with John Wyer and raced the Aston Martin DB3S that I talked about in last month’s column.
All of that seems like a long time ago, and it was. I’ve always liked to think about how things get started and where they go from there. I’ve had a lot of success in my life, and some bad times with my heart until I got a new one. At 85 now, I’m not about to stop being me and doing what I do.