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Carroll Shelby's Column: The Legend

  • Carroll Shelby's column: the legend - Carroll Shelby March 2008 - 0
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Lance Reventlow beat me to the punch back in 1958 when he launched his American-built Scarab sport car while the Cobra was still just an idea in my head.

I knew Lance from the races and saw him as a bright young guy who could do something with family money he had and I didn’t. When he debuted his Scarab at Phoenix that year, the SCCA wouldn’t let him drive because he’d been under age at prior races and got away with it. So Richie Ginther and Lance’s school pal Bruce Kessler drove the Scarab only in practice, but they broke the track record and it was plain that the Scarab would be a hot contender.

Two years later, when I was chasing the USAC Sport Car Championship, I got behind the wheel of a Scarab at Continental Divide Raceway in Colorado. I’d already won the 1960 USAC race at Riverside in a Birdcage Maserati and had a good chance to add more points with the Scarab. Its Chevy V8 looked like a winner and could give me what I was after.

Lance’s Scarab was the result of development money being in the right hands at the right time. He was born in London to wealthy American socialite Barbara Hutton and Curt Reventlow, a Danish count. She married Cary Grant next. By the time Lance was 12 he had another stepfather – Prince Igor Troubetzkoy, who’d won the Targa Florio driving a Ferrari. Porfirio Rubirosa was another stepdad. Lance was still a teenager when he started racing his own alloy-body Mercedes 300SL.

After Lance drove Formula Two cars in Europe he set out to make his own sport car and hired Dick Troutman and Tom Barnes to build the first Scarab, with a second and third Scarab built by Phil Remington and Emil Diedt. Their competition was Ferrari, Maserati and Lister-Jaguar, but Scarabs were winning right and left with Chuck Daigh and Lance driving. Grand Prix was next. Unfortunately, Lance got in with his new front-engine F1 Scarab at exactly the wrong time – when rear-engine cars were coming into fashion.

At Spa he retired after one lap, the week before I drove a Scarab sport car in Colorado. The reason that particular Scarab was so damn fast is because of Red Byron – not only one of the greatest NASCAR race drivers that ever lived but one of the finest mechanics I ever knew, and I had a lot of respect for him. When Red put that Scarab together for me in Colorado, he said, ‘Shelby, this sumbitch will run – I’ve added 40 horsepower to it.’ He knew he had congenital heart failure and was going to die, but Red worked his ass off right up until he croaked.

My friend Jim Hall had the lap record there at Continental Divide in a Birdcage, and when I took the Scarab out I clipped four seconds off his old time. The Scarab won wire-to-wire and gave me the USAC points I needed to make the title mine at the end of the season. Across the pond, Lance was already packing up his Formula One Scarab – as much a failure as his sport car was a success.

It’s too bad his F1 car didn’t come up to expectations. They went through a lot of gyrations with it, and the story of how they got the desmodromic valve train is something that a movie could be made of. But they never really learned how to make it work.

Driving that American-made Scarab at Colorado, winning with it, and seeing all the other wins it racked up against the finest imports, only made me more raring to get on with that dream to build my own lightweight, high-powered sport car here in the States. The rest of that story is Shelby Cobra history.

Lance was a great guy and he and Warren Olson tried to put the right kind of programme together, but they were just a little ahead of their time. Then Lance did a really hell of a job when he later had Phil Remington design and build him a rear-engine Scarab – I think the best rear-engine car ever built for that era. I made a huge mistake in not using it for my King Cobra instead of the Coopers. But I’ve made a lot of mistakes.

Later on, Troutman and Barnes built Jim Hall his first front-engine Chaparral. Rob Walton, who owns both the Scarab and Chaparral now, says the Chaparral was even better and faster than the Scarab. Troutman and Barnes were the crème-de-la-crème of car building in America during the late ’50s and early ’60s.In 1972, Lance Reventlow died in a plane crash near Aspen, cutting short a life that played a large part in the post-war American sport car movement. We were lucky to have him when we did.


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