They say you should never meet your hero. In the case of Carroll Shelby, the legend lived up to the myth and, for me, the legend became a friend. So I was thrilled when I was asked to be the MC at a memorial event for Carroll at the Petersen Museum. Especially so, knowing it was going to be like a New Orleans funeral, rather than a solemn occasion.
Everyone told hilarious stories about him but, in fact, Carroll had been very generous. He passed on the Goodyear tire distributorship to racer Dan Gurney and Gurney became very successful. I think Toyota offered Shelby the rights in the US, but Shelby was with Ford and said, no, he couldn’t take it, and gave it to his buddy who went on to become a billionaire. He was a very loyal guy. There was a bit of the PT Barnum in him (he painted the only Cobra demonstrator every few days so people thought he had a fleet) but it made him lovable.
At the memorial, a chap called Bill Needle got up to speak. He’s one of those automotive artists who is really good at showing speed. He talked about growing up with Carroll and said the first time they went to France, they had never been out of Texas and Oklahoma. They went into the bathroom and there was this strange fixture in there. Carroll said it was a French shower, so they turned the tap and the water went straight up and hit the ceiling. They said ‘This is the damnedest way to take a shower!’ They couldn’t figure out how it worked.
Then a man named Bob Hoover got up to speak; another friend of Carroll Shelby, and Carroll Shelby’s friends are just about as amazing as he was. This guy was a fighter pilot in World War Two. In 1944 his Spitfire was shot down, he was taken prisoner, spent 16 months in a German prison camp, then escaped and stole a German fighter plane and flew it to freedom. He was the back-up chase partner for Chuck Yeager when he broke the sound barrier. I shook hands with him, and he’d shaken hands with the Wright brothers. How amazing is that?
We saw all the great footage of Shelby. There were all the crazy stories that come with being a racing car driver. It’s just the classic American life: the bib overalls, the cowboy hat, going to Europe as this Texan chicken farmer. It was just interesting to hear all these people talk and laugh and it seemed like the kind of event that Carroll would have liked. He was not a sombre guy.
Then there were all the Mustangs and Cobras that turned up, and we had the last car that Shelby drove. Edsel Ford talked about the fact that even as recently as eight months ago Carroll spent five hours on the track driving the new 200mph Mustang.
He was all about bringing horsepower, sports cars and handling to blue-collar folks. He’d take an existing vehicle, pump up the power and make it as close to a race car as possible. The first GT350s were out-and-out race cars, illegal in some states because they had side pipes with no mufflers. But he knew that they were a little too cantankerous and uncomfortable and he had to make a street car.
Shelby was a businessman and realized that you have to make a vehicle people want to buy. They got a little bit softer but they were still performance cars. I know Ford went back in business with him in the 2000s because there aren’t many names that have that sort of draw.
The story that made Shelby’s name was beating Ferrari at Le Mans. Henry Ford II said he wanted to beat Ferrari, and the man he went to was Carroll Shelby. It was a classic struggle: the aristocratic Italian versus the Texan farmer.
Shelby told me once that he thought Ferrari killed too many drivers. He didn’t like that. He was a driver. He didn’t look at his drivers as just somebody to drive the machinery. Shelby had a pretty loyal band of people that are still there today.
He pissed some people off and he made some people happy, but he was always a straight shooter. And all of the people that worked for him, who were still alive, showed up at this event. A lot of them had worked for him for 20, 30, 40 years. He was an American icon and I don’t think we’ll see the like of him again for a while.
I mentioned at the memorial that, for a lot of people like me, there’s a certain reflected glory in knowing him. That lives on. Teenagers, kids 17 or 18 years old that like cars, when they hear that I knew Carroll Shelby they exclaim ‘You knew him?!’ And they want to shake my hand.