Carroll Shelby, one of America’s greatest automotive icons, once said that if he had been better at raising chickens, he never would have resorted to plan B: building and racing cars. His back-up plan brought excitement to motorsports and the excitement of motorsports to American highways.
Born in Leesburg, TX, in 1923, Shelby suffered from a heart condition that kept him in bed for much of his early childhood. After seven years of battling health concerns, doctors cleared him to engage in traditional childhood pursuits.
Shelby’s father, a car geek, frequently took him to dirt bike and car races, planting the seed for his future passion.
Shelby trained as a pilot at San Antonio Aviation Cadet Center and later instructed young pilots for World War II. When the war ended, he opened a chicken farm, where he first donned his famous overalls look.
Shelby’s first experience behind the wheel of a race car was in a friend’s MG TC, and later a Cad-Allard. The Allard’s combination of small size, light weight, and American V8 power later served as his inspiration to create the legendary Cobra.
Shelby was very successful early on in his racing career. In 1952, he raced an MG-TC at a track in Norman, OK, winning first place in both races held that day. The same year, Shelby placed first driving a Cad-Allard at a Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) race in Caddo Mills, TX.
His success earned him an invitation to drive for the Aston Martin and Maserati factory teams. In 1956, he was named Sports Illustrated Driver of the Year. In 1959, he won the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the second American to do so. It was during that race that Shelby noted the performance of an English roadster built by AC Cars called the Ace, which three years later became the basis for the Cobra. After retiring in October 1959 due to health concerns, Shelby opened The Shelby School of High-Performance Driving in Riverside, CA.
In 1962, he opened Shelby American, Inc. a high-performance vehicle manufacturer. He obtained a license to import AC Ace from England, and had AC fly a body to Dean Moon’s shop in Santa Fe Springs, CA. He also secured new Windsor V8 engines from Ford, who was interested in a car that could compete with a Corvette. In 1962, with all the parts ready, Shelby and his team assembled the first Cobra.
Dan Gurney drove it to win at Bridgehampton, NY, in September 1963. It was the first FIA World Sportscar championship win for the fledgling Shelby American Team, and the first FIA win for an American driver in an American car.
The Cobra, Shelby’s signature car, has won on racing circuits all over the world. An influential force within the Ford Motor Company, Shelby assisted in the development of the GT40 and worked on Chrysler’s Omni GLH and the Dodge Viper.
With a name that is globally synonymous with motorsports and fast machinery, Shelby’s legacy lives on through his legendary cars.