Saturday, May 12, 2012

"This is Shelby"

Shelby (L) and Dave MacDonald (R) celebrate in
Victory Lane at the 1963 Riverside Grand Prix
“This is Shelby, what can I do for you.”

The voice on the phone was unmistakable.  Carroll Shelby.  The strength of the voice belied reports of ill health.  A friend of a friend had passed on Shelby’s cell phone number, saying just leave a message and he’ll call you back.  Right, I’d heard that before.  But there he was, less than 15 minutes after I’d left my message.  It was July, 2011. 

I explained I was working on a story about the 1964 Indianapolis 500 and wanted to get his thoughts on Dave MacDonald, a young driver who was tearing up the sports car circuits driving Cobras for Shelby before being killed that year at Indy. 

Silence.  I thought I’d lost the connection.
“I loved Davey,” he finally said, his voice much softer.  “Sure, I’ll tell you anything you want to know.  But I’m in the hospital getting some blood work done.  Let me call you when I get out.”

A couple of weeks later the voice was on the phone again.  He apologized for not getting back to me sooner, he’d been off test driving some cars since coming home from the hospital.  But he was back now and invited me over the next day to talk. 
Right up until his death last Thursday in a Dallas hospital at 89, Shelby continued to work out of the multi-building Shelby American complex in Carson, Calif., that once served as the heart for one of the largest racing operations in America.  Shelby had moved there after outgrowing his original shop in Venice.  Most of the buildings appear deserted now, the operational side of the business having moved to Las Vegas years ago.  Off to one side is a Goodyear Racing trailer.  Only a few cars are scattered in the large parking lot.  A little sad.

Walking into the mammoth garage/warehouse, you can imagine the glory days, the place bustling with mechanics working on a fleet of Cobras, Ford GTs, Shelby Mustangs and various other cars destined for races around the world.  Now a couple of new Mustangs are scattered about, several more cars covered by tarps.  In the middle of the room, in all its glory, is a Daytona Coupe.  Must be a replica.  Designed by Pete Brock, it is one of the most beautiful racing cars ever built.  Only six originals were made.  One sold for more than $7 million a few years back.  Hundreds of replica Coupes have been built in recent years, some by Shelby himself, although he allowed only the originals to be called Daytona Coupes.
Shelby’s in his office at the top of a long flight of stairs, working away at his desk, surrounded by racing mementos, photos, models and books.  A one-room motorsports museum.   He explains he’s been off testing a new, yet to be announced, 1000 horsepower Mustang.  But his wife hasn’t driven the car yet and she has final signoff.  “Can’t sell a car nowadays that a woman can’t drive,” he says.  He talked about plans for the 50th anniversary of the Cobra in 2012 and the hundreds of events he’d been invited to attend.  “Got to narrow that down to about 50,” he said.

The interview was everything I expected it to be – and much more.  Shelby was gruff and profane, as expected.  He also was quiet and reflective at times, his voice soft and eyes moist, as we talked about MacDonald and others Shelby had raced with over the years.      
“Davey probably had more talent than any race driver – as far as sheer speed is concerned – in a young driver I ever hired,” Shelby said.  "You can tell by looking at a race driver whether they have it or don’t.  He had the ability to go fast.  He was out of control half the time, but most race drivers are when they start.

Shelby hired MacDonald, one of top Corvette drivers in the country, to drive for him at the start of the 1963 season.  MacDonald promptly drove the Cobra to its first victory.  He would go on to be the first to win a race in a Cobra with its new 289 engine, the first to win in the King Cobra and the first, along with Bob Holbert, to win in the Daytona Coupe.  Driving the King Cobra, he won the United States Road Racing Championship in ’63, lapping a field of the finest international drivers at Riverside in the process. 

MacDonald’s success in the Cobra attracted the attention of others, including Mickey Thompson, who offered him ride in his radical and controversial car at Indianapolis.  

“I begged Davey not to go and fool with that pile of shit that Mickey built,” Shelby said.  “I said Davey, ‘Please don’t drive that car, please don’t get in it.’  Nothing added up.  There were too many innovations in it.  Anybody can build a car.  A lot of people have ideas on what to build.  But until it’s developed it’s a question mark.  And they never had enough time in it. 

"But I told Davey I wouldn’t stand in his way, if that’s what he wanted.  That’s the way Davey was.  He would get in anything and drive the wheels off."

MacDonald was killed in a fiery second lap crash that also took the life of Eddie Sachs.

“He was just beginning to be a real racing driver.  He’d gone on his natural ability up until then, but he was getting things under control and that’s what devastated me about losing Davey.”

Shelby was a stickler for development and he had one of the best test drivers in Ken Miles.

“Ken Miles was the best I ever saw at being able to temper what he wanted to do with what he knew he had to do.  That was the reason he was such a good development driver.  Best that ever lived.  I know how good he really was, best the rest of the world didn’t really know about."

Masten Gregory is another driver that never received the recognition he deserved, according to Shelby.  The pair often traveled together when racing in Europe in the late 1950s, Shelby twice nursing Gregory back to health in their London apartment after he’d been injured racing.  Shelby himself had a great racing career that is often overlooked,  named Sports Illustrated’s Driver of the Year in 1956 and ’57.  He retired shortly after winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1959.

“Masten Gregory  was a helluva racing driver.  He could go with anyone, even Sterling  Moss.  Masten has never gotten the recognition he deserved.  He was one of the best racing drivers that ever came out of this country and he won’t go down in history recognized."

Lloyd Ruby, is generally considered to be the best driver ever to compete at Indianapolis without winning the race.  Shelby went even further.

“Lloyd Ruby was the best guy who ever went to Indianapolis – outside of Bill Vukovich,” he said of the driver who won the 24 Hours of Daytona for him in 1965.  “Boy what a race driver he was.  I noticed him when he was 15 years old.  He was a fabulous driver anywhere.  You could put him in anything.”

For the 1967 24 Hours of Le Mans, Shelby teamed A.J. Foyt, fresh off winning the Indy 500, with Dan Gurney, considered the best American road racer.  Critics, including Ford management, said the car would never last, that Foyt and Gurney would run it into the ground trying to prove who was faster.  But Shelby insisted on the pairing.  After 24 hours it was the only Ford still running, as Shelby, Foyt and Gurney celebrated in Victory Lane.

“Foyt did a helluva job in winning Le Mans for me in ’67," Shelby said.  "That proves what a great race driver he was.  The fact he didn’t go over there and try and show that he could outrun everybody.  Gurney did a good job too, by not showing how fast he could go.  It showed me a side of Gurney that I never knew existed."  

“But what a great job Foyt did.  He was a helluva lot better driver than he is a car owner.”

After more than two hours of talking racing, it was obvious Shelby was tiring.  I asked if there was anything more he wanted to say about MacDonald.  

“I just still feel very sad.  That and losing Ken Miles were two of the hardest things I ever had to face after I quit driving myself.  Davey had a very, very bright future.  He had the ability to win Indianapolis, win Le Mans, Formula One, any race in the world.  It was just such a waste."

For much more on the life of Carroll Shelby, see

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