Shelby (L) and Dave MacDonald (R) celebrate in
Victory Lane at the 1963 Riverside Grand Prix
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.
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 http://www.carrollshelby.com