One of the biggest American racing legends and legendary constructors of the 20th century was definitely Carroll Shelby (1923-2012). For most of his life, Shelby was involved in motor racing, first as a successful driver and then as a very successful automotive designer and entrepreneur.
Flying instructor and test pilot
Shelby was born in Leesburg, Texas in a farmers family. He showed interest in mechanics and cars from an early age and just before World War II he enlisted in the Air Force as a test pilot and a flying instructor. After the war, he started participating in amateur races in America where he showed great skill and driving technique and often finished first.
Carroll Shelby practicing for the future
Shelby escaped death at Carrera Panamericana
Early on he got noticed by bigger teams and started driving for Maserati, Allard and Ferrari in sportscar races across America and Europe. Shelby participated in the infamous Carrera Panamericana and crashed in the middle of the race. Because of the difficult conditions of the event, he was declared missing for four days but was found by locals and saved from death.
In the late ’50s he became one of the America’s top racing drivers and in 1959 he won Le Mans 24 Hours in an Aston Martin DBR1/300 with Roy Salvadori as his co-driver. This was one of his greatest successes.
Carroll Shelby in his racing days
Plans for making his own sports car - the Shelby Cobra
However, Shelby had a health problem which nobody knew about. He had a heart condition which caused big problems and he often raced under heavy medications.
In the early 60s, he announced his retirement from professional racing which shocked motorsport enthusiasts across the world. He went on to form one of the first schools of high performance driving in the world, located in California, but in 1962 he started making plans for his own sportscar – the Shelby Cobra.
After the Shelby Cobra and Cobra Daytona’s success in the mid-'60s, Shelby was called by Ford to return the favor and transform the Mustang into a real racing car. So the Shelby GT350 was born and would soon dominate touring car races all over the world.
Carroll Shelby goes racing with Ford
The GT350 and GT500 Mustangs were sold until 1970 but in 1967, Shelby stopped producing those cars and turned to the GT40 racing programme with Ford which wanted to beat Ferrari at its own game. Ford GT40 was enormously successful with four consecutive wins in Le Mans.
Carroll Shelby with Shelby GT500KR
New projects and health problems
But in the early ’70s, Ford stopped its racing programme and Shelby was out of work. For the most part of the decade he did other, non-automotive work and enjoyed his success. In the ’80s he became involved with Chrysler Corporation and produced some high-performance versions of ordinary cars like the Shelby GLS and Shelby Dakota but those had little to them apart from the Shelby name and a few decals. However, in the late ’80s he was one of the few people behind the Dodge Viper project which he described as the ‘Shelby Cobra for the ’90 s’.
Carroll Shelby driving Dodge Viper
In the ’90s, his health problems became even more serious, but Shelby was eager to keep working despite a few operations and a heart transplant. He introduced the Shelby Series One, an interesting power roadster with a retro design and fantastic performance. Unfortunately, safety standards and production problems caused Shelby to stop making this model and only a few hundreds were made.
Legacy which will never be forgotten
He then returned to Ford and helped the production of the last generation of Mustangs bearing his name and once again presented the best Fords like they did in the 1960s. He died aged 89. on 10th of May 2012, and left a legend and legacy which will never be forgotten.
Video - Carroll Shelby speaks about winning Le Mans and his career with Ford