Carroll Shelby is America's hottest
driver and principal hope at Sebring. Behind the homespun facade is a
by Kenneth Rudeen - Sport
1957 -- Mama, would you say the blessing?" As he inclined his head and
listened to the words murmured by his attractive brunette wife Jeanne,
Carroll Hall Shelby was, for a rare moment, perfectly still. The laugh
wrinkles around his eyes were smoothed; his strong plainsman's face was
grave. It was too early now to be concentrating on
Sebring . The business at hand was breakfast—scrambled eggs, bacon and
biscuits. Shelby put away a bite of eggs.
"You know," he told his visitor,
"when I'm driving a racing car I feel that I don't have a problem in the
world. I haven't even tried to analyze why I do it. I guess there is just
something there—a certain challenge."
That challenge had carried Shelby a
far piece from the piny woods of east
Texas , where he was born at
Leesburg on January 11, 1923.
Leesburg had then, as now, a population of 150. Shelby had long since
left the white frame house of his
Leesburg boyhood, and now he sat in his own big, comfortable brick
home in the pleasant University Park section of
He got up from the breakfast table
and walked into his Texas-sized den, tossed a glance at the clutter of
trophies there and stretched out on a Texas-sized couch. He picked up a
cigaret lighter, flicked it, choked the flame and repeated the motions
"I guess you could say I've always
liked to go fast," he said with a grin. "My parents were pretty strict—no
liquor or tobacco, church every Sunday—but my dad liked to go fast, too.
He was a rural mail carrier—drove a 1928 Whippet to deliver the mail—and I
started to ride along with him as soon as I was old enough, egging him on
to go faster. He didn't need much urging.
"We moved to
Dallas when I was 6. I still remember that trip—120 miles and the
Whippet flew all the way. I sat in the front seat needling Dad to speed
up. At top speed—that was 55 to 60—we passed everything on the road.
"When I was 7 I started having a
leakage of the heart. After that I was in bed most of the time, except for
school, until I was 14. By that time I had outgrown it."
Shelby called into the kitchen.
"Mama, would you bring some coffee?"
Jeanne Shelby poured two cups, and
her husband settled back, sipping.
"Back in 1938 I had a Willys that
dad gave me because I beat it up so much he didn't want it any more. I
raced everybody who wanted to race. I used to take that Willys down to a
railroad yard and drive it over a hump at 70 mph. One night the police
caught me. They took me home to my daddy, and after that I didn't drive
for six months."
Shelby put down his cup and saucer
and chuckled at a sudden memory.
"You should have seen me in April of
1941 when I enlisted in the Air Corps. I was only 5 foot 2 and weighed
about 100 pounds. I had to eat a dozen bananas just to pass the physical.
In the next year, though, I grew seven or eight inches." (Shelby is now 6
feet tall; he weighs about 160 pounds.)
"In four years in the service the
farthest I got from
Denver . I drove a crash truck at Randolph Field for a while. Then I
learned how to fly and became a flying sergeant. A few months later, in
December of 1942, I was commissioned. I spent most of the war flying twin-engined
training planes for bombardiers, but toward the end I was an engineering
officer and test pilot."
The war years were significant for
Shelby in several ways. He was going fast (Sunday restlessness could be
purged by taking out a plane and buzzing the antelopes on a number of vast
Texas ranches, an activity that did not endear Shelby to his
superiors); he married Jeanne Fields, a former schoolmate and the daughter
of a well-to-do independent oilman; and he discovered again that he was
lucky. Twice he had serious trouble in the air—once he was forced to
bellyland a disabled plane and once he bailed out of a plane that caught
fire—but was not injured.
After the war Shelby went into a
trucking and ready-mixed-concrete business with a boyhood chum named
Bailey Gordon who, now an airlines pilot, remains his closest friend. Two
years later he began a short, unhappy episode of roughnecking in his
father-in-law's oil fields. ("I didn't like the seven-day week and the
monotony of it.") Subsequently, he got out of a chicken business, too,
when he lost 40,000 of 70,000 broilers in three days.
Shelby lunged to his feet.
"Say, doesn't that coffee make you
nervous? Let's go over to Burney Russell's."
As we got into his station wagon
Shelby grinned at a small sticker on the inside of the windshield, which
read, CAUTION—DO NOT FLY. We did not fly the 30 miles to Burney Russell,
who lived in
Fort Worth and turned out to be a highly regarded local sports car
mechanic. A car Shelby was going to drive in
Cuba had come through from
California the night before; he wanted to check the spare tires and
wheels that would be sent from Russell's place later.
Howard Johnson 's sandwich and the short ride home, Shelby paced in
the den. He picked up a pair of asbestos driving shoes and mused, "I'll
have the purtiest feet in the coffin.... Well, the first time I really got
involved in racing after the war was in May of 1952. I saw my friend Ed
Wilkins in a little MG one day and told him to come around to the house.
He let me drive the car in a race at
Norman, Okla. That was my first sports car race, and I won it. In
those days I didn't know anything about style or technique; I just drove.
All I'd ever done in the racing line was to drive midgets a few times."
In the next year Shelby, who has
never owned a sports car himself, won a number of minor
Sports Car Club of America races. When the SCCA in 1954 chose four
U.S. drivers to compete for the Kimberly Cup against four Argentinians
in the big sports car race at
Buenos Aires , Shelby joined
Phil Hill ,
Masten Gregory and Bob Said on the American team. Shelby won the cup
with the by then very tired Cadillac-Allard of Roy Cherryhomes, a
Texas rancher and frequent Shelby backer.
Shelby's good showing in
Argentina earned him a minor position on the English
Aston Martin professional sports car team. He astonished the English
in his first European drive by placing second to the
Le Mans winner, Duncan Hamilton, in an Aston Martin DB3S, in an
important race on the Aintree course. Next, at
Le Mans , co-driving a DB3S with the Belgian Paul Frere, Shelby came
into the pits to check a tire; when the mechanics jacked up the car the
axle broke. That was all for
Le Mans . In his remaining 1954 European events the irrepressible
Texan drove well; fifth in the Supercortemaggiore classic at Monza,
Italy ; third in an English race at Silverstone.
More important, he had come under
the tutelage of
John Wyer , racing manager for
Aston Martin . Now he began to smooth the rough edges.
John Wyer made fewer mistakes than anyone I've ever seen," said
Shelby, nicking the lighter aflame absently. "He taught me that no wild,
crazy-driving fool gets to the top. You have to plan each race and drive
as you plan it. He taught me how to plan for myself."
The door opened to admit two
visitors—Mr. and Mrs. Allen Guiberson. Guiberson, a wealthy
Dallas oilman and automobile aficionado who shares a handsome office
with Shelby, had been maneuvered into a dark suit and off to a wedding.
"Doesn't he look nice in that suit?"
Marion Guiberson asked.
"Just fine," Jeanne Shelby said.
"Where are the children?" Mrs.
"Oh, they went to a Fess Parker
movie," Mrs. Shelby said.
"So did my 7-year-old."
While the women talked woman talk,
Guiberson reminisced with Shelby about the old days—in particular about
the time Cannonball Baker drove crosscountry while shackled to the
steering wheel of a car, on behalf of C. C. Pyle. ("Cash and Carry Pyle,"
said Guiberson, "was the greatest press agent in the history of automobile
After the Guibersons left, the
Shelby children, Sharon Ann, 12, Michael Hall, 10, and Patrick Bert, 9,
came trooping in, wearing Levis.
Following brief greetings, they
dispersed with Indian swiftness; Shelby picked up the lighter and his
"Remember the Pan-American road race
in 1954? I was driving a little Austin-Healey on the second day, lying
third over-all to [Umberto] Maglioli and [Phil] Hill. I guess I got
smart-alecky. I started driving too fast, trying to catch up with the
leaders, and flipped on a curve. It was just a lucky thing that I happened
to go off at a place where there was a wall along the road, because the
mountain went straight down. The wall stopped the car. I shattered my
right elbow in the wreck. It didn't hurt too much at the time; I guess I
was in shock. But I had to lie there beside the road for six hours until
all the cars went by.
"Some Indians came along and poured
beer over my head to wake me up. Gave me a drink of it, too. After a
couple of hours two girls from
New York City came by and gave me some brandy. Can you imagine that?
New York City . They had been watching the race up ahead and came back
when another driver—it was either Walt Faulkner or Bill Vukovich—stopped
and told them about the accident. After all that I got the dangdest ride
of my life in a Mexican ambulance, going down to the hospital at Pueblo.
"I drove my next four races with my
arm in a cast. One of them was
Sebring in 1955 in Allen Guiberson's
Ferrari , when they told Phil and me we had won and then changed their
minds right away and gave the race to the D
"My regular doctor had put a plaster
Paris cast on my arm. When I'd drive, I'd have another doctor cut off
that cast and put on a lighter one. I'd put my hand on the steering wheel,
and then he'd slap on a quick-drying cast made of something like
Fiberglas. I paid for it, though. They had to take a bone out of my leg to
rebuild my elbow. That's why my golf isn't so good any more."
Jeanne Shelby answered the doorbell
and admitted Skitch Henderson, the bandleader, and his former business
Dallas man named Ken Moore.
"Hello, Carroll," Henderson said.
"Well, what will you have for
Maserati , I think, Skitch," he answered.
"I found a good mechanic for my
Lotus Eleven," Henderson said. "It really goes now. I should be able to
race it at
Cumberland [Md.] in May."
"Just how fast will that Locust of
Skitch's go, Carroll?" Moore queried.
"Oh, 135 or 140, I guess," Shelby
Moore registered dismay.
"They let Skitch drive a car that
goes that fast—in a race? Did you ever see him drive? Remember that time,
Skitch, when we were driving between jobs out west? The moonlight was as
bright as the light in this room. You could see for 30 miles. All of a
sudden there's this deer on the highway and Skitch knocked it 9,000 feet
down the road. I hate to think of all the traffic tickets we paid."
"Worth every penny," Henderson said,
stroking his Vandyke beard reflectively, "every penny."
Henderson and Moore left directly;
Shelby sat down in the den once again.
He recalled his 1955 European
season, during which he drove a
Ferrari in the rugged Sicilian
Florio , placed sixth in his first Grand Prix car ride at
Syracuse , and survived a gruesome accident in the renowned Tourist
Trophy sports car race at Ulster,
Northern Ireland .
Masten Gregory and I were driving a
Porsche Spyder at Ulster. I took it out first, just moseying around,
trying to get the feel of the course. On the second lap I went over the
blind hill they call Deer Leap—you take off into the air for a few
feet—and it looked like the road in front of me was on fire. I thought,
'Shelby, there comes a time when you do or you don't,' and just kept
going. My car hit an engine that had been jolted out of one of the cars
that caught fire, but I got through O.K. It just singed my eyebrows a
little. I think that was the only time I was really scared in a race."
Five cars were in that accident; two
drivers died in it. Shelby and
Gregory , not to be dissuaded, won the 1,500-cc. class with the singed
In 1956 Shelby stayed in the
U.S. He drove a fine race at
Sebring with the Briton Roy Salvadori for
Aston Martin . The gearbox rebelled after the first hour and a half,
so the pair completed the remaining 10 hours using top gear only—and still
managed to gain fourth place.
Then Shelby blitzed the SCCA
schedule, winning 40 races (including 18 feature events) while losing six.
From Brynfan Tyddyn, Pa. to
Palm Springs ,
Calif. he was almost invincible, setting records in profusion. His
dashes up the slopes of Mt.
Washington , Giant's Despair and the
Cumberland , Md. ascent were the fastest ever.
And nearly everywhere the Texan wore
the bibbed, striped carpenter's overalls that have become his homely
"I picked those up for $3 at
J. C. Penney 's when I was in the chicken business," Shelby said.
"They're getting pretty frazzled and worn out now."
The visitor wanted to know if Shelby
had a theory of driving.
"I haven't really thought about it,"
Shelby said, "but there are more problems than just going like Jack the
Bear. The most dangerous drivers are the hot shoes without much experience
who try to drive the powerful machinery before they're ready. It's best to
start with a small production car and become thoroughly familiar with it
before moving up.
"Other than trying to be relaxed all
the time, I have no particular style. I will say that driving requires
great concentration. The problem is to be relaxed while you are
concentrating. I'm not really superstitious, but I think the overalls and
the St. Christopher's medal I wear around my neck help me get in the right
frame of mind.
"As for the car itself, I like to
have the accelerator between the clutch and the brake. I'm kind of
slew-footed, so the natural movement of my right foot works best that way.
"Going into a slow corner I go down
through the gears, getting into second as I enter the corner. Everybody
says you're not supposed to brake or change gear in a corner, but I do. If
it is a very slow corner there is no use slipping or sliding around it. I
always try not to break the rear end loose. I like to go into a corner
slow and come out fast. That way I can get back on the accelerator fast
and smooth. The only time I break a car loose is when I'm going too fast
into a corner; then broadsliding the car is the best way to slow it down
"I like to take a high-speed corner
best because it is the most difficult. Most of the mistakes in racing are
made in fast turns. Most people tend to throw the car into a four-wheel
drift right away, but I think the best and fastest way is to keep the rear
wheels following the front wheels as long as possible in the widest
possible arc. Then when you have to go into a drift the drift will carry
you through the rest of the corner as fast as your adhesion will allow you
"On the straight, if you have a
cross wind, you have to remember not to clutch the wheel. A cross wind can
knock you sideways seven or eight feet. If you fight the wheel or hold the
wheel very tightly, the car will wander because the steering is so quick.
You must hold the wheel very, very gently."
The Texan stretched and eyed his
glittering trophies for a moment. "I'm going to see just how far I can go
in racing," he said. "When it stops being fun, I'm going to get out of