All of us have lost one of the dominant figures of the post-WWII automotive era, and I have lost a dear friend. After a long illness, Carroll Hall Shelby died on May 10, 2012, at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas, Texas. He is survived by two sons, Michael and Patrick, his daughter Sharon, a number of grandchildren, a sister Anne, his wife Cleo plus a host of admirers. For a reason that always remained between the two of us, I am eternally in his debt. As I write this, tears are in my eyes.
On January 11, 2012, Carroll Shelby turned 89 years old. He was married a number of times. His first was Jeanne Fields with whom he had the three children. They were married in 1943 and divorced early in 1960. In September of that year, he married actress Jan Harrison, but this one only lasted a few months. In 1997, his fourth wife, Lena Dahl, was killed in a car accident. Afterwards, he said that he was never going to get married again. Nevertheless, four month later, he married Cleo, an English woman considerably his junior. It’s an interesting note regarding his personality that he maintained good relations with all his exes.
I first met Carroll Shelby—his friends called him Shel—when he burst on our Southern California scene on July 10, 1955 at the wheel of Allen Guiberson’s 4.5 Ferrari, winning the main event at Torrey Pines. I was there shooting pictures with my trusty Rolleiflex.
But even before that, Shel had a distinguished racing career. He started in 1952 in the Mid-South in an MG, then a Cad-Allard. During that year and the next, he ran in 21 SCCA events, winning 12 of them! In January 1954, he took the Cad-Allard to the 1000km of Argentina where he met Aston Martin’s John Wyer. This resulted in factory rides in Europe where he scored a second, two thirds and a fifth that year. He rejoined the Aston Martin team in 1959 and won the biggest road-racing event of all, the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Shelby was born on January 11, 1923 in Leesburg, Texas. Leesburg is a small town with a population of about 200, 120 miles northeast of Dallas. His dad was a rural mail carrier. Shel’s earliest remembrance was his dad delivering mail in a horse-drawn buggy in which, on occasion, he accompanied his father. He had only one sibling, a sister, Anne.
According to Shelby, “In high school my consuming interest was automobiles and airplanes, unfortunately not subjects on the curriculum.” He got a part-time job sweeping out hangers at the local airport. Also, his father took him to dirt-track ovals to see racing. Shelby’s education never went beyond high school.
With WWII looming, Shelby wanted to be a pilot. So he joined the Army Air Corps as an enlisted man and ended up at Randolph Field, Texas where his first job was, wouldn’t you know, cleaning out hangers. After basic training, he was assigned to be a fireman on the flight line. The Air Corps was in dire need of pilots then, so qualified enlisted personnel were acceptable. In November 1941, Shelby started preflight training at Lackland Army Air Base. After preflight, he learned to fly in a Fairchild PT-19. He was promoted to sergeant in September 1942—those days they were called “flying sergeants”—and in December of that year, he was commissioned a second lieutenant. He ended up as an instructor flying B-18s, B-25s, B-26s and, finally, B-29s. Occasionally Shelby would fly to Wright Field (now Wright Patterson Air Force Base). It just so happened that some future friends were also there. Interestingly enough and unbeknownst to one another at the time, Sam Hanks, Rodger Ward, John Fitch and Shelby, all flying officers, were at Wright Field at one time or another during the war. Hanks met an 18-year-old civil-service secretary who worked there, Alice Hedrick. They became sweethearts; a relationship that lasted for Sam’s lifetime.
After V-J Day, Shelby left the service, still a second lieutenant. He never flew outside the country. The policy then was to keep the very best pilots in the U.S. to train others.
Shelby had married his boyhood girlfriend, Jeanne Fields, in 1943. Their daughter, Sharon, was born the following year. They moved to Dallas in 1945, but Shelby’s problem, with no skill other than flying airplanes, was making a living. With a little money saved, Shelby put a down payment on a truck. With a friend who also had a truck, the two went into the hauling business. When jobs started to peter out, they sold the trucks and Shelby worked on oil drilling rigs during 1948 and ’49. Next, he decided to get into raising chickens. Unfortunately though, after an initial success with his first batch, the following group of 20,000 all caught a fatal disease and Shelby went bankrupt.
After that, as Shelby wrote in The Cobra Story, “I wasn’t working regularly, but just making out on a little of this and a little of that; odd jobs.” A friend, Ed Wilkins had built a special with a home-made body and a 1932 Ford V8 under the hood. He mentioned to Shelby there was to be a drag race nearby. Ed wanted to see how the car would go and asked Shelby to drive; Shel ran away from the competition. Wilkins was impressed. “I think you’ve got the touch. Would you like to have a go in a real sports car race?” Wilkins also had an MG TC, so he entered Shelby in an SCCA event at Norman, Oklahoma. The first race was for MGs only, which Shelby won by a good margin. The next was for a bunch of different cars including a number of Jaguar XK120s. Nobody there was more surprised than Shelby himself when he beat all the Jaguars and won again. Next, he borrowed an XK120 from a friend and won again at Okmulgee, Oklahoma. Later that year in his third race, he drove Roy Cherryholmes’ Cadillac-Allard to first place at an SCCA event at Caddo Mills, Texas.
Other successes followed in the Allard, culminating in a good finish at the January 1954 GP of Argentina. Aston Martin team manager John Wyer noticed Shelby’s talent and offered him a drive in a DB3S at the 1954 12 Hours of Sebring. Shelby and his co-driver, Charlie Wallace, were among the front-runners when the rear axle broke on the 77th lap. Wyer asked Carroll to come to England and become a team member. His first event was at Aintree where he placed second behind Duncan Hamilton in a C-Type Jaguar. Next, Wyer teamed Shelby with Paul Frere for Le Mans. At 1:50 in the morning, they had to retire due to a broken spindle. In August, he started driving for Donald Healey and helped set new Class D records at Bonneville in a production Austin-Healey. At the Mexican Road Race—La Carrera Panamericana—in November, Shelby flipped his Austin-Healey and suffered serious injuries that might have very well put a lesser man out of racing.
At the March 1955 Sebring—with his arm in a cast and his broken hand taped to the steering wheel—Shel teamed with Phil Hill in a 3-liter Allen Guiberson Monza Ferrari. At first, they were scored overall winners, but due to a protest, found themselves officially in second. Shelby continued with Guiberson and took an overall win at Torrey Pines in July, lapping the entire field. For the rest of the year, he drove for Tony Parravano in Europe.
In 1956, back in the U.S. Shelby won just about everything there was to win. Entered in at total of 17 events by various car owners including Tony, Carroll won 13 of them. When Parravano’s mechanic, Joe Landaker decided to leave Tony and go to work for John Edgar, he recommended Shelby to John. Shelby got along famously with Edgar, winning many race driving John Edgar-entered Ferrari and Maserati sports cars. At the 1957 Cuban Grand Prix in Edgar’s 4.9 Ferrari, he was second behind Fangio in a 3-liter Maserati. At the conclusion of the 1956 season, Shelby had been crowned the SCCA National Champion and Sports Illustrated then named him “Sports Car Driver of the Year.”
Through the end of the decade, success followed success, culminating in winning the 1959 24 Hours of Le Mans—with co-driver Roy Salvadori—in an Aston Martin DBR1. In 1958, he had started competing in Formula One for Aston Martin, but in February 1960 he started to experience chest pains. Even so, that year he won the USAC Driving Championship, but finally had to retire at the end of the season due to “angina pectoralis.”