Carroll Shelby: Racing driver who won at Le Mans for Aston Martin


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The Independent Online

Carroll Shelby," the great American racing driver Dan Gurney said, "was an automotive visionary and leader. His West Texas down-home bib overalls style had a huge emotional impact on me and when he launched his now legendary Ford-powered Cobra team, I found myself a very willing volunteer to lend my driving ability to his quest to take on the established European teams on their home turf."

The bib overalls came from the chicken farm that Shelby set up in 1949. A few years later he went straight from work to the racetrack wearing them, and got so much publicity as a result that they became his trademark

Born in Leesburg, Texas in 1923, the son of a postal worker, Shelby flew during the war, then set up a dump truck business on his return home. That gave way to the chicken farm, from which he made $5,000 from his first batch of birds before going broke when all of the next succumbed to limberneck disease. Then he set up a car dealership with fellow Texan Jim Hall, whose racing Chaparral sportscars would later revolutionise the sport.

He started racing in 1952 and by 1954 had been invited to race for the British Aston Martin team at Le Mans. But such was the range of his achievements that they are hard to prioritise. Was it victory with Roy Salvadori and AstonMartin at Le Mans in 1959, which healways said was the highpoint of hiscareer? His brief Grand Prix appearances for the marque? The 70 class records he set with an Austin Healey at Bonneville in 1954?

Then there was his decision to equip the British company AC's Ace sportscar with Ford's 4.7-litre V8 engine in 1961, which gave birth to the legendary Shelby Cobra. And his role in helping to sort out Ford's fractious GT racer which became the legendary GT40, a winner at Le Mans in 1966, '68 and '69. His friendship with Gurney led to them setting up the All American Racers Eagle team in 1965, with backing from Goodyear, the immediate fruits of which were Gurney's victory in the 1967 Belgian Grand Prix, and Bobby Unser's victory in the 1968 Indianapolis 500.

"As part of Shelby American," Gurney continued, "we managed to win some tremendous races together: the very first FIA-sanctioned points race for the Cobra at Bridgehampton 1963 in a Roadster; the GT classes at the Targa Florio, Le Mans and Goodwood with the Daytona Cobra Coupe in 1964; then the crown jewel, the 1967 Le Mans 24 Hour Race with the Ford Mark IV. His leadership was very unconventional and more powerful than either his friends or competitors ever imagined. His charm will be missed; his reputation as a motorsports icon is secure."

Ford's racing director James Allison said: "In the history of our company there are a handful of men who have stamped their imprint on the heart and soul of what we do at Ford Racing and Carroll Shelby was definitely one of them."

Shelby recalled his Le Mans victory fondly: "In 1959 we went through gallons of oil. At the end of the race owner David Brown got in the car for the victory lap. It meant so much to him; I guess he had wanted to win Le Mans all of his life. He'd dressed up in all of his finery with a new sports coat. But after he got into the car he sat in about an inch of oil! I felt quite sorry for him, but I guess he didn't mind too much...

"We had fog at night and the slow cars doing around 80mph on the right-hand side of the track as we were doing 160 to 165 mph on the left. You just had to hope it all worked out. And in 1959, it certainly did."

He suffered dysentery for the entire race, and said he slept 12 straight hours afterwards, but worse was to come in 1960, when he was diagnosed with angina pectoralis. He quit racing but set up a Goodyear dealership in California and the Carroll Shelby School of High Performance Driving at Riverside. He carried on at breakneck speed in his business life despite his health problems, in later years creating the Dodge Viper sportscar, before finally undergoing a heart transplant in June 1990 and later a kidney transplant. He was honoured in May last year by the World Children's Transplant Fund for his donations to organ transplants over the years.

Carroll Hall Shelby, racing driver and businessman: born Leesburg, Texas 11 January 1923; married firstly Jeanne (one daughter, one son), secondly Cleo; died Dallas, Texas 10 May 2012.