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Shelby’s Influence Reached Down To Street Level

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Sunday, May 13 2012

Dan Gurney and Carroll Shelby engage in a late-night chat during the 1966 race at Sebring. It was just one of the many important endurance races which Shelby cars won. (Photos courtesy of Ford Racing)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
RacinToday.com

Me and the guys who grew up on the hard, cracked-concrete streets of our blue-collar, auto-town neighborhood during the the late 1950s and ’60s were not really Cobra guys.

Vette guys, 409 guys, Super Stock guys, Mopar guys, Poncho guys, Javelin guys, 442 guys, ‘Stang guys; for sure. We could tell just by the way a 409 sat and sounded whether it had duel quads. Could tell the difference between a 440 Six Pack and a 426 Hemi blindfolded. Knew in an instant if the 413 going past really had Iskys or was just posing with a decal.

But when it came to Cobras, not so much.

They were, kind of, more River Thames than Detroit River with that two-seat, AC body. A little too exotic, perhaps. A litte too…too.

But the big reason for our naivete, I think, was Cobras were just rare – never-ever saw one cruise downtown Kenosha on a Friday night – and, perhaps irritatingly, were a step ahead of everything else we loved.

And not just a baby step.

Cobras for us Midwestern auto-town guys in the 1960s were ethereal heathen gods.

Oh, we knew all about the brutish 427s that were being shoehorned into the AC engine bays and, of course, were suitably impressed. (Under our breaths.)

But most of all, we knew about Carroll Shelby. The chicken farmer from Texas with the bib overalls and with the cowboy hat that looked like it had been trampled to death during a Fort Worth to Abilene cattle drive.

We felt almost indebted to Shelby for what he did to those damn Ferraris, with their overhead cams and 12-

Carroll Shelby at the wheel of one of his iconic pieces – the Cobra.

cylinders and their good brakes and abilities to go quickly around corners and their wine-sipping drivers. It was very cool, we knew, that at Le Mans in 1966, 10 years after he told arrogant Italian car-maker Enzo Ferrari that someday he was going to “blow your ass off”, Shelby did just that at the Circuit de le Sarthe.)

The feeling of indebtedness grew, of course, over the years, as horizons expanded to include into our circle of automotive appreciation, cars whose primary functions were not simply to move quickly between stop lights.

It was then that the true wonderfulness of the Cobra became apparent.

It was then that the remarkable feats of the GT40 at Le Mans and Daytona and Sebring became obvious and hit home.

It’s the track cars – the Cobras and GT40s – which I think about most when I think of Carroll Shelby. And think best about.

In the mid-1980s, I got a call from a collector I knew in Colorado. He had just, somehow, gotten his hands on an original GT40 and invited me to his garage to see it. Hands trembled as I reached down to just touch it.

A lump made swallowing difficult 20 years later when I walked into A.J. Foyt’s NASCAR race shop in North Carolina and there, really big, hanging on a wall was a head-on photo of the red GT40 at Le Mans. In the driver’s seat and made visible by a beam of yellow sunlight was Foyt in that cool old open-face helmet.

Then earlier today, as I blew through internet stories on Shelby written in the aftermath of his death on Thursday at age 89, I paid a visit to a framed old photo/poster hanging in an upstairs hallway. It’s a photo from 1965 and taken at Sebring.

In the black-and-white photo – given to me by my best friend/Road America mentor Frank, who had somehow wrangled  an invitation to a Shelby American Collection party in Boulder, Colo. – a half dozen Shelby Daytona Coupes were in various stages of tear-down as they were being prepped for the 12-hour race. Standing around in t-shirts and jeans are racers Lloyd Ruby, Richie Ginther, Bob Bondurant and engineer Ken Miles.

At the bottom, in ballpoint pen, it was signed by Shelby.

No shaking hands as I looked at it, no lump in throat. Just a smile. Hero worship is seldom a good thing. Appreciating pioneers of true genius is never a bad thing.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Sunday, May 13 2012
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