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March 20th, 2013
Bartee Haile: Carroll Shelby before the Cobra and all that chili

This Week in Texas History:
A column


The cover of the Mar. 25, 1957 issue of Sports Illustrated featured a former chicken farmer, the magazine’s choice for “driver of the year” for the second year in a row.

Nowadays most people associate Carroll Shelby with the classic “muscle cars” he created or the chili concoction that bears his name. But half a century ago he was the American race-car king who had the audacity to win Europe’s most grueling road race.

Shelby's famous chili kit claims it will “shake the meanness out of the most ornery, leather-mouthed chili-head that ever was born.”

Shelby’s famous chili kit claims it will “shake the meanness out of the most ornery, leather-mouthed chili-head that ever was born.”

Carroll Hall Shelby was born in 1923 at tiny Leesburg in the northeastern corner of the Lone Star State. A sickly boy almost from birth, he was seven years old when a doctor finally figured out the problem was a defective heart valve and ordered him to bed.

To get his son out of the house, his mail-carrier father took him to dirt-bike and auto races. It was love at first sight for young Carroll, who also became a flying fanatic but only after his dad bribed him into taking his maiden flight.

Not until he turned 14 was Shelby pronounced physically fit for a normal life. The family had since moved to Dallas, where the teenager attended Woodrow Wilson high school. A fair-to-middling student, he was more interested in tinkering with internal combustion engines and rebuilding go-carts.

Shelby’s formal education ended with his graduation in 1940. His plan to enroll in an aeronautical engineering program was put on permanent hold by Pearl Harbor.

Enlisting in the Army Air Corps, the Texan took to aviation like a duck to water. Too knowledgeable to send overseas, he spent the war at bases in his home state and Colorado teaching aspiring pilots how to fly bombers.

While stationed at the San Antonio Aviation Cadet Center, renamed Lackland Air Force Base in 1947, he met an attractive member of the opposite sex. To make an unforgettable impression on the object of his affection, he flew over her house in a “borrowed” airplane and dropped a love letter in her yard. That must have done the trick for the couple married in December 1943.

Four years later, Shelby had a wife and three children to support and no idea how to do it. He worked in the oilfield for a short while before going into business with a dump truck. Then in 1949 he envisioned a promising future in poultry.

In the beginning, it looked like Shelby had discovered the pot at the end of the rainbow. His initial batch of chickens yielded a profit of $5,000 – more than $40,000 in today’s inflated currency – but the second never made it to market dying of avian botulism or limberneck disease. The unlucky chicken farmer’s next stop was bankruptcy court.

With lots of free time, Shelby accepted a friend’s invitation to put his custom hot rod through its quarter-mile paces. This ice-breaker in January 1952 was followed later in the year by his first two road races.

Behind the wheel of another friend’s MG, he bested a bevy of identical British two- seaters and in a second race that same day drove the little MG powered by a mere 54 horses to victory over a field of far faster Jaguar XK 120’s.

After that impressive feat, the 29 year old amateur was the talk of auto racing. The first professional team to seek his services was Cad-Allard, and he responded by taking second place in a major road race.

The story behind Shelby’s famous striped bib overalls is well worth the telling. Arriving late for a race, he did not have time to change clothes. “When I noticed how much attention they got, I decided to wear them all the time.”

Young Shelby in his signature "bibs."

Young Shelby in his signature “bibs.”

In 1954 the rising star drove in his first foreign road event, the Kimberly Cup in Argentina. When the motor suddenly caught fire, he had his co-driver urinate on the burning engine block enabling the quick-thinking Texan to finish a respectable tenth.

Back in the U.S., Shelby set many records on the Bonneville Salt Flats in an Austin- Healey. Refusing to let serious injuries from a 1954 crash keep him out of action, he continued to compete with his arm in a cast and his hand taped to the steering wheel.

First place in 19 consecutive races ensured a repeat as the Sports Illustrated “Driver of the Year” in 1957.

But, instead of resting on his laurels, Shelby set his sights on the Formula One circuit.

Nineteen fifty-eight was a year of mixed results with just one top-six finish. But in June 1959 he captured the crown jewel of the European sport by winning the 24-hour test of man and machine at Le Mans with co-driver Ray Salvadori.

For longer than anyone knew, Shelby had been racing with nitroglycerin pills under his tongue to ward off a heart attack. He retired in the summer of 1960 to concentrate on his next career – designing “muscle cars” like the Mustang Shelby GT500, Shelby Cobra and Dodge Viper. But it never was all work and no play for the fun-loving legend, who organized the fabled Terlinqua International Chili Championship in the Big Bend.

1967 Shelby Mustang GT 500

1967 Shelby Mustang GT 500

Carroll Shelby lived the last 22 years of his life with a heart from a Las Vegas gambler and the final 16 with one of his son’s kidneys. But death can be postponed only so long and it came for the old chicken farmer in May 2012 at the age of 89.

Bartee Haile welcomes your comments, questions and suggestions at P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, TX 77549 or

San Marcos Mercury columnist BARTEE HAILE welcomes your comments, questions and suggestions at P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, Texas 77549 or by email here.

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