How speed kept Carroll Shelby alive an extra 50 years

Carroll Shelby stands with the Ford Shelby GR-1 Concept.

DETROIT -- Carroll Shelby finally lost the grudge match against his own human frailty.

His heart gave out in his thirties. He should have died in the '50s when he was racing Aston Martins in Europe, popping nitro glycerin capsules under his tongue each race. But he didn't die -- not for another half-century and dozens of bypasses, grafts and finally heart and kidney transplants.

When he died Thursday in Dallas at 89, Carroll had more non-stock parts than a Shelby Mustang. A thought that undoubtedly would amuse him, broadening that infectious East Texas grin.

Carroll stopped racing in 1960. "Doctor told me I was gonna die if I didn't," he once told me. "I said I didn't mind dying in a race. Then he asked who else dies when my car crashes."

So Carroll gave up racing -- not easy for a young guy with a Le Mans victory.

But he never stopped. He designed race cars. He manufactured fast cars bearing his name, most famously the Shelby AC Cobra. He wrung speed from the metal of ordinary cars and lent his very marketable name to them, from the Shelby Mustang Cobra to the Dodge Shelby.

When I first met him in the 1980s in Los Angeles, he always had other irons in the fire. He made speed parts for himself and others. He was a licensing genius. My supermarket used to carry "Carroll Shelby Three Alarm Fire Chili Fixin's."

Carroll knew everybody, liked everybody, made comfortable small talk with his carefully honed Texas drawl. Not just auto honchos. Carroll once took me to lunch at the Bel Air Country Club. Very posh, but what impressed me was actor James Garner walking over to greet Carroll, who introduced me. "Now Jim, he's a reporter but not a Hollywood type. He writes cars."

I've been lucky enough to snag scraps of knowledge from some racing legends, quick half-days at an automaker event that are an amateur's dream: helmets, hot laps and somebody else's tires. Jackie Stewart taught me the smoothest line is usually the quickest. Dennis Firestone showed me how to lap big banked tracks at 160 mph.

But Carroll taught down-and-dirty tricks. In a souped-up K-car on the Chrysler proving grounds, Carroll coached me and a young John McElroy, now Autoline host. The track had a steep hill for brake testing, with a hidden left at the bottom. Over several laps, we learned to crest the hill right to left so we came down pointed at the turn, and even how to get some air under the tires.

"Now I'll show you the fast way," Caroll said and got behind the wheel. We zipped up that hill at the same angle but much, much faster. And just as we braced for big air, Carroll tapped the brakes once. The front wheels never left the pavement and he kept the throttle floored all the way down the hill. "You can't accelerate while you're in the air," he said with a grin.

That passion for speed was what Carroll Shelby was all about. The passion made him bigger than life. It was his edge in everything. And it undoubtedly kept him alive against heavy medical odds all these years.

But what I'll miss most are his stories. Carroll always had a tale, often from his early racing days at small Southern tracks.

Now I would never accuse a Texan of embellishing, but his stories seemed to be the kind that improved with each telling. I'll leave you with one of my favorites.

"These tracks weren't fancy, so everybody worked on their cars in the shade. This one track had a peach orchard next to it. This guy was working real hard on his supercharger, the kind that stuck up through the hood. So when he left, I just packed that air scoop with peaches. Handfuls of 'em," Carroll would pause for effect. "Now when he came back and fired it up, you never heard such cussin'. Oh, he was mad. But I could hardly hear him."

And Carroll would catch your eye before the punch line. "Cuz it smelled just like peach cobbler!"

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