Carroll Shelby, race car driver, team owner and car builder, was born on this day in 1923. Shelby is perhaps best known for his role in the creation of the Shelby AC Cobra and the Shelby Mustangs of the 1960s. However, his career spanned decades of racing, engineering and production feats.
Shelby’s need for speed was present as far back as the 1930s when he cruised around his high school town in Texas in a modified Willys. After graduation he served in the Air Army Corps during WWII. There he earned his wings as a test pilot and flight instructor. Upon discharge he held positions in the oil fields and on a poultry farm before finally getting a chance to grab the wheel during a professional auto race.
His early racing career got underway thanks to a few friends lending their cars to him for days at the track. This included an MG TC and a Cad-Allard, which he entered into various amateur races. In the late 1950s, his success earned him invitations to race for the factory teams of Aston Martin and Maserati. To scratch the surface of his accomplishments in the driver’s seat; Shelby set 16 international speed records at Bonneville Speed Flats in a modified Austin Healey, set the Mount Washington Hillclimb record and Sports Illustrated name him driver of the year in 1956 and 1957. However, Shelby once said the biggest achievement of his racing career was winning the 1959 24 Hours at Le Mans with teammate Roy Salvadori. At that race he noticed the outstanding performance of the English AC Ace, the very car which would become the basis for the AC Cobra.
Due to health concerns, Shelby retired from racing in October 1959, but his contributions to the track were far from over. He soon started Shelby-American, which imported specially built AC cars. He asked the English auto builder to alter the vehicle, which usually carried a Briston straight-6 so that a Ford V8 could be stuffed under the hood. The company obliged, allowing for the the Shelby Cobra to make its debut in 1962.
While the Cobra became a mainstay of the company, Shelby had his hand in numerous other projects, among the most famous were his contributions to the Ford GT40. This very car would go on to become the first American winner of Le Mans (and is the subject of Ford Vs. Ferrari). In the same era, the Mustang-based Shelby GT350 and GT500 began rolling out of his factory, rounding out some of Shelby’s most sought after creations.
Shelby later had partnerships with Dodge and Oldsmobile, and built more cars under his own brand. While some vheicles are sparking collector’s interest now, it became a daunting task to match excitement for his cars that rules racetracks in the 1960s and early 70s. The International Motorsports Hall of Fame inducted Shelby in 1991, the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 1992, the Automotive Hall of Fame in 1992, and the SCCA Hall of Fame in 2013. He passed on May 10, 2012 in Dallas, Texas at the age of 89.