Some men’s names are forever linked with a particular piece of real estate: Davy Crockett and the Alamo; Neil Armstrong and the moon; generals Grant and Lee and the Appomattox court house. The same can be said of Carroll Shelby and Sebring. Both as a driver and designer, the legendary figure graced that 3.74 miles of asphalt and concrete with his presence in ways that will live forever in automotive history.
Carroll Shelby was born to move fast. During WWII he piloted fighter planes and bombers, though his dislike of military discipline kept him stateside during the great conflict. After leaving the Army Air Corps he dabbled in various enterprises until 1952, when he found his true calling: motorsports. Shelby’s first race was a quarter-mile event in January of that year; he drove a hot rod equipped with a flathead Ford engine. In May of ’52 he ran in his first road race, a competition between MG-TCs; he won. Later that same day he raced a second time, this time against Jaguar XK 120s. Once again he emerged victorious.
In 1954, Aston Martin asked Shelby to drive a DB3 at Sebring. He did so, coming in second. In November of that year he was involved in a devastating accident while participating in the Carrera Pan Americana Mexico, flipping his car four times. The wreck caused substantial damage to one of his arms, requiring multiple surgeries over the next several years to correct.
Usually, a broken arm would sideline most racers for an indefinite time. Not Carroll Shelby. He came back to Sebring in 1955, this time with co-driver Phil Hill. His arm still in a cast at the time, he had his crew tape his hand to the steering wheel so he could compete. When the dust was settled, it looked like the pair had won the competition. Then came the bad news: a scoring error was found, relegating the duo to second place.
The rest of the 1950s saw Shelby’s racing career reach its peak, with Sports Illustrated naming him Driver of the Year in 1957. Then, in 1960, repeated chest pains drove him to seek medical help. His doctor prescribed nitroglycerin tablets, which alleviated the pain but couldn’t save his career. Carroll Shelby retired from racing at the age of 37.
As with the broken arm, such a setback would have finished most men. In Shelby’s case, however, it only caused him to reinvent himself, coming back as a race car builder and designer. This passion led him back to Sebring, this time as the builder of the Shelby Daytona, and then as the man who massaged Ford GT40 to success.
Ford and Ferrari: the Grudge that Wouldn’t Die
Henry Ford II was delighted by the news that Enzo Ferrari wanted to sell his motor sports company in 1963. What better way to add to the Ford family’s empire than by acquiring such a prize? But the deal went sour later that year, largely due to Ferrari’s for a number of reasons, including Enzo’s fear of losing his autonomy and Ford spending apparently too much time delving into Ferrari’s financials. Ferrari
Enraged, Ford swore he would get revenge by “beating Ferrari’s ass” on the racetrack. To this end, he commissioned his company’s GT project, intended to go head to head with the Italians. Unfortunately, early efforts proved less than successful. The GT failed to finish in the Nurburgring in 1964. Three weeks later all three Ford entrants were retired early at Le Mans.
Team manager John Wyer had not been given the time or resources to get the GT40 to where it needed to be. The project was handed over to Shelby in 1964, who separately had success in his Shelby Daytona, which brought glory (and vindication) to Ford and the US at the 1964 Sebring (GT class win) and again in 1965.
The GT40, did the same in 1966, 1967, and 1969 in its Mk1, Mk4, and Mk1 (again) versions. Undeterred by a broken arm, bad heart, and countless other challenges, Shelby proved what he and his people could so at Sebring.
Image Sources: Wikipedia