Remembering Carroll Shelby

Like most schlubs who love cars but were born sans silver spoon in mouth, I could only admire Carroll Shelby’s outrageous automotive creations from afar. His simple theory—stuff a giant engine in a small car and bask in the physics of a high power-to-weight ratio—shocked the racing world back in the ‘60s and ultimately made him a racing star and an automotive legend.

But frankly, it surprised no one familiar with motorcycles. Cars are expensive and the fast ones are out of reach, motorcycles are faster and way less money, so I misspent my semi-disposable income on two-wheeled speed and left the Cobra lusting to the soulless collectors and country-club dandies.

And so it went until last year when I toured the Shelby American plant out by the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where they have a museum, and in that museum they have CSX 2000, the very first Shelby Cobra ever built. It is rumored to be the single most valuable car in the world, worth more than $20 million. It’s a prototype with skinny tires and panels that don’t quite fit right. I’ve seen better-looking Cobras.

It dawned on me then that the real genius of Shelby, the man, is not in the machines he created—which got a lot better over the years—but in his boisterous approach to life. When he decided he’d had enough of chicken farming, he went racing. When he decided his heart couldn’t take that any longer, he built cars. When manufacturing got bogged down with safety regulations and emissions standards, he led hunting trips to Africa. Then he got into chili. Then it was medical philanthropy. Then it was back into car building. He was restlessly creative, deeply unconcerned with convention and didn’t care what you thought about him. He was profane and fun-loving, but understood what really mattered. That’s a hell of a way to spend 89 years.