Carroll Shelby passed away last night. He was 89 years old, and had spent the last 21 of those years on a transplanted heart. Mr. Shelby was a tough old bird from East Texas, and he did a hell of a lot in his 89 years.
The New York Times and ESPN both have eloquent obituaries of this influential sports car racer and designer. But I have a more personal story to tell.
As readers of this blog may know, I have one of Mr. Shelby’s cars, a 1968 GT500KR convertible that I’ve owned since 1978. I had the opportunity to meet him a few times at car shows over the years.
When I worked in London, a friend called to tell me Mr. Shelby was flying into Heathrow and could I meet him and assist his arrival into the UK?
And of course I did. We had a nice chat working our way through immigrations and retrieving his bag. He probably didn’t remember me, but he faked it very convincingly. As I helped him into his ride, a 1967 Shelby (the only one I ever saw in the UK), he gave me a few tickets to the Goodwood Festival of Speed, which he was attending. “Come see me,” he said, “and we’ll have lunch.”
I told Sooz and Grant of my encounter and we made plans to go to Goodwood and to have lunch with Mr. Shelby. Grant, who was 7½ at the time, was especially excited as he was going to get to meet one of my heroes. He was at that age when the Guinness Book of World records fascinated him; he loved the biggest and the best of everything. (It was also an age where my heroes were still his heroes, but I digress.)
In the world of Shelby, the biggest and best was the Daytona Coupe, a special aerodynamically-bodied Cobra that was fantastically successful, beautiful, and rare. Only 6 were made, and at the time, the whereabouts of one of the cars was unknown. Grant was captivated by the idea of the missing Daytona. He was going to ask Mr. Shelby where it was.
We got to Goodwood and immediately I feared our plans for lunch were a fantasy. The place was heaving; hundreds of world-class cars of all types were everywhere. It was hard to move in the crowded paddock. I realized it was going to be hard to get a glimpse of Shelby, let alone have lunch. It was as if I planned to see Elvis at the Sands and have him catch my eye from the stage.
However, I had a son I didn’t want to disappoint, so I gathered up my courage and pushed my way close and gave Mr. Shelby a wave I hoped didn’t look too desperate.
Miracle of miracles, Mr. Shelby did indeed see us. He worked his way over, brought us into the VIP area and said it was perfect timing for lunch. I have to admit I was amazed. He commandeered an official car and we drove to a local pub. At every point, Mr. Shelby was mobbed by well-wishers and autograph seekers. He handled them all with a down-home charm, but he never let us forget we were part of his circle. It was like traveling with a real rock star.
We had a lovely lunch. Mr. Shelby was generous with his time, he paid special attention to Grant, who was a little star-struck, and it was a charming time.
As lunch was winding up, Grant hadn’t asked about the Daytona Coupe yet, so I said, “Mr. Shelby, Grant has a question he would like to ask you.” So he said, “Ask away, Grant”, and in a really small voice, he asked if he knew where the missing Daytona was.
I thought he would have had trouble hearing the question; I barely heard Grant’s shy voice. But sure enough, he had, and he leaned over close to Grant and said in a perfect conspiratorial whisper, “Why yes, Grant, I do know where that car is. A crazy lady owns it. She keeps in the garage of her house in California. But don’t worry, I’ll get it back one day.” And he added with a wink, “but don’t tell anybody!”
One of the things Carroll Shelby was great at was telling tall tales. The thing that made him different from most men was that his tall tales were all more or less true. But this time, I thought that he had told Grant a tall tale to impress him, quite successfully, I might add.
Here’s a photo from that lunch. Grant doesn’t remember much from being 7, but he sure remembers that day.
The best part comes about a year later. I read that a mentally disturbed woman in California had passed away. She was the daughter of Phil Spector’s bodyguard. And in her suburban garage, she had kept, for the past 30 years, the missing Daytona Coupe.
Just like Mr. Shelby had told Grant a year before. Stage whisper or not, he had told my son the straight truth. What a guy.
RIP, Carroll Shelby. They don’t make ‘em like you anymore, and the world is a poorer place for it.