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Texas History

From Chicken Farmer to Snake Charmer

Carroll Shelby, creator of the legendary Ford Shelby Mustang, loved his fast cars

The class of 1972 sat outside listening to Janis Joplin plead for a Mercedes-Benz. A growl interrupted, turning heads toward the road. An orange 1968 Shelby

Mustang paced like a caged tiger. The omnipresent sheriff restrained its owner to a submissive 35 mph, but he couldn’t quell the sensation that this tiger would break loose. The driver sped away, the engine’s roar diminished behind the school bell, but the spell remained unbroken. Teens drifted inside, praying—not for a Mercedes but for a Shelby.

What teen wouldn’t like a machine boasting muscle and a name like King of the Road? After 50 years, Shelby cars—Mustangs and Cobras—still drive youths into the workforce to buy them. Young and old pay a premium for the privilege of owning Carroll Shelby’s earliest transformations.

Shelby, the mastermind behind the high-performance Shelby Cobras and Mustangs, put an American Ford V-8 engine into a lightweight British AC Cars chassis in 1962 in Southern California, hatching the first Cobra and changing the automotive industry forever. He transformed Ford’s Mustang into a racehorse, bringing power to the people.

But his road to the top had switchbacks.

Shelby was born January 11, 1923, in Leesburg to a rural mail carrier and his wife. After graduating from Woodrow Wilson High in Dallas, he sped skyward as a World War II flight instructor and test pilot near San Antonio. Back on the ground, he started a dump truck business, tried roughnecking and then decided to raise chickens. He started racing cars in 1952, and in 1953, he literally left the chicken farm wearing striped bib overalls to race at Eagle Mountain near Fort Worth. The overalls captured a lot of publicity—as did his racing—so he decided to make them his signature racing attire.

Sports Illustrated named Shelby its Driver of the Year in 1956 and again in 1957, and in 1958, he teamed with Ray Salvadori to win the prestigious 24 Hours of Le Mans. He won three U.S. sports car racing championships.

Shelby also was in a race against time.

It was determined when he was 7 that he had a serious congenital heart defect. He drove in a 200-mile race in 1960 with nitroglycerin pills underneath his tongue to stave off a heart attack. He finished third and after the race said, “If I hadn’t slowed down each time I popped one of those pills, I might have won.”

That same year, told he had less than five years to live, Shelby quit driving and turned to designing cars—for five decades. Shelby also owned a ranch near Terlingua and helped launch its famous world chili cook-off in 1968. That led to the creation of “Carroll Shelby Chili” mix. And in 1975, he helped start the Chili’s restaurant chain.

His hottest hand, though, was definitely in the automotive and racing industry. He helped Ford Chairman Lee A. Iacocca develop Mustang racecars—the GT350, the GT40, the GT500 and the GT500KR. KR stood for “king of the road.” His Ford GT40 won the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1966 and 1967.

When Iacocca took over Chrysler, he enlisted Shelby’s help again, and they came up with a high-performance Dodge Charger and the Dodge Viper.

In 1990, while working on the Viper, Shelby’s health required him to undergo a heart transplant. A year later, he established what is now the Carroll Shelby Foundation. Initially founded to defray expenses for children’s transplants, it also assists children with other serious illnesses and partners with Northeast Texas Community College to prepare students for automotive careers.

In 1996, he received a kidney from his son Michael, becoming one of the oldest survivors of two transplants.

In May, shortly before the debut of his latest powerhouse, the 2013 Shelby GT500, Shelby died at Baylor Hospital in Dallas. He was 89.

His Los Angeles Times obituary succinctly described his life in the fast lane: “He raced cars. He had a heart transplant from a Las Vegas gambler in 1990 and a kidney transplant from a son in 1996. He was married seven times.”

And—oh, Lord—the squealing tires and throaty rumble of his fast cars continue to turn heads on highways and -street corners everywhere.

K.A. Young, a member of Wood County Electric Cooperative, lives in Quitman.