|Pictured during a 1996 event at the Beverly Hilton Hotel are Al Michaels
James Garner, Mario Andretti, Danny Sullivan, Jim Murray, Carroll Shelby and Dan Gurney.
Jim did a great column on Shelby in 1991 that was headlined ‘The Best Part Is That He Is Young At Heart.’
SEPTEMBER 15, 1991, SPORTS
Copyright 1991/THE TIMES MIRROR COMPANY
The Best Part Is That He Is Young at Heart
Carroll Shelby knew he had only weeks to live, maybe days.
Only 14 per cent of his heart function was left. His lungs were filled with fluid. It was an effort to lift the Scotch-and-water off the table in the Grill Room at Bel-Air and sip it. Carroll was a goner and he knew it.
It was nothing new. Carroll Shelby had had a bad ticker for 30 years. He was the only driver in history who won the grueling Le Mans 24-hour race gulping nitroglycerin pills. He had won three national auto racing championships. He was sometimes in a cockpit when he would have been better off in an iron lung — or at least an oxygen mask.
The condition was hereditary. Shelby came from a long line of people who died young, including his parents. He dealt with the problem in a typical Carroll Shelby way — he ignored it.
As Carroll Shelby sat in the clubhouse and gazed out at the sloping fairways and preternaturally green putting surfaces, he could reflect on a life that didn't owe him a thing. He didn't miss much.
Carroll Shelby was your typical take-a-chance Texan who, in the old days, would have ridden into town with his own deck and a notched gun, looking for a cow-or a cowboy-to punch. You looked at him and you knew what Billy the Kid was all about. Wyatt Earp. He had that same devil-may-care restless energy, zest for adventure. He never could stand to stay in one place very long. His heart was on its own. Carroll Shelby was going places. It could come along if it wanted to.
He had flown in fighter planes in the Second World War. He had gone broke half a dozen times as a chicken farmer and trucking operator — but it barely slowed him down. It just encouraged him to do what he always wanted to do: Climb into a racecar and go looking for people to beat.
He had a great career as a driver. The last thing you ever wanted to see in your rear-view mirror was Carroll Shelby. You would shortly be in his rear-view mirror. He won Le Mans, the Mille Miglia and dozens of road races.
But if he had a knack for driving, he had a positive genius for automotive design. He only drove cars recklessly. He built cars with the meticulous care of a watchmaker. His famous Shelby Cobras swept the road-racing circuits of the 1960s and made Ford engines much sought after. But it was their racing configuration that set auto buffs' hearts pounding. They regarded the Cobras the way art experts regard the statue of David. There were only 1,000 Shelby Cobras built, but if you can find one today, it will cost you a million dollars.
Shelby built Can-Am cars, Trans-Am cars. He raced Formula Ones in Europe. He was a man in a hurry because he didn't think he had long.
After he won the national championship with Cobras for seven years in a row, he built the Shelby Mustang and won for four more. He was impatient with delays. Once, when he had gone to Ford looking for $25,000 for a prototype — "Give me the money and I'll run Corvette off the road," he insisted — Lee Iacocca finally ordered, "Give him the money before he bites somebody."
Disgusted when government-mandated emissions and safety regulations dropped Detroit out of performance-car production, Shelby pitted his career. "America went out of the business of performance cars and started building shoe boxes on wheels. Ford went out of racing and put the money in air bags," he snapped.
Shelby didn't open a garage in Torrance or a truck dealership in Tulsa. He not only left the business, he left the country. He went to Africa to become a great white hunter. He considered that just far enough. "I'm always getting into something I have no business in," he drawls.
He ran his safari and airplane-chartering business until his friend, Iacocca, moved over to Chrysler. "One of the first things he did was call me," Shelby said with some pride.
At the time, Chrysler felt a need to shake its image as a builder of dowager-class cars, and Shelby and Iacocca worked on the kind of cars that put less emphasis on head room and more on style room. Cars named ‘Stealth’ and ‘Viper’ began to creep into the line instead of cars named ‘Fifth Avenue.’
Shelby, as usual, went too fast for his heart to keep up. He lived life as if he had two laps to go and four cars to pass, and it took its toll. A bypass operation in 1973 and another in 1978 only delayed the inevitable. His vitality continued to deteriorate. His heart was running on empty. He was like an engine running on one cylinder and missing. The man who had mastered the treacherous Mulsanne Straight at Le Mans had trouble handling a golf cart.
"My doctor, Rex Kennamer, decided I had better have a heart transplant," he said.
Thus began the long, lonely, agonizing wait. Organ transplant is the wildest kind of medical lottery. It is stuff right out of Dr. Frankenstein. It smacks of raising the dead.
It is normally torture for the patient. Shelby took it in stride. He didn't act like a man on death row. He acted like a man leading a parade. No one every heard Carroll Shelby complain. Explain, yes. He candidly admitted he was dying. He shrugged off sympathy. His motto was, "Shut up and deal" or "Who's away?"
As week piled upon week and month upon month, hope faded for Carroll Shelby. Finishing races had always been his specialty, but this looked like one time he would finally hit the wall.
On the evening of June 7, 1991, as Carroll Shelby was sitting at the club trying to figure whom to leave his autos to, a 34-year-old man was hurrying to the crap tables at a casino in Las Vegas. He dropped dead of a massive cerebral hemorrhage. He was a donor. His heart was flown to Cedars Sinai Heart Transplant unit in Los Angeles, and Carroll Shelby was rushed to the operating table.
At 10 that night, Dr. Jack Matloff set about to performing an operation only a Jules Verne would have dreamed of a generation ago. Carroll Shelby was fitted with a new fuel pump.
He's not going back to Le Mans. He may not even get into Super Vees. But he's shooting 76s on his own ball, selling tires, designing cars. Most of him is 68 but at heart he's only 34.
They are holding a golf tournament for Carroll Shelby at Caesars Tahoe this week. But it's not any old member-guest. It's got heart. The money raised, at Carroll's insistence, will go to pay for heart transplants for patients who have no money. Heart transplants cost in the neighborhood of $300,000 today. Not even retail.
"I was at an Auburn-Duesenberg convention in Indiana recently," Shelby recalled, "and I went to see this little girl, Leah Smith, who had to have a heart transplant at five days old. She's eight months now and doing fine. We want to fix it so lots of Leah Smiths can have a life. As the song says, 'You Gotta Have Heart.' "
Most people would say Carroll Shelby always had a lot of it — even when he was down to 14 per cent.
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