I was watching a Carroll Shelby tribute a couple of weeks ago. My nephew watched it with me, both of us sharing a love for anything automotive, and he asked me a question: “Who was this Shelby guy anyway?”
Flabbergasted, I composed myself and explained Carroll’s place in the annals of automotive history and shared his life as a race car driver. Afterward, my nephew was amazed that Shelby worked for Ford and Chrysler and that many of the muscle cars he loves were created by this great man. Once again, he sent my system into shock when he asked: “Was he better than Jimmie Johnson?”
This got me to thinking; we now have a whole generation that doesn’t know the legend of many of the men who created the cars that we drool over decades later. Many youngsters don’t even know that the only reason we have a 458 Italia is because Enzo wanted money to go racing and that without him, the legend of Alfa Romeo (Youngster: “Who is that?”) wouldn’t have as much mystique. Do they even know that there are Lamborghini tractors, Volvo fighter jets and Rolls Royce engine airplanes? So much automotive history has been reduced to cameo appearances in music videos, TV shows and video games. The car hobby is doomed. All our passion and pride will be reduced to rims and bad paint schemes if we don’t tell these “new kids on the block” that this love affair with cars comes with a poetic, engaging and sometimes tragic history.
Mr. Shelby, as a racer, was one of the last of a dying breed. He was part of a class with the likes of John Force, Junior Johnson, Mario Andretti and A. J. Foyt; tough ol’ S.O.B.’s who grit their teeth and refused to die. They were the ones who gripped the wheel and made those machines do their will. Racing in thin helmets, denim shirts, goggles and seatbelts thin enough to see through. Jimmie Johnson is an athlete, Shelby was a hero.
Shelby built vehicles for the anywhere avenue racer, who weren’t privy to the race track but allowed them to transform their favorite road into a drag strip or road course. The working guy’s car builder, he (and fellows like Lee Iacocca, John DeLorean and Bob Lutz,) slapped the bean-counters in the face, did back room engine-stuffing and wrangled a few board members to their way of thinking. They went against the powers that be to build the cars THEY wanted to build.
There will never be another Carroll Shelby. He and so many other legends of the industry are disappearing. I have nothing against Jimmie Johnson. I am an avid fan but I am sure if you engaged him in conversation, he would agree with me in saying that Shelby was more than just an old car guy; he was a force in the industry and someone the generations to come should respect. Having poured out of my very soul about Mr. Shelby, my nephew and I now watch automotive programming more frequently. I knew that I’d gotten through to him when he asked me: “Could you tell me about Fangio?” Take heart gearheads, all is not lost.