E3 Spark Plugs, along with the rest of the automotive world, is mourning the loss of Carroll Shelby, iconic car builder and champion auto racer. Representatives with his company, Carroll Shelby International, say the 89-year-old passed away last Thursday, May 10 at a Dallas hospital.
Best known for building the much celebrated Shelby Cobra sports car, Shelby began his professional life as a chicken farmer. When his ranching stint failed, Shelby went on to careers in champion race car driving, racing team ownership, automobile manufacturing, automotive consulting, operating African safari tours, developing a line of chilis and philanthropy.
Shelby first came to international fame in 1959, when he and teammate Ray Salvadori won France’s grueling 24 Hours of Le Mans sports car race despite heart valve leakage problems he had suffered since age seven. It’s said that he won the race with nitroglycerin pills under his tongue. He had begun racing after a stint in the U.S. Army Air Corps, serving in World War II as a flight instructor before hitting the tracks with the Cad-Allard, Aston Martin and Maserati teams.
Having participated in eight Formula One World Championships and racked up dozens of race wins and two Sports Illustrated’s Driver of the Year nods throughout the 1950s, Shelby retired his suit and helmet shortly after his Le Mans victory. But racing proved just the start of his automotive career.
In the 1960s, Shelby turned his attention to building high-powered muscle cars – and the automotive world has been the better for it since. Hand-picked by Ford Motor Co. head Lee Iacocca, Shelby set out to unhand the Corvette as the top choice among young male drivers. Shelby’s early builds eventually became the Shelby Cobra and the Mustang Shelby GT500 – two of the most enduringly popular rides in America.
The Cobra in particular has long been a favorite. It debuted at the 1962 New York Auto Show as the fastest production model ever made at the time. It used Ford engines and a British sport car chassis and inspired the Rip Chords’ Top 5 Billboard pop chart tune, Hey, Little Cobra.
Shelby’s cause of death has not been disclosed, but it’s widely known that his heart valve leakage problems dogged him for decades. He reportedly spent much of his childhood in bed until doctors declared he had “outgrown” the issue at age 14. He also was one of the nation’s longest living heart transplant recipients, having received a heart in 1990 from an aneurysm victim, as well as a kidney in 1996 from his son, Michael. Shelby considered that heart transplant a second chance for a long life and soon committed to giving back via the Carroll Shelby Foundation, which helps kids battling life-threatening illnesses, supports organizations that provide medical assistance, funds scholarships in automotive education and supports educational programs in automotive and related fields.
“I never thought about dying,” he once told reporters. “The day you were born, it was already written down the day you’re gonna check out. Now, I’m not gonna throw myself under a truck, but I’m not gonna worry about when I die. I’m ready to move on when that day comes.”
We here at E3 Spark Plugs send our condolences to the Shelby family and thank Carroll Shelby for his enduring contributions to the automotive world.
Check out photos of the late Carroll Shelby and a tribute video by YouTube user domesticmango.