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Carroll Shelby, Race Driver And Designer Of The Shelby Cobra, Dies

Actor Steve McQueen, left, and racer Carroll Shelby stand by McQueen's Ford-Cobra roadster, June 28, 1963, in Los Angeles.
Dick Stroebel
Actor Steve McQueen, left, and racer Carroll Shelby stand by McQueen's Ford-Cobra roadster, June 28, 1963, in Los Angeles.

Carroll Shelby was a race car driver; he was a racing team owner, a chili entrepreneur. He survived a liver transplant and a heart transplant. But perhaps the thing that most people will remember him for is his automotive creations, especially the Shelby Cobra.

"With a combination of light weight and V-8 power, the Cobra quickly dominated sports car racing," Mustang Monthly reports. "Street versions were sold to Hollywood celebrities, and a later model with 427 power became known as one of the fastest musclecars of all time."

Shelby died yesterday at age 89. The cause of death was not immediately known.

The AP provides this overview of his life:

"Shelby first made his name behind the wheel of a car, winning France's grueling 24 Hours of Le Mans sports car race with teammate Ray Salvadori in 1959. He already was suffering serious heart problems and ran the race "with nitroglycerin pills under his tongue," Messer once noted.

"He had turned to the race-car circuit in the 1950s after his chicken ranch failed. He won dozens of races in various classes throughout the 1950s and was twice named Sports Illustrated's Driver of the Year.

"Soon after his win at Le Mans, he gave up racing and turned his attention to designing high-powered 'muscle cars' that eventually became the Shelby Cobra and the Mustang Shelby GT500."

On the racing circuit, The Dallas Morning News reports that Shelby's crowning moment was when he beat Enzo Ferrari at the World Manufacturer's Championship in 1965.

As SpeedTV tells it, that journey started in the early '60s when Shelby was having great success racing consumer Cobras. He even took one of those Cobras to 1964 LeMans, but it could never compete with the Ferrari 250 GTO, which hit 180 mph.

But that changed, Speed TV adds:

"The Ferraris dominated the Cobras and sent Shelby back to America with plans for a more-streamlined coupe version of his race car.

"Twenty-three-year-old Peter Brock was assigned the task of making the Cobra more slippery at high speed, and he designed a unique solution that had some experts shaking their heads, as well as flying in the face of race-car aesthetics of the era. But the Shelby Daytona Coupe performed brilliantly, and with famed drivers Bob Bondurant and Dan Gurney at the wheel was able to hit 196 mph on the Mulsanne Straight.

"More importantly, the Daytona Coupe trounced the Ferraris to win the GT class at LeMans, and went on to win the World Manufacturer's Championship."

Up until he died, Shelby was the CEO of Carroll Shelby International.

"We are all deeply saddened, and feel a tremendous sense of loss for Carroll's family, ourselves and the entire automotive industry," Joe Conway, president of Carroll Shelby International, Inc. said in a statement. "There has been no one like Carroll Shelby and never will be. However, we promised Carroll we would carry on, and he put the team, the products and the vision in place to do just that."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.