Jay Leno Remembers Carroll Shelby - Article

June 21, 2012 12:00 AM

Carroll Shelby passed away last month at age 89. Jay reminisces about the two decades of their friendship, recounting the man and the attitude that made him a legend.

I first met Carroll Shelby some 20 years ago, when he signed my Mustang GT350. I love that car, but it's one among many greats.

Shelby was responsible for or involved with three of the coolest cars of the sixties: the GT40, the Cobra, and the GT350. My favorite Road and Track cover is the one where he's standing among all three.

He was also a classic American DIYer. From an airplane hangar in Venice, he and a bunch of hot-rodders built the Shelby Daytona Coupe. That car went to Europe and beat Ferrari on its own turf. Shelby was the first American to pull that off, and in fact, Shelby was a lot like Enzo Ferrari. Neither were trained engineers, but they hired the right people and had the vision to create legendary sports cars.

There was a touch of larceny and salesmanship in Shelby that also made him such a character. Back in the nineties, he built a new car called the Series 1. I went to see it and Shelby said, "Jay, this is the best car I ever built." I took that comment with a grain of salt. That car may not have been a complete failure, but it was close.

And then there was the time that Shelby said he had found some original, unused 1960's-era Cobra frames in a field. With those original VIN tags he could build new Cobras in the eighties that didn't have to meet the current crash and emission regulations. He was trying to get around some regulatory loophole, but still, what a tale. He had a bit of Smokey Yunick in him—an attitude like, "It ain't cheating if you don't get caught." But who can argue with what he achieved?

I like that he started with production-based cars and made high-performance versions. He took an engine similar to the one in my mom's Ford Falcon and won races with it. And later he turned the dull Dodge Omni into the wild GLHS. The list goes on.

As his legend grew, he remained an approachable aw-shucks kind of guy. He and I played a little game that went on for decades. It started when I made a donation to his charity. I knew he'd hit me up every time he saw me, so at events where car guys gather, like at Pebble Beach, I'd make sure to make eye contact with him and then hide. He'd always track me down—even though he was not exactly sprightly—give me some grief, and we'd have a laugh. He knew I was more than happy to support his foundation, but he played along.

But beyond all that, Shelby was one of the last of the automotive icons. Even folks who aren't interested in cars know his name and what he did. The world is a less interesting place without him.

By Jay Leno
Via: Published in the May 2012 issue of Popular Mechanics.

 

 

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