“I’m not an engineer or a designer but I think I know what people like.” – Carroll Shelby
I’m so inspired by the humility of a man who grew to be one of the biggest idols in car history. Prior to visiting the Shelby Heritage Center, I thought I knew who Carroll Shelby was. I thought I knew all about his story, and his empire. But now I see my knowledge was only scratching the surface of this amazing man, and his incredible story.
The Story Behind the Prodigy
Carroll Shelby was born on January 11, 1923 in Leesburg, Texas. From the young age of 7, Shelby suffered from a heart valve leakage problem, which ultimately forced him to end his racing career in October 1959. Prior to racing, Shelby served in World War II as a flight instructor and test pilot. He eventually graduated with the rank of staff sergeant pilot.
After the war was over, Shelby ran a handful of businesses that failed before he began racing cars as an amateur in 1952. Shelby quickly made a name for himself n the racing world. After a race and in 1954, Aston Martin team manager, John Wyer, offered him the opportunity to race a car in England for the Aintree race. Shelby finished in second place. Between 1954 and 1959 Carroll continued racing in The U.S. and Mexico, earning the title of Sports Illustrated’s “Driver of the Year” in 1957. In 1960, Shelby completed his last race, Laguna Seca, and in 1961 was forced to retire from racing due to his chronic heart condition.
A good friend of Shelby told me that his response to forced retirement was, “If I can’t race anymore, I want to build them.” And that’s exactly what he did. Shelby sent a proposal to AC Cars, based in England, asking them to provide a chassis to him so he could place a Ford V8 engine in it. Once the proper engine was found (a Ford 4.2 liter small block) the two were merged together and, in Febraury 1962, the Cobra was born in Dean Moon’s Speed Shop.
The original Cobra was painted a pearlescent yellow, and then re-painted a new color every time a magazine came to test drive the Cobra so that it would appear they had many cars in production (good marketing move, don’t you think?). Shelby American was established and went on to build many cars and win many races which built the name and brand we know today.
In June of 1990, Shelby finally received a heart transplant. While in the hospital, Shelby saw how many families were affected by children with heart conditions, and that many couldn’t afford treatment. In September 1991, he started what is now known as the Carroll Shelby Foundation that has gone onto help many families receive the medical attention they depserately need.
In the mid-90s the Shelby factory and World Headquarters were established in Las Vegas, and is dedicated to producing high quality Shelby vehicles. The headquarters also houses a collection of cars and an official Shelby store that offers exclusive merchandise. Several employees told me they couldn’t imagine working anywhere else, and that they are “excited to be here in the morning and hate to leave at night”.
The Senior Designer on staff, Vincent LaViolette, had the privilege of taking Shelby on his last test drive at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway before he passed away. In fact, the very car they sat in is displayed in the showroom, a Shelby 1000 proto car.
LaViolette shared that Carroll was passionate about the company, and would come out in 110 degree weather just to watch the newest test drives to ensure they met his expectations. Shelby was notorious for calling his employees “hot rodders”, and call in every morning to see how everyone was doing.
LaViolette went on to say how Shelby would never forget a face. Even if years would pass since the last time he saw you, he would pick up the conversation where it left off. He loved and cared for his employees as if they were family. Carroll Shelby passed on May 10, 2012 in Dallas at the age of 89. The employees of Shelby American feel it’s a privilege to carry on his legacy daily and bring honor to his name.
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The Heritage Center & Shelby American Tour
The 10,400 square foot Heritage Center displays a collection of about 30 Shelby cars that have played a prominent role in the company’s history. It once housed the original Cobra (yes, the one that was painted about 7 times!), which was recently auctioned. The museum is displayed as a walking timeline, starting with the oldest vehicle and ending with the newest prototype. There is also a FREE tour (for hours of showroom & tour schedule click here) that is led by a gentleman named Jim who knew Shelby personally and has a wealth of knowledge regarding anything and everything Shelby.
Jim spent some time with me while I toured the Heritage Center, and I was absolutely mesmerized listening to him. No wonder Shelby has a perfect 5/5 star rating on Yelp, and everyone seems to praise Jim and the tour he leads. Jim first did business with Shelby American 51 years ago as a young Mustang owner while building his own incredibly fast model. It was so fast, that Jim says he is thankful he is still here!
Jim would buy performance parts from Shelby and grew to know him well. Jim went on to work for Ford for most of his life until he retired, came to Las Vegas, and was offered a position at Shelby as a historian. In my opinion, I can’t imagine anyone more fitted for the job than Jim. I asked him what is one thing you want people to know about Shelby and he replied with a smile, “I want them to know his legacy. I want them to know that when Shelby American was formed it really changed the definition of performance through out North America and the world.” And by the end of the tour, you will truly understand why that statement is so powerful and authentic. The Heritage Center tour takes about an hour, and private tours are available. There is no charge, but donations to the Carroll Shelby Foundation are encouraged and appreciated.
Authentic Shelbys are built everyday at Caroll Shelby’s namesake factory. While you can’t have direct access to the factory, there is a glass wall in the showroom that overlooks it and you can watch the technicians work on, build and customize vehicles. I was lucky enough to get a private tour and peek inside the factory operations, so I will fill you in on the magic that happens behind that wall.
Across the entire front of the factory you will see technicians working on a variety of performance modifications. An ocean of mustangs graduating into the Shelby class. This area is the most visible and you are more than welcomed to hang out and watch for as long as you’d like. In the back of the factory you will find cars being Dyno tuned and tested to achieve maximum performance.
Moving across the back wall, you will find the body area where fiberglass pieces are made and where custom paint jobs are born. While I was being guided through this area I was informed that all the paint is mixed in house and some custom colors have taken up to a month to achieve the perfect shade (Talk about dedication!). The body and paint technicians work hard back here to shape, mold, paint and create the perfect finished product to make for a happy customer.
Once the body work has been performed and is completed the piece is sent to a special light booth where it is meticulously looked over to find any imperfections.While in factory I couldn’t help but notice how hard everyone was working and how much they seemed to care to make sure the job was done right. The passion these workers pour into the cars cannot go unnoticed.
The Shelby Store & Foundation
At Shelby American, you will find the Shelby shop featuring a variety of genuine items and exclusive items you can only find at the Las Vegas store. The store manager informed me that one of the biggest purposes of the shop is that “Not everyone can afford an authentic Shelby vehicle, but everyone can have a Shelby experience and take home a piece of Shelby.” The museum offers something in everyone’s price range from a key chain to authentic autographed pieces. All the proceeds from the autographed pieces, and a percentage of the proceeds from all items sold, go directly to the Shelby Foundation. There are kiosks available in the store where you can donate to the Carroll Shelby Foundation.
The charity held such a big and special place in Shelby’s heart and his staff carries that on today. There have been many cars that were built specifically for auction and 100% of the sale price went to his charity. Carroll would sign his autograph and charge for his signature and 100% of the money collected was donated. Over the years, so much has been raised that the foundation was able to expand to care for kids from “their first heartbeat through their education years” providing medical treatment, organ transplant management programs, financial grants for organizations who specialize in organ transplant research and provide scholarships for children who continue their education in the automotive field. A great way that we the fans can honor Carroll Shelby is to take the time to donate and continue his passion and legacy to provide for these amazing causes.
After spending the day at Shelby American, I walked away not only gaining an understanding of how much of an impact Carroll Shelby has had on American culture, but the influence he’s had across the world. Coming to experience the empire this racing legend built is on the bucket list of many people across the world. The manager told me she has met people from so many different countries who come to the U.S. to visit Shelby American and that it is a dream fulfilled for them. This is one experience you won’t soon forget!
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