Trying to Rewrite History - and Not Getting Away With It

by Rick Kopec (2008)

Can an 85 year-old man be faulted for not having a very good memory? If that’s all it was, he could easily be given a pass. But when he turns on one of his most loyal and talented former employees and publicly trashes one of this man’s greatest accomplishments — which has been universally hailed as nothing short of genius over the past 40 years — you have to wonder what’s going on. Could Carroll Shelby be laying the grounds for an insanity defense?

Shelby has been on the automotive scene for over 50 years. During that time he has held court for three generations of automotive journalists. The old lions are either dead or retired now, with the exception of deans like Chris Economaki. They were on the scene as things were happening in the 1950s and 1960s, and as a result they acted as a governor on Shelby’s well-known propensity for truth stretching. The generation that followed them lacked any firsthand knowledge of the Cobra-GT40-Shelby Mustang days. They took a decidedly subservient role, seeing Shelby as larger-than-life and accepting his recollections at face value and not daring to challenge him. The present generation only knows about Cobra Daytona Coupes, Ford GT40 MK IIs and GT350 R-Models from what they’ve read, the pictures they’ve seen or the gray-hairs they’ve mostly overheard and only occasionally talked to. When Carroll Shelby says something they accept it as if it were the Word of God. Wind howls, trees shake and there is an occasional bolt of lightning followed by a clap of thunder. These junior journalists have an overabundance of rapt enthusiasm but they lack a healthy dose of skepticism. And they think that with a guy like Shelby there is no need to fact check. The result is a distorted and disappointing article like the one we saw in the June issue of Hot Rod magazine.

It’s probably next to impossible to get Shelby to sit still long enough for a serious, in-depth interview unless he is pimping his latest project. And what could he possibly say that he hasn’t already said in the past 50 years? So the easy way to get something to print — because his name still carries weight (although that is beginning to change) — is to give him the automotive equivalent of a projective test. Psychologists use this all the time. You show the patient a picture and he describes what he thinks is happening in it. There are no right or wrong answers. The trouble is, Shelby is not taking a mental acuity test. He is being questioned about history and this presumes facts. You can’t change those facts or manufacture new ones, and it’s clear that Shelby is trying to speak something into existence. If he says it often enough people will believe it. Especially these junior journalists who think everything the man says can be taken to the bank. However, when they get there they discover there are no funds to cover it.

The June 2008 issue of Hot Rod magazine carried an article titled “Carroll Shelby Uncensored.” It was done by Cam Benty, who has been writing about cars for 25 years or more. In The Man’s presence he was obviously blinded by the glare Shelby can still throw off. But the article might have been more accurately titled, “Carroll Shelby Unquestioned.” Benty brought along a bunch of photographs covering Cobra racing days through the present and asked Shelby to say something about each one. His comments are used as captions for the photos. It was Shelby’s comments on the Cobra Daytona Coupe that blew a gasket here.

“I can tell you that [the Daytona Coupe] was one of the biggest mistakes in my life. Because Pete Brock was working for us, I said, “Pete, we gotta have a coupe.” Pete drew up the most beautiful coupe that you ever saw. I said, “Ok, we’ll build one.” And we [did]. It took Ken Miles and John Collins 15,000 miles [of testing] out at Riverside to get the ass end on the ground and keep the front end from lifting… and keep the drivers from smothering. Because Pete was a young man, and it was before he had a lot of experience [designing cars]. I had a friend named Benny Howard, who had built the Howard Aircraft, and he was on the board of directors of General Dynamics, looking at the design. He was building hop-up kits for DC3s on Washington Avenue [in Los Angeles] down there near Venice. He said, “Shelby, if you really want to take care of the aerodynamics, you are going to have to extend the tail.” He drew up a 917 Porsche [design]. If I had built the car like a 917 Porsche, I would have been 10 years ahead of where we were. At that time, if I had listened to Benny Howard, we wouldn’t have had Ken Miles driving 5,000 miles a week around Riverside to get the car to work. That was one of the toughest jobs, and I will never forget [Ken’s] efforts to fix that car’s design.”

“If Shelby said it, it must be true” is no longer good enough for me. In fact, this was the first time, in more than 40 years of being involved with these cars — which includes talking to those who were there and reading just about everything ever written on this subject — that I had ever heard about Miles putting 15,000 miles on the first Daytona Coupe in order to wring the bugs out. Or that Shelby regretted building the Daytona Coupe. While Shelby’s statement clearly flies in the face of everything else ever written about this car, the timeline alone is enough to send him back to his rocking chair and let him babble to himself. Factory records indicate that the first test session at Riverside for the new Coupe was on February 1st. The Daytona race was February 16th. Subtracting three days needed to truck the Coupe from California to Florida allows 12 days of testing. Is there anyone who wants to stand up for Shelby and argue, seriously, that it is possible to put 15,000 miles of testing on a Daytona coupe in 12 days?

As if this little logistical fact isn’t enough, a look at the historical documentation indicates that much testing wasn’t needed. Everything I’ve read shows that the car ran fine “right out of the box.” In fact, it surprised everybody — except Peter Brock. Additional evidence of this can be gotten from photographs taken during the Coupe’s initial testing. They clearly show that there were NO changes to the car’s configuration between test day and race day. Need more? Even IF Shelby’s Hot Rod statement contained a grain of truth, the math simply doesn’t work out: he claims it needed 15,000 miles in three weeks to sort out the car. Between the February 1st Riverside debut and the February 16th race, there aren’t three weeks in that time period.

What does the written record say about the initial testing of Brock’s new Daytona Coupe? Here are three of the most authoritative sources.

Carroll Shelby’s Racing Cobra, John Cristy and Dave Friedman,
p. 83:

“Finally, in the very early part of February, just before the Daytona Continental where it was scheduled to make its debut, the car was deemed finished enough to test. Still innocent of its Viking Blue paint, it was trailered to Riverside for its first - and only - trial before actual competition…And best of all, it went like the hammers, running in excess of 160 on the back straight with plenty in hand to spare, showing that the goal of 180mph was no longer a fond, but doubtful hope. There were a couple of problems, but nothing seemed serious at the time.”

The Cobra-Ferrari Wars, Mike Shoen, p. 86:

“On February 1, Miles took the unpainted car to Riverside and astounded himself by hitting 180 mph on the long straight — 19mph faster than the competition roadster. Miles reported that the car handled better and felt more stable.”

Carroll Shelby’s The Cobra Story, pps. 230-232:

“Our most pressing need, we realized (and Pete Brock had pointed this out some time back), was for a much more streamlined body than was provided for by the original AC roadster body which we were still using on our Cobras…(story about Benny Howard’s doubts here)…And that was the way it went. Within four months we had a complete car with a body which became known as the Daytona Coupe, because this was where it got its first real outing - during the 2000 kilometer Continental at Daytona Speedway in February of 1964. Meantime, we took the car out for its first test at Riverside on February 1, and it showed a 25 per cent better gas mileage and 15 mph more top speed [than the Cobra roadsters], even on this relatively short circuit. Even the brakes ran cooler. With this encouragement, we decided to run the car in the Continental at Daytona…and the car easily led the race for the first eight hours against the best, fastest and newest of the GTO Ferraris. For a design that “wouldn’t work,” it held 160 mph and better on the outer banked track whenever needed, and both drivers called it “stable as a rock.” Pete must have had a big laugh, and I don’t blame him!”

These sources are unimpeachable. John Christy was the editor of Sports Car Graphic in 1964 and spent a considerable amount of time at Shelby American and hovering around Cobras at the track. Dave Friedman was employed by Shelby as the company’s official photographer. He took the pictures. Mike Shoen is unquestionably one of the top authorities on Cobras ever, and wrote “The Cobra-Ferrari Wars,” a highly detailed and thoroughly researched book on the Cobra’s race history. And finally, Carroll Shelby himself, from the book he wrote (actually ghost-written by John Bentley) in 1965, a time when he was — I’ll be charitable — a little more lucid. I could have included the best and most authoritative book ever written on the Coupe, Peter Brock’s “Daytona Cobra Coupe,” but aside from not wanting to start a Shelby-Brock firefight, it would probably be considered piling on.

Why Shelby chose to throw Peter Brock under the bus is anyone’s guess, but he seems to be doing a lot of that lately. In this instance he clearly owes Peter Brock an apology but everyone should be cautioned against holding their breath until it arrives. What we are witnessing is a pathetic attempt by someone in the twilight of his tumultuous existence on this planet, trying to enhance his legacy by rewriting history. Maybe these ludicrous statements about how things happened — according to Shelby — will hoodwink the newest generation of enthusiasts who are just now joining the party. But the rest of us know better.

[Special thanks to Greg Kolasa for helping me research this article.
—RK]