Woodrow Wilson graduate Carroll Shelby raced into the record books
Today, he’s lauded as one of the best racecar drivers in history, inducted into both the International MotorSports Hall of Fame and the Automotive Hall of Fame. But back in the 1930s, Carroll Shelby was a Woodrow Wilson High School student who preferred racing his signature Willy’s automobile to sitting in class.
“I got in trouble for driving too fast on a couple of occasions. There was this railroad track I liked to speed over — see how much air I could catch,” he told the Advocate in 2009, three years before he died from complications following a life-long heart condition.
But he packed his 89 years with enough life to ensure his legacy would resonate for generations to come.
Perhaps it’s because life tried to slow him down right out of the gate. He was born with heart valve leakage that required him to spend much of his childhood in bed, until his teen years.
“I had to become a racecar driver to stay ahead of Pop Ashburn [Woodrow’s principal from 1928-56],” he told the crowd when he was inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame in 1989 during its 60th anniversary celebration.
After graduating in 1940, Shelby briefly considered college but Uncle Sam came calling instead. He joined the United States Army Air Corps., where his daredevil attitude and mechanical aptitude earned him a position as a test pilot and flight instructor. There’s a rumor that he used to write love letters and shove them into old leather boots before tossing them out the window as he flew over his fiancé’s farm.
He never slowed down. After WWII, he started racing in the amateur circuit where he quickly stood out from the pack. Although he was stuck with lesser-performing vehicles at the time, his skill in maneuvering the course sent him sailing into first place finishes. He went pro in the mid-1950s when he was snatched up by the race teams run by Aston Martin and Maserati.
He was a beast behind the wheel; nothing kept him off the course.
He drove the 12 Hours of Sebring in 1955 with his broken hand attached to the steering wheel in a specially engineered fiberglass cast. In 1959, he came down with dysentery just a day before he was set to race the 24 Hours of Le Mans in France (spoiler alert: He won).
“That was one of my main problems, but at Le Mans you just rise above any discomfort and forget everything else. That’s because when you have a chance to win Le Mans it’s the chance of a lifetime,” Shelby told Motorsport magazine in 2009.
He was Sports Illustrated’s driver of the year in 1956 and 1957, but he took nitroglycerine pills before every race to control the heart condition that plagued him since childhood. He famously even popped the medication while driving in his final race in 1960 at Laguna Seca, when he won the USAC Sports Car Championship.
His years on the track made him a natural designer of racecars, a pursuit he launched as soon as he hung up his drivers gloves. It started with Shelby-American in 1962, where he licensed the AC Cobra, a British sports car he helped design as a driver, and went about modifying the style to fit his specs, which became the Shelby Cobra. It was just one of many fast cars to come from Shelby’s brain as his name became more and more synonymous with speed via the Shelby Mustang, the Shelby Dodge Charger and the Shelby Dodge Viper.
Neither a heart transplant nor a kidney transplant could slow down Shelby; he kept laser focused on the road in front of him. He sponsored his own NASCAR Spring Cup race team, and was known to spend his time at the track in Las Vegas up until his death.
He made sure his legacy would help other children with life-threatening illnesses via the Carroll Shelby Foundation, which continues to garner support from the annual Chili Cook-Off he started in 1967 at his ranch in Terlingua, an event that still exists today. In 1970, he founded the International Chili Society.
Next to cars, chili (without beans, ever) is Shelby’s other lifelong legacy.
After attending Shelby’s famed chili cook-off, his son-in-law, Larry Lavine, opened the country’s first Chili’s restaurant in 1975 on Greenville Avenue and Meadow Road.
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