If you only know the late Carroll Shelby for his tuner cars, you're missing an amazing story of how, during the mid-1960s, his little, nerd-filled race shop in Los Angeles helped Henry Ford II exercise his famous vendetta against Enzo Ferrari. Playboy editor A.J. Baime tells that story in his book, Go Like Hell: Ford, Ferrari, and Their Battle for Speed and Glory at Le Mans.
Here's an excerpt from Baime's book that picks up from the day Shelby American assumed responsibility for building Ford's racing sports cars, just about one year out from the company's 1-2-3 victory upset at Le Mans:
Carroll Shelby dug his fingers into his thighs. He was sitting in the back of a small private plane with a couple of Ford executives. The engine buzzed like a gnat. At the helm, a Shelby engineer was piloting the plane onto a straightaway at Riverside International Raceway. The straight was a slightly downhill strip of pavement with a bridge at the end. As the bridge approached, the ground seemed to get farther away because of the gradient. The bridge kept getting closer and Shelby was getting nervous. He was himself a pilot, and he sensed they were headed for trouble.
Were they going to fly over the bridge or under it?
The pilot forced the plane down and it bounced back up into the air. By the time Shelby's feet touched pavement, he was ready to get on his knees and kiss the ground.
It was January 27, 1965, a Wednesday. Ford Motor Company was holding a press conference at Riverside to unveil the season's new machinery. Don Frey was there, as was Leo Beebe, and Shelby's presence always assured a good turnout. The gathering of reporters and photographers stood trackside as Beebe took to the podium and announced that Shelby American would be building and racing all of Ford's competition sports cars.
"We are taking this move to consolidate the construction and racing of all our GT-type vehicles within the same specialist organization," Beebe said.
Drivers paraded the new cars down a straightaway, cars that Ford would be racing and that, for the most part, customers could buy. First came the street version of the new Mustang GT350 built by Shelby ($4,547), hopped up with a Ford 289-cubic-inch engine, a four-barrel Holley carburetor, and a host of weight-reducing, performance-enhancing modifications. In all-out racing trim, the new Shelby Mustang went for $6,000. Then came the new Cobra with a 427-cubic-inch engine. Street version: $7,000, well more than a Jaguar XKE and nearly the cost of a Mercedes-Benz 230 SL. The racing Cobra cost as much as $9,000. For Ford-branded cars, these were incredibly expensive automobiles. Still, no one could imagine they'd fetch hundreds of thousands - if not millions - on the vintage car market in forty years time.
Finally, the crowd got a first look at the Ford GT40 in Shelby American colors, America's Ferrari fighter. It was not for sale, nor could anyone put an accurate figure on how much it had cost to build. For 1965, Beebe said, the GT40 would see action at a host of American and European races. The focus would be the big three: the Daytona Continental 2,000 Kilometers in February, the 12 Hours of Sebring in March, and Le Mans in June.
(Photo top: Carroll Shelby, center, with drivers Ken Miles, left, and Lloyd Ruby, right, with Leo Beebe, head of Ford's racing programs, and Shelby American's Ford liaison, Ray Geddes, far right, after winning Daytona in 1965. It was the first win for the Ford GT40..)
After the drive-by, the whole gaggle headed to the nearby Mission Inn for a schmooze-fest. The GT40s were trailered back to the City of Angels, to a new Shelby American plant, where Shelby's team was waiting to get their hands on it.
The new Shelby American factory made the old Venice shop look like a two-car garage. It sprawled over 12.5 acres bordering Los Angeles International Airport, consisting of two huge hangars where North American Aviation used to build Sabre military jets, a total of 96,000 square feet. The official move was March 1, 1965, but already the space was filling up fast. One hangar housed the racing shop and administration, the other the assembly line, where Cobras and Shelby Mustangs would be built by hand at a rate of roughly 125 cars a month. The pavement between these two hangars was already blackening with tire marks. All day the shriek of passenger jets taking off and landing at LAX rattled eardrums, and at night Shelby American test drivers gunned racing cars up and down the runways under the stars.
Three years after he had debuted his Cobra at the New York Auto Show, Shelby had become the largest independent sports car manufacturer in America, with sales edging up past $10 million a year. The business employed nearly two hundred people. Though Shelby had publicly declared Enzo Ferrari his nemesis, his organization bore a startling resemblance to the one in Maranello, Italy. Shelby had become the Ferrari of America, the charismatic man behind a small automobile company that produced handcrafted sports and racing cars. In contrast to Ferrari's reclusivity, however, Shelby was a bit of a showman.
He was on the road much of the time. When he was at his factory, he darted from task to task and office to office, his feet moving as fast as his mouth. As one visitor described him: "Shelby paces about restlessly like a lawman who expects trouble suddenly to bust out behind every swinging door in town." He moved so fast his secretary quit out of frustration. "You have to go 90 mph to keep up with him," she said, "and I'm just an old-fashioned 80-mph girl."
Now he's in his office on the phone: "Hello, butter bean. When I heard what you did, you could have cut buttonholes in my behind. My opinion may not be worth a pin whistle, but I think you're dumber than a hundred head of billy goats."
Now he's interviewing a new secretary: "How would you like to work in a snake pit for a real snake?"
So much change was afoot that spring. Some of the old guard from the Venice shop didn't take to the LAX facility. Men in suits worked there. Gone were the Friday drunken lunches at the Black Whale that lasted until closing time. Some of Shelby's employees were getting their notices from Uncle Sam. They were packing their bags not for the next race but for Vietnam.
Ken Miles was putting in the hours preparing GT40s to race Ferrari at the Daytona Continental. The team had eight weeks, and the cars had been taken apart so many times, they'd lost all their original design settings. "It may sound odd," Miles said, "but our first job was actually to get the cars back to where they had started."
One morning Miles and a crew from Shelby American headed to Willow Springs, a racetrack deep in the desert outside the town of Mojave, north of Los Angeles. The track had long straights and fast sweeping bends - just like Le Mans. It was a god-awful place. Everyone wore boots as it was rattlesnake country, and shades to protect the eyes from sand riding the wind. Technicians from Aeronutronic, a Ford-owned aerospace company, met the Shelby American team. The California-based outfit employed experts in the instrumentation and aerodynamics of missiles that traveled 18,000 mph. They were going to conduct an experiment.
The Aeronutronic technicians rigged a computer into the passenger seat of a GT40. It was space-man gear, the most sophisticated aeronautical equipment on earth, and it filled half the interior compartment. The computer sensors aimed to gather air pressure and temperature readings inside the car's ducting. The data would be transmitted to a trackside truck where a technician was stationed. An oscillograph would measure engine revolutions on paper right in the cockpit. It was almost certainly the first time computer equipment was used in the development of a racing car on the track.
Meanwhile Shelby's GT40 team manager Carroll Smith was going to gather similar information the old-fashioned way. Using Scotch tape, he stuck pieces of cotton yarn in tight rows all over the driver's side of the car (the right side). The movement of the yarn would tell the driver and anyone watching the direction of airflow when the car was in motion. Miles slipped on his helmet and lapped at slow speeds. A chase car followed, inside which a snapper aiming a Polaroid captured the movement of the yarn on the car's body.
(Carroll Shelby and driver Phil Hill at Le Mans, 1965.)
According to the data from Willow Springs, the team discovered that at least 76 horsepower was being lost due to poor air ducting. Air was entering the car but it had no efficient exit. Over the next weeks, Miles and chief engineer Phil Remington redesigned the ducting and the lubricating system. They ditched the Italian wire- spoked wheels in favor of Halibrand magnesium wheels, shaving off thirty pounds, and fitted wider Goodyear tires on the rear, with lots of rubber that could grab at the pavement. They added larger front brakes so the car could be driven faster into turns. The engines were tuned to pump out 450 horsepower with gobs of torque. Though Shelby didn't know it at the time, some members of the team popped pills to keep the energy flowing. Amphetamines fueled all-night work sessions.
Reporters were showing up, eager to scoop the story. What was going on behind those closed doors? Unlike at Shelby's old Venice shop, where there was an open-door policy, everyone had to go through security to get on these premises.
"We have several advantages over other people who have played with the car," Miles told a reporter days before Daytona. "We can react to a suggestion-we can do something right now. We don't have to go through elaborate procedures of putting through formal design changes. If we decide we don't like something, we can take a hacksaw and cut it off. Practically everything we do is a panic operation. But if anyone can do it, we can."
Excerpted from GO LIKE HELL by A. J. Baime. Copyright © 2009 by Albert Baime. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.