If you had walked into the Shelby American garage back in the late 1950s or early 1960s, here’s how it would go: You’d ask for a job, Carroll Shelby would hand you a broom, and you’d get to work making yourself useful. Or, well, that’s what happened to John Morton, a story he tells in full in Inside Shelby American.
(Welcome back to the Jalopnik Race Car Book Club, where we all get together to read books about racing and you send in all your spicy hot takes. In honor of being trapped indoors, I’ve made the reading a little more frequent; every two weeks instead of every month. This week, we’re looking at Inside Shelby American: Wrenching and Racing With Carroll Shelby in the 1960s by John Morton.)
Now, before you get too intrigued by the name, I’m going to lay some hard truths on you: You won’t be getting an exposé of Shelby American. This isn’t a recollection from someone like Phil Remington, who would have known everything about the company. Instead, this story comes from the mouth of a driver-janitor-mechanic desperate to embed himself in the racing scene. You’re getting the story of John Morton.
If John Morton’s name sounds familiar, you might have read Sylvia Wilkinson’s The Stainless Steel Carrot. In it, Morton is the protagonist, and Wilkinson follows him and his race team in Trans-Am competition — something that came long after Morton’s Shelby American era and isn’t really touched on in depth in this book. But it’s fascinating to see how one man’s story started and how it peaked in two different books published decades apart.
To put it rather simply, Morton was born and raised in Illinois to a family that had only a passing interest in motorsport — enough to go see races, but not enough to know much about the inner workings of the sport. Morton fell in love with speed, especially after seeing his first road race (as opposed to the local dirt races) and knew that racing was his destiny. He followed it to Clemson University, where he used his family ties in South Carolina to start racing, and ultimately dropped out of college to pursue his passion after being accepted to Carroll Shelby’s high-performance driving school.
So, Morton did what anyone would do. He packed his belongings and moved to California, hoping he’d find a job. And he did: With Shelby American.
After meeting Carroll Shelby the first time, Morton comes back to the shop and is essentially handed a broom and told to make himself useful. As his time there progressed, Morton started to get hands-on, becoming part of the traveling race team and even competing himself, both for Shelby American proper and behind the wheel of his own Lotuses. It’s honestly fascinating to hear how quickly Shelby American grew.
That growth, though, boded poorly for Morton, who was let go from his position just as the team prepared to embark on its big Le Mans journey, in part because Ford had made the formerly grassroots organization so much more formalized. It’s a painful end for Morton, though he does redeem himself after a few difficult years by becoming a competitive racer.
I will say that the most personally fascinating parts of this book came in the first chapter, when we get to see just what it was like to be a race fan in the 1950s and 60s. Morton talks about following road racing through magazines but being so completely blown away by it in person because no race report could ever do the spectacle justice. He talks about following Formula One from afar and meeting another F1 fan at Clemson because he happened to have a Ferrari patch on his jacket. I’ve read a lot of books about racing in that era, but it’s rare to really see what it was like to be a fan. I won’t discount the rest of the book, but that first chapter had a certain kind of magic to it.
The entire book is a fascinating read, one that kept me glued to the page. You won’t get the dirty details on just how Shelby American functioned, but you’ll learn what it was like to be one of the company’s foundational employees — the ones who kept the shop clean, helped out everywhere they could, and even got to race once in a while. And that’s honestly even more exciting.
And that’s all we have for this week’s Jalopnik Race Car Book Club! Make sure you tune in again on January 31, 2022. We’re going to be reading Caesars Palace Grand Prix: Las Vegas, Organized Crime and the Pinnacle of Motorsport by Randall Cannon.