THE MASTER SNAKE CHARMER
Carroll Shelby – The Authorized Biography
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Published on Mon, Jul 30, 2012
By: The LACar Editorial Staff
This is the latest in a seemingly endless parade of books about Carroll Shelby, surely one of the most celebrated and castigated entities in American motorsports history. One thing for sure about the CARROLL SHELBY the Authorized Biography it is, hands-down the longest. With 550+ pages of small point type, very narrow page margins and a 13-page index* (one of my hallmarks of a good book of non-fiction) that tachs out at over 2,500 individual listings from ACOC to Otto Zipper. (Heck, there are over 200 noted references to individual Ferrari models alone!) This new Shelby bio is (if it is nothing else under the sun) highly-faceted. By all rights and ratios, this review should run out at around 30 or 40 pages, it won’t but the last three days of tweaking and adding to this commentary have still not assuaged feelings that I am short-sheeting whoever ventures into the “review” by short-shrifting this Shelby book. Scratching around to try to come up with how to describe the almost infinite detail here, the best word that I can come up with is: granular. The author’s style of filing every scene with details about the details and the very length of the book itself broke my reading up into a great number of sittings each working at the legendary Texan’s tale almost grain by grain. I must here come clean on not having read** many other Shelby bio-books, but I must wonder if any of them have dealt with his younger years as exhaustively as this author, a Brit name Rinsey Mills who also wrote “AC Cobra The Truth Behind the Anglo-American Legend” a few years ago. Even though this book hit first-line reviewer’s hands as Shelby laid in a Dallas hospital on his eventual deathbed, Rinsey actually ends the book without a great deal of late-model information on the great man. In fact, had Motorbooks pushed the publication date only few short weeks back, the pitiful family fight*** over Ol’ Shel’s mortal remains surely could have added more lore to the legend’s legend. As it stands, this book is essential for anyone really seeking Carroll Shelby. Of course, you’ll only get a fleeting glimpse even here in over 500 pages (and with him featured boldly on virtually each and every one). The effect is a picture that is so complex and dense that, once inside, it’s almost hard to see out of. I sometime found myself flatfooted, lost in a flurry of pages, staggered with the words coming so fast, even about places that I had been, and events that I had witnessed. Honestly, I have never re-read so many pages in any book that I’ve ever read for pleasure. In fact, some pages were so challenging that it was like racing with the author, both of us careening toward some sort of sense of the scene that he was setting. Do you get the idea here that his is not an easy read? While I’m not sure if this book will be hailed as definitive, as comprehensive as it is, I am sure that it could easily be mistaken for a textbook for an upper division class named: “Carroll Shelby 202”.
The real idea that occurs is that this book could be broken up into a hundred or so sub-books with off-shoots heading in all directions: The stories of the Scarab men who became Shelby men, who became Gurney men. The ones (like Ken Miles and Walt Hansgen) who didn’t make it to old age and the ones who enjoyed second careers as honored centerpieces at vintage racing events. The ones who stood out on their own like Pete Brock or Bob Bondurant, and the ones who toiled in total fan-obscurity like Phil Remington, a guy who Shelby himself gives the lion’s share or the credit for the Cobra’s metamorphosis from 2-liter English teacup to world-beater. The most quizzical thing about this book is the way that the author melds stories (and direct quotations) from various sources into paragraphs that start as his explanation of a particular event and conclude with one (or more) of the participant’s individual recollection of the goings-on. It becomes a sort of a novelization of an interview style that somehow works here. Writing about the design and construction of the ill-fated “J-Car” iteration of the GT40 MkII, Mills’ passages are ominously technical, talking about the gage and hardness of the aluminum sheets used for the chassis and the heat-cured bonding of the aircraft adhesives that held the “sandwiches” together. The tech-talk foreshadows the Riverside disaster that cost Ken Miles his life a little later when a J-Car chassis cracked under load at high speed. There are few revelations here, but volumes of incredibly fine detail about almost every big race that a Shelby (driven, owned, or built) car ever ran in. There are also an excellent set of pages that remind us of just how bloody good a racing driver Carroll Shelby was, and how much that part of his life influenced the way that he worked with his team drivers over the years. The selection of photos (from what had to have counted up into the hundreds of thousands is good (if not enough for the sheer number of words). Really satisfying are the shots of Shelby as a bashful/dashing racing driver who dressed like a character from HeeHaw but who drove as well, and in many cases better, than the best of the best of them. I once wrote an introduction to a cheesy, poorly-written “gotcha” book written about Shelby … I was young, no one had ever asked me (to write an intro to a book before), and what I wrote studiously avoided saying just about anything about the author, or the book itself. This is not that book; this one has plenty of authentic Shelby, fully as fabulous as well as flawed as he was. What have I missed here? Chili cook-offs, Iacocca, the “Duce” (Henry Ford II), heart replacement (when what he says he really wanted was the guys’ schwanz), a liver R&R courtesy of his son, politics … what else? How about: “girlfriends” you’ll find that entry on pages 510 and 11. How about two pages on the payroll and mid-60’s prices that saw: “… race mechanics (depending on their status) paid between $3 and $4 dollars an hour.” Need Details? Get VERY ready for them. Even in good health, Carroll Shelby would most likely never have found the time to read this book, just being Carroll Shelby was always a full-time, full-bore deal. With good results this massive book makes a valiant attempt to capture that life on paper. So I’ll pose the question one more time: is this the definitive work on the subject? I guess I’m supposed to answer that here, but I think that you’ll have to tell me how you come down on that question sometime down the line. One more thing, if you’ll permit. I suggest that you read the author’s acknowledgements (strangely located at the back in this book) first. They really set the scene for the complexity of this magnum opus work and the richness of the life that’s being put on stage here with such infinite precision. - Doug Stokes
*Even better here is that this incredible index is full of names that one would hardly associate with Carroll Shelby. Like, for example, Werner von Braun (yeah the German rocket guy who worked for Walt Disney after the war), or perpetually-grizzled actor Robert Mitchum, how about the incarcerated-for-murder music producer Phil Spector, or Lee Harvey Oswald (honestly page 268) and (perhaps not so strangely) Rolf Wutherich, the mechanic who was riding with James Dean on that fateful September day in 1955. **of all the other Shelby-oriented books that I’ve read, the only one that I’d really recommend is Eric Davison’s first-person “Snake Bit”, the saga of the Shelby Series 1 from auspicious start to ignominious finish. As golden as the Texan’s touch was … the Series 1 was a colossal conceit that everyone (except a handful of owners) would just as soon un-remember. Davison’s brutally honest insider’s case study is a post-mortem morality tale that should be read by all, but especially by all Cobra cohorts. SIDE NOTE: Author Stokes grew up in the heyday of southern California sports car racing. A full-fledged “sports car nut” he witnessed Carroll Shelby’s abilities behind the wheel many times at venues like Pomona, Palm Springs, and Riverside. As a college kid he made a few bucks twice a year putting up the crowd control snow fencing around the 2-mile long course at the LA County Fairgrounds (Pomona) course. At one race, as a part of his “compensation” he was plopped into the right seat of what looked like an AC Ace that had just been driven in by Carroll Shelby for a pre-race lap around the circuit. “Magic” too strong a word for the ride? No. “I have no recollection of the soundtrack” (which must have been hellacious), Stokes told us, “but the visual of the road just streaking sideways under my side of the car and then looking over at Shelby’s nonchalant half-grin as he sawed the steering wheel and effortlessly snapped shifts has never faded.” ***And , right on cue, the very morning this review was finally ready to send in, the Los Angeles Times has the story that the “family” had finally settled (with lawyers, hearings, petitions, and all that legal stuff) their bizarre, embarrassing (to them, not Carroll) imbroglio over who gets what percentage of the man’s earthly remains after he’s finally cremated. As reported by Jerry Hirsh, Shelby’s ashes will be divided into five piles and put into pots. Seventh and surviving wife, Cleo will get one, the three kids will each get an urn, and the fifth scoop will be interred at the Shelby family plot in Leesburg, Texas. He died on May 10th; this is being written almost three months later. Good Ol’ Shel, he’s still getting headlines. To purchase the book on Amazon, click here