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Inside Shelby American

image of the book Inside Shelby American

Book Review: Wrenching and Racing with Carroll Shelby

With "Inside Shelby American - Racing and Wrenching with Carroll Shelby in the 1960s," legendary race car driver John Morton has written a most personal memoir that centers on his years working for the redoubtable Carroll Shelby.

By Doug Stokes

Tue, Dec 10, 2013 09:17 PM PST

This is a story of a young guy from Waukegan who wanted to be a racing driver more than anything, and who went on to do just that in spite of all the obstacles. Morton’s path revolves around Shelby, the man, the cars, and the people. Doug Stokes reviews the book.

INSIDE SHELBY AMERICAN - Wrenching and Racing With Carroll Shelby in the 1960s
Published by Motorbooks
EAN (ISBN—13) 978-07603433944 256
MSRP: $28.00 USD

Featured Image: Sebring, unbelievably co-driving with the redoubtable Ken Miles. (image courtesy the publisher)

In 1964, Morton drove a 427 Cobra for the Shelby American team, winning the GT Class at the the Road America 500. In the early 1970s, Morton drove for Pete Brock’s BRE-prepared Datsuns, dominating the SCCA C Production with the 240Z and the 2.5 Trans-Am with the 510. Morton’s career highlights include nine drives with two class wins at Le Mans and two GTP victories at Riverside, including the very last sports car race at the Riverside facility in 1987 in a Group 44 Jaguar. In 2007, John Morton wrote an article about his years at Shelby American. The article became a book project, which has just been released by Motorbooks.

Maybe this one should really be sub-subtitled “John Morton Speaks.” One of the most reserved and understated professional drivers, he’s written a most personal memoir that centers on his years working for the redoubtable Carroll Shelby. This is a story of a young guy from Waukegan who (like many of us) wanted to be a racing driver more than anything, and who (unlike most of us) went on to do just that in spite of all the obstacles that were in the way. Morton’s path from really-not-all-that-keen-about college kid to the driver’s seat of some of the fastest and most successful drives in sports car racing revolves around Shelby, the man, the cars, and the people. This guy was there, an insider at the Cobra factory, very close to the beginning.

Coming west to become a student at Carroll Shelby’s driving school at Riverside, Morton first meets a driving instructor (he had really expected Shelby to do the teaching) named Pete Brock. Yeah, that’s the same Pete Brock, who Morton will eventually end up help making little Datsun sedans and 240Zs into very well known racing cars toward the end of this book. Besides the driving school Shelby had just started importing a rather spindly sports car called and “AC Ace” from England, and stuffing a Ford V-8 under the hood. Driving school over and thinking more like a racing driver, and that his goal might be better forwarded student Morton fatefully asked Shelby for a job sweeping up and got it. Thus, the “inside” part of this book’s title kicks in.

So, mid-westerner Morton starts work at Shelby and the saga begins.

I know that every word in this book is true, but, by about half way through this book, some readers will likely start thinking “Zelig! This guy is Zelig.” An easy deduction when one watches young John Morton hanging out with all the Shelby legends like Ken Miles, Phil Remington, Dave McDonald, George Boskoff, Bruce Burness, Dan Gurney, Carroll Smith, Bob Bondurant, Lew Spencer, Ole Olsen, Skip Hudson, and many, many others. Morton’s book is filled with intriguing stories like the one that he tells about the 12 hours of Sebring in 1964. By that time he had moved up a notch or two in the organization and now was a mechanic/truck driver with the Shelby team.

Before the race started Ken Miles asked if he had an FIA competition license, Morton (who raced his own Lotus Mk 7) only had an SCCA amateur ticket. His “Why?” was answered simply: “We have five cars entered and only nine drivers.” Miles writes a note to the official (“John Morton is qualified to be issued an FIA license.”). Hollywood-like, late into the race and the night, with no practice (in fact never having as much as having sitting in the thing while the engine was on) he’s asked to get into a 427 Cobra, and race it on a track that he had never driven around. Which, of course, he does.

That’s how this whole book goes … wonderful encounters, moments that (looking at them from here) were historic, seminal and, from Morton’s viewpoint, simply what was going on. As one might suspect, this book will be a complete delight for Cobraphiles. Morton was there for so many of the highlights (and as many low lights) that it almost sounds like Morton is some sort of made up/composite person. He is not. Morton weaves his personal life in and out of the Shelby saga writing about both the wins AND the sins.

Even though Shelby is gone now , the author still treats the great man with the respect that he deserves. That’s not to say that he doesn’t point out a few random peccadilloes along the way it’s just that this is a very direct insider’s view of the proceedings. No matter what, he never stops being a guy who is a racing driver. And then there are the marathon trips across America … not for the sightseeing, not for the fresh air, nor for fun—all of them just to get a racecar and his narrow (perfect for a racing seat) butt from here to there … with “there” always being a racetrack somewhere.

image of the book Inside Shelby American
Morton getting "inside" the engine compartment of a Shelby Cobra. (image courtesy the publisher)

Taking John Morton as a driver, the word that comes quickest to mind is “Journeyman” and journeyman in the very best sense of the word. Morton’s professional racing record is a strong one. Nope, he’s not a household name that your Mom would recognize, like “Mario Andretti” or “John Force”. On the other hand, as many will know, this guy is considered some sort of secular saint in Datsun racing history, winning races and championships aboard the legendary BRE (Brock Racing Enterprises … you remember that we said we’d get back to that) 510 Sedans and Z-Cars Of course John Morton’s driving career did not end when he left Shelby. In fact, it flourished. He devotes one of his final chapters to a few of the wild goose chases begun and wrong turns taken that his single-minded quest had sent him on and then pays off his reader’s work with a decidedly un-boastful epilog that enumerates some of his great professional drives.

Morton’s winning wheel work at the highest levels of prototype sports car racing for the Jim Busby-led BFG team as well as for Jaguar, Nissan, and a slew of private owners, is modestly presented by our narrator as a tangible result of all the hard work and dedication that went before. This is just one of many books (already written and yet to come) that examine the incredible and larger-than-life force that Carroll Shelby was. Even better than that, this is an intense first-person diary of a very interesting fellow who followed his dream and lived it.

Morton and the editors at Motorbooks have thoughtfully included 136 photos, many from his John’s personal collection and many that I suspect have never been seen by the general public. Like the text, the photos in this book are quite personal, but at the same time, all relevant to the story that Mister Morton unwinds and the Shelby legend that we witness the very beginnings of in this book.

A bit of a confession here, I know the author, he’s one of the true good guys, and this book honestly reads like a afternoon with John. My experience is that he’s a bit slow to tell tales on himself, but he sure as hell has them and he has favored us with a couple of hundred pages of them in this book about one of the most colorful periods in motorsports. Pardon me if I’ve used the word “personal” too many times here above … but that’s what makes this memoir so interesting and so believable. I think that after reading this book, many people will find out that they really wanted to be this authentic racer’s racer named John Morton, even if they’re just now finding that out now.

A Note From The Author Of The Book

I used to be told fairly often that because I've raced for so long—over 50 years—I should "write a book." My response was that my girlfriend Sylvia Wilkinson already wrote what many consider the best racing book ever written, The Stainless Steel Carrot, in which I am one of the featured characters. "No need for another one," I always said.

But in late 2007, a magazine editor approached Sylvia with a proposal to do a story on Carroll Shelby. Her response was, "I don't know Shelby that well. Why don't you ask John Morton? He used to work for him." I agreed to give it a try, as long as she would computerize it from my handwritten, pencil-on-legal-pad draft for me.

After the story appeared in the now defunct magazine, a publisher at Motorbooks emailed me, saying that he'd enjoyed my story and wanted to know if I'd be interested in expanding it into a book. Gratified that he liked the story but not being a writer, I was very reluctant to take on such a daunting project. I had seen firsthand the agony involved in producing a full-length work. Motorbooks requested a brief overview of what the structure might look like if I agreed to try it. In about thirty minutes, I scratched out a six-section outline. The publisher replied, "Looks good. Now I have to find a budget."

Three years passed. I was relieved, thinking I was off the hook until an email arrived saying, "We're ready to go with the Shelby book if you are." I signed a contract. I was committed. A year and a half later, the manuscript is at the printers. It was one of the more difficult things that I've ever done, but also one of the most interesting - interesting because going back in time and watching your life unfold all over again, with fifty-plus years of new perspective, provides an insight that cannot be appreciated the first time around. The relatively short period in my life that was spent working for Carroll Shelby had a profound effect on me, as well as nearly everyone else who worked for him. Carroll laid the foundation for the success that all of us would enjoy for the rest of our lives. I, by pure accident of fate, walked into the Shelby scene just as one of sports car racing's most significant eras was unfolding. Sadly, Carroll died as I was writing this book. I wish he'd had the chance to read what the kid he handed a broom to grew up to write. His reaction would have been interesting.

- John Morton, 2013

About The Author

Doug Stokes's profile picture

Doug Stokes

Doug has a long and wide-ranging history in the motoring business. He served five years as the Executive Director of the International Kart Federation, and was the PR guy for the Mickey Thompson's Off-Road Championship Gran Prix. He worked racing PR for both Honda and Suzuki and was a senior PR person on the first Los Angeles (Vintage) Grand Prix. He was also the first PR Manager for Perris Auto Speedway, and spent over 20 years as the VP of Communications at Irwindale Speedway. Stokes is the recipient of the American Autowriters and Broadcaster’s 2005 Chapman Award for Excellence in Public Relations and was honored in 2015 by the Motor Press Guild with their Dean Batchelor Lifetime Achievement Award. “… I’ve also been reviewing automobiles and books for over 20 years, and really enjoy my LA Car assignments.” he added.

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