Shelby American Las Vegas
Experiencing the Legend
“I’m not an engineer or a designer but I think I know what people like.” – Carroll Shelby
The humility of a man who grew to be one of the biggest idols in car history is incredible to me. Prior to visiting the Shelby Heritage Center I thought I knew who Carroll Shelby was, I thought I knew his story and I thought I knew about the Shelby empire but now I see my knowledge was only scratching the surface of this amazing man and his amazing story.
The Story Behind the Prodigy
Carroll Shelby was born on January 11, 1923 in Leesburg, Texas. From the young age of 7 he suffered from a heart valve leakage problem which ultimately forced him to end his racing career in October 1959. Prior to racing, Carroll served in World War II as a flight instructor and test pilot eventually graduating with the rank of staff sergeant pilot. After the war was over, Carroll had a handful of businesses that failed before he began racing cars as an amateur in 1952. Shelby quickly becomes victor race after race and in 1954 Aston Martin team manager, John Wyer, offers him the opportunity to race a car in England for the Aintree race which he finished in second. Between 1954 and 1959 Carroll continued racing in The U.S. and Mexico earning the title in 1957 of Sports Illustrated’s “Driver of the Year”. In 1960, he completes his last race, Laguna Seca, and in 1961 he is forced to retire from racing due to his heart condition. I was told by a good friend of Carroll’s that his response was “If I can’t race anymore, I want to build them.” and that’s what he did. He sent a proposal to AC Cars, based in England, asking them to provide a chassis to him so he could place a Ford V8 engine in it. Once the proper engine was found (a Ford 4.2 liter small block) the two were merged together and, in February 1962, the Cobra was born in Dean Moon’s Speed Shop. The original Cobra was painted a pearlescent yellow and then re-painted a new color every time a magazine came to test drive the Cobra so that it would appear they had many cars in production (good marketing move, don’t you think?). Shelby American was established and went on to build many cars and win many races which built the name and brand we know today. In June of 1990, Carroll finally received a heart transplant. While in the hospital, Carroll saw how many families were affected by children with heart conditions and that a lot of them couldn’t afford treatment so in September 1991, he started what is now known as the Carroll Shelby Foundation which has helped many families receive the medical attention they’ve needed every since. In the mid-90s the Shelby factory and World Headquarters were established in Las Vegas and is home to a collection of cars, dedicated to producing high quality Shelby vehicles and houses an official Shelby store that offers exclusive merchandise. Several employees told me they couldn’t imagine working anywhere else and that they are “excited to be here in the morning and hate to leave at night.”. The Senior Designer, Vincent LaViolette, had the privilege of taking Carroll on his last test drive at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway before he passed. In fact, the very car they sat in is displayed in the showroom, a Shelby 1000 proto car. Vincent told me that Carroll was passionate about the company and would come out in 110 degree weather just to watch the newest test drives and make sure they met his expectations. That he would call his employees “hot rodders” and call in every morning to see how everyone was doing. Vincent went on to say how Carroll would never forget a face, even if years would pass since the last time he saw you, he would pick up the conversation where it left off. He loved and cared for his employees as if they were family. Carroll Shelby passed on May 10, 2012 in Dallas at the age of 89. The employees of Shelby American find it a privilege to carry on his legacy daily and bring honor to his name.
The Heritage Center & Shelby American Tour
The 10,400 square foot Heritage Center displays a collection of about 30 Shelby cars that have had a prominent role in the company’s history. It once housed the original Cobra (yes, the one that was painted about 7 times!), which was recently auctioned. The museum is displayed as a walking timeline, starting with the oldest vehicle and ending with the newest prototype. There is a FREE tour (for hours of showroom & tour schedule click here http://shelby.com/?topic=museum&art=SHC) that is led by a gentleman named Jim who knew Carroll personally and has a wealth of knowledge regarding anything and everything Shelby. He spent some time with me while I was there and I was absolutely mesmerized listening to him. No wonder Shelby has a perfect 5/5 star rating on Yelp and everyone seems to praise Jim and the tour he leads. Jim first did business with Shelby American 51 years ago as a young mustang owner while building his own incredibly fast mustang (so fast, in fact, Jim said he is thankful he is still here!). He would buy performance parts from Carroll and grew to know him well. Jim went on to work for Ford for most of his life until he retired, came to Vegas and was offered a position at Shelby as a historian. In my opinion, I can’t imagine anyone more fitted for the job than Jim. I asked him what is one thing you want people to know about Shelby and he replied with a smile, “I want them to know his legacy. I want them to know that when Shelby American was formed it really changed the definition of performance through out North America and the world.” and by the end of the tour you will truly understand why that statement is so powerful and authentic. The tour takes about an hour with private tours available for no charge but donations to the Carroll Shelby Foundation are encouraged and appreciated.
This building after all is the Shelby World Headquarters and that means authentic Shelbys are built everyday in the factory. While you can’t have direct access to the factory, there is a glass wall in the showroom that overlooks it and you can watch the technicians work on, build and customize vehicles. I was lucky enough to get a private tour and peek inside the factory operations, so I will fill you in on the magic that happens behind that wall. Across the entire front of the factory you will see technicians working on a variety of performance modifications. An ocean of mustangs graduating into the Shelby class. This area is the most visible and you are more than welcomed to hang out and watch for as long as you’d like. In the back of the factory you will find cars being Dyno tuned and tested to achieve maximum performance. Moving across the back wall you will find the body area where fiberglass pieces are made and where custom paint jobs are born. While I was being guided through this area I was informed that all the paint is mixed in house and some custom colors have taken up to a month to achieve the perfect shade (Talk about dedication!). The body and paint technicians work hard back here to shape, mold, paint and create the perfect finished product to make for a happy customer. Once the body work has been performed and is completed the piece is sent to a special light booth where it is meticulously looked over to find any imperfections.While in factory I couldn’t help but notice how hard everyone was working and how much they seemed to care to make sure the job was done right. The passion these workers pour into the cars cannot go unnoticed.
The Shelby Store & Foundation
At Shelby American you will find the Shelby shop which features a variety of genuine items and exclusive items you can only find at the Las Vegas store. The store manager informed me that one of the biggest purposes of the shop is that “Not everyone can afford an authentic Shelby vehicle but everyone can have a Shelby experience and take home a piece of Shelby,” because they offer something in everyone’s price range from a key chain to authentic autographed pieces. All the proceeds from the autographed pieces, and a percentage of the proceeds from all items sold, go directly to the Shelby Foundation. (*Mention The WannabeGypsy blog and you will receive a 10% discount on your purchase!) There are kiosks available in the store where you can donate to the Carroll Shelby Foundation. The charity held such a big and special place in Carroll’s heart and his staff carries that on today. There have been many cars that were built specifically for auction and 100% of the sale price went to his charity. Carroll would sign his autograph and charge for his signature and 100% of the money collected was donated. Over the years so much has been raised that the foundation was able to expand to care for kids from “their first heartbeat through their education years” providing medical treatment, organ transplant management programs, financial grants for organizations who specialize in organ transplant research and provide scholarships for children who continue their education in the automotive field. A great way that we the fans can honor Carroll Shelby is to take the time to donate and continue his passion and legacy to provide for these amazing causes.
After spending the day at Shelby American I walk away not only gaining an understanding of how much of an impact Carroll Shelby has had on American culture but the influence he’s had across the world. Coming to experience the empire this racing legend built is on the bucket list of many people across the world. The manager told me she has met people from so many different countries who come to the U.S. to visit Shelby American and that it is a dream fulfilled for them. This is one experience you won’t soon forget.