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Henny's Fond Memories of Carroll and Cleo Shelby +Video

Shelby and Wife Cleo (select to view enlarged photo)
Shelby and Wife Cleo (Photo by Peter)

SEE ALSO: Henny Hemmes Obituary

By Henny Hemmes
Senior European Editor
The Auto Channel

THE HAGUE, May 14, 2012. The news that auto legend Carroll Shelby passed away last Thursday, did not come as a big shock. It did make me feel very sad indeed, but when I last spoke to mr. Shelby at the Los Angeles auto show, I realized he was very frail. The 88 years old icon was in a wheel chair and did not go on the podium for the presentation at the huge Ford stand, as he did on many earlier occasions. His wife Cleo said that he had just left the hospital a couple of days earlier. An eerie feeling hit me when I spoke to him. It proved to be the last time I could shake his hand.

In the end of the 70s all my fellow members of the Dutch National Racing Team knew who Carroll Shelby was: the man who competed in Formula 1 in 1958/59. Who won the 24 hours of Le Mans with Aston Martin DBR1 in 1959, even though he had heart problems and drove each stint with a nitroglycerine pill under his tongue. He became a household name, just like his legendary Cobra’s, the Ford GT40 and the countless Mustang models that bear his name.

My first encounter with Carroll Shelby was at Indianapolis in 1991. He had followed his friend Lee Iacocca from Ford to Chrysler. Iacocca needed Shelby to develop fast versions of Dodge sports cars and made him a member of the advisory committee for a new Dodge super car, which turned out to be the Viper.

The Viper Concept car bowed in 1991 at the Detroit auto show, where I happened to overhear that there was a chance it would pace the Indy 500. Immediately I had conceived the plan to drive the Viper concept. On the Indy oval… in May.

Initially, not a single soul at Chrysler’s public relations department knew what I was talking about. Viper pace car…? Indy…? Or pretended not to know. They said the Dodge Stealth was going to be the pace car. But since the UAW did not like Chrysler’s joint venture with Mitsubishi that developed the Stealth, Dodge was forced to use the Viper. This was confirmed in April and I was told that a driver was already established…”Oh, you do not need to drive during the 500..? Then, maybe, may be...on Carburation Day…”

Who doesn’t say ‘no’, says ‘yes’. So I arrived at the Indy track three days before the event, leaving ample time to try to realize my plan. On the morning of Carburation Day, I climbed into the Viper, along with its regular driver… Carroll Shelby.

I had it my way, and I also had a new friend! In the super sports car with its roaring V10, along the packed grandstands, we did not have exactly much to opportunity for small talk but there was an immediate click. Shelby had to continue his ‘pace work’ and I had to write my story and ship it together with the spectacular pictures to The Netherlands for publication 24 hours later.

In 1992, my husband Peter and I visited Carroll Shelby in his offices south of Los Angeles. Because Shelby hated to see that his Cobra was copied by everyone, he had plans to build it again with the frames and parts he still had kept. After his heart transplant in the summer of 1990 he decided to really start the project.

“When I walked around after the surgery with the heart of a young man, I thought those cars have to be finished before I die,” he laughed.

That same day, I got into a spectacular car again with the Texan. The growl of the V8 of the ‘new’ Cobra indicated that its 425 horses would break loose at the slightest provocation. We looked at each other. Apparently, the expression on my face said exactly what I felt.

Back in the cozy office, the three of us sat for hours, chatting like we knew each other for centuries. That is just the way with like-minded souls: the immediately tangible atmosphere of can’t-doesn’t-exists, of mutual appreciation of achievements and above all the profound pleasure of Old Shel (as he was affectionately called by friends) telling stories and us listening to them. Shelby’s broad smile was the same as on the black-and-white pictures on the walls, that showed a charming, lanky guy with Maserati team mates Phil Hill and Troy Ruttman, or a Cobra with him, Dan Gurney and Ben Pon.

When we left, Peter and I both wished we would have known him better much earlier. I casted a last glance at a picture of him with his typical Texan hat. The legs of his striped peasant overalls folded high in an idiotic way, enhancing the big feet… size 14-with-pain.

Three years later, I was sitting on the side of the luggage belt of the Detroit airport. Being bored, I stared at my feet. They were not as nicely polished as those of my neighbor. His shoes were of a casual-luxury type that looked vaguely familiar. While I realized that they were very big, the thought of Shelby’s enormously sized shoes crossed my mind. I looked up and my eyes caught a similar bored gaze of … Caroll Shelby. Instantly his face turned in his famous big smile and he roared with laughter when I told him I recognized him by his feet.

PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)

Ever since, we met at the American auto shows and Peter and I visited him again in his Shelby American offices in Gardena, CA, in 2006. The day was marked by much fun – again. Shelby asked me to sit next to him and buckle up. This time on an electric golf cart. Then, inside the large warehouse, he took off with screaming wheels, demonstrating the golf cart could reach 40 mph!

Carroll Shelby passed away on May 10, 2012, in his native Texas. He will be fondly remembered! Our thoughts are with Cleo, his children, relatives and friends.