When Carroll Shelby turned down a ride from Enzo Ferrari

One of the many things that makes the story of Ford vs. Ferrari at Le Mans in the 1960s so compelling is that for most of the protagonists it was personal. Henry Ford II felt that Enzo Ferrari jerked him around after offering to sell the Ferrari company to Ford. Enzo still bore a grudge for his factory getting bombed by American forces during World War II and badly wanted to beat the American upstarts. Ken Miles was an aging driver, respected by his peers but outside of the limelight. Beating Ferrari—the man as much as the team—was likely most personal to Carroll Shelby.

Most people know of Carroll Shelby as the creator of the Cobra and Shelby Mustang. A measure of his success as a constructor and team owner/manager is that Shelby’s ability as a race driver is almost always listed second among his automotive talents. He was a skilled enough driver to make the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1957. Good enough to win at Le Mans in 1959. Good enough to turn down a ride offered by il Commendatore, Enzo Ferrari, himself.

Shelby was fascinated by speed from the first time his father took him to a car race as a child. During World War II, he served stateside in the Army Air Corps, learning how to fly bombers. After the war, having married and fathered three kids, he struggled to support his family with a succession of jobs. Shelby worked as a roughneck in the Texas oil fields, operating a trucking business, and trying to start a chicken farm, which is how he ended up with 20,000 dead chickens. That farm is also how he ended up wearing bib overalls to a road race at the Eagle Mountain Naval Station near Fort Worth in 1953, a choice of apparel that became as much his trademark as his cowboy hat.

By then, Shelby had figured out that he had some talent as a driver and that he could make some money racing—behind the wheel of sports cars owned by more affluent friends. One of those friends, Tony Parravano, was a successful developer of land in southern California who was rumored to be “connected.” The fact that he completely disappeared a couple of years later didn’t do anything to dispel those rumors. Parravano took a liking to Ferraris, and in 1955, he took Shelby to Italy.

“I’m going to buy another 15 Ferraris,” he told Shelby, according to Go Like Hell by A.J. Baime, “and I’d like you to drive them for me. Any of them. I don’t care. Take your pick.”

The two spent about a month in Modena, with Shelby checking out potential race cars and his patron negotiating the deal. By then, Shelby was just four years from winning at Le Mans in an Aston Martin and had already gained a reputation as a competent wheelman. Enzo Ferrari heard that an American hot shoe was hanging around the factory.

Ferrari was always on the lookout for new talent. Perhaps that was because he treated his race drivers almost as if they were disposable, with an attitude towards their safety that was considered cavalier by many.

Il Drake asked for a meeting with Shelby. With his secretary acting as an interpreter, Ferrari proffered a contract to Shelby to race sports cars for the Ferrari factory team. The terms? A small retainer plus half of the purses that he would win.

Shelby takes flag at Le Mans
Youtube / Aston Martin

“You can drive some sports car races,” Ferrari said.

Shelby did some quick math. “With all due respect, Mr. Ferrari. I got three kids at home. I make more money driving in the States.”

Ferrari couldn’t believe what he was hearing. It may have been the first time that someone turned down a factory ride at Ferrari. “What’s this about money? You’re at the beginning of your career. You should be honored to drive for us.”

Not wanting to risk his own life for another man’s honor, Shelby stared at Ferrari, got up, and left.

In 1957, Shelby started racing for Aston Martin, and as his success on the continent grew, Enzo Ferrari would periodically offer him other chances to race for his team. Every time, Shelby turned Ferrari down. They say familiarity breeds contempt, and Shelby knew Ferrari better than anyone else involved in the Ford Le Mans program. Shelby had his reasons, besides money, not to race for Ferrari.

In late 1956, Enzo Ferrari had a meeting with the seven drivers that would be competing for him in 1957. Among them was Luigi Musso, a good friend of Shelby’s. Six of them wouldn’t survive the experience. Musso would get killed racing for Ferrari at the 1958 French Grand Prix at Reims, his Dino flattened after it went off course.

“That son of a bitch killed my friend Musso,” Shelby said. “And he killed others, too.”

Small wonder that in the spring of 1963, when Shelby announced that he’d be taking on Ferrari at Le Mans, backed by Ford, with a homologated Cobra and a Ford prototype (that would become the GT40), he told the gathered press, “Next year, Ferrari’s ass is mine.”

Hell yeah, it was personal.

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