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Heart of a Gambler : Carroll Shelby Designs a Car to Pump Life Into American Racing

March 24, 1991|SHAV GLICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A heart transplant from a Las Vegas gambler has given Carroll Shelby a new lease on life, and at 68, the legendary racing guru from Texas and Bel-Air hopes to do the same for American sports car racing.

Shelby, with renewed vigor and the heartbeat of a 34-year-old, has designed and built a single-seat, open-cockpit car--the Shelby Can Am Sports Racer--to try to help young American drivers gain the experience to move into Indy car, GTP or Formula One racing without having to find a rich sponsor or be born to a wealthy family.

"Racing has reached the point where it is pricing the young driver, no matter his talent, out of the game," Shelby said at his Can Am car production shop in Carson. "I designed the Can Am so that a young man--or woman--could drive in an amateur series for a reasonable price, and if they displayed sufficient talent and desire, could move into a professional class with the same equipment."

The transformation comes from an engine change. For Sports Car Club of America amateur races, in which the Shelby Can Am was introduced as a separate class this season, a 250 horsepower V-6 Dodge furnishes the power. For professional races, a 500 horsepower engine can occupy the same spot.

"It's so simple, I'm surprised someone else hadn't thought of it sooner," Shelby said.

That Shelby is around to think of it at all is surprising.

Last June, he lay near death in Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, his heart functioning at only 15% of normal.

"I was at the point where I couldn't even go to the bathroom without help," he said. "I had been on the waiting list for a heart for nearly nine months and time was running out. I wore a beeper all that time, waiting for a call, just getting closer and closer to the end."

On June 1, the call came. A 34-year-old man had collapsed of a brain hemorrhage at a crap table in a Las Vegas casino. His heart was available, and on June 9, at 2:15 a.m., the transplant operation was completed at Cedars-Sinai.

"The first time I walked by a crap table, I felt kind of funny," Shelby jokes about it now. "The guy must have been a winner, though, because I sure am. I feel like I walked out of darkness into the daylight. I got a strong heart, and the doctors say that I have a real good tissue mix with his heart. You need that to keep the body from rejecting."

Shelby had been plagued by heart problems since he was 10 and doctors detected a murmur. He outgrew that, but in January of 1960--at the peak of his racing career--he was stricken with severe chest pains.

"(Angina pain) got so bad that when I was driving my race car, I had to keep nitroglycerin pills under my tongue," he said. "I won the USRRC (United States Road Racing Championship) that year, but when I had to use five nitro pills in the last race at Laguna Seca, I decided I ought to quit. I finished third in that race behind Stirling Moss and Jim Hall. I might have won it if I hadn't had to pop those pills. Every time I slipped one under my tongue, it slowed me down."

Such race-at-any-cost tactics were nothing new to Shelby.

There was the time he was to drive a Ferrari with Phil Hill at Sebring but had a broken elbow. Before the race, Shelby replaced his plaster cast with a lighter fiberglass one and had his right hand taped to the steering wheel. They finished second.

In a Governor's Cup race in darkness in the Bahamas, Shelby had no lights, so he tucked in behind the Marquis Alfonso de Portago's Ferrari in pitch-black conditions and tailgated at 100 m.p.h., swooping around the Marquis on the final lap to win.

Shelby didn't do it, but it was his idea when an Allard he was driving caught fire in the pits in Argentina and he had no extinguisher.

He shouted to Dale Duncan, his co-driver, to jump out of the car and urinate on it. Duncan did, putting out the fire, and the car finished 10th, first its class.

Shelby was at Riverside International Raceway for the first race there--the Los Angeles Cup in September, 1957--but he crashed in practice going into Turn 6 in what was the worst accident of his racing career.

"There was a lot of sand on the track, and when my left wheels got off the pavement I didn't realize it," he recalled. "When I put the brakes on I went straight into the wall."

Doctors had to fuse several of his vertebrae and took 300 stitches to remake his face.

Less than two months later, Shelby was back at Riverside in a Maserati and won an SCCA national championship race.

Heart problems continued to follow him after his retirement. In 1973, he had surgery to repair a three-vessel coronary artery disease, then five years later needed reoperative bypass grafting.

So how does he feel now with his new heart?

"I may get back in the car and do some racing myself, if I can get the docs to give me an OK," he answered as a Texas-sized grin. "I've done a lot of my own testing in the Can Am at the Chrysler track in Arizona, but I might go racing to get a better feel of the car."

He is 68 and last drove in a race 31 years ago.

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