Thirty months ago, death's door opened wide for Carroll Shelby.
His heart was barely pumping and fatigue had enfeebled his body until he needed helping arms to the bathroom. Without a new heart, said surgeons at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, the tough, bearish, fun, seemingly indestructible Shelby would be dead in a month.
"But dying wasn't a big deal," he says.
Because for 67 years Shelby had lived each hour as his last: Racing sports and Formula One cars and beating the world; crafting cars that made man and machine international legends; raising children to cherish and then grandchildren to love and be loved by.
Becoming a chili millionaire.
There also were three divorces, much Wild Turkey among lifelong friends, definitely too many animals hunted in years when nobody cared much about African elephants, a bad business deal or three . . . but, shoot, that's life.
In a hospital bed, sprouting tubes, lungs filling with fluid, Shelby says he counted out his own end: "A hereditary heart condition, 30 surgeries in 30 years and 12 bypasses. I figured there was a good chance I would die. But I'd lived a great life. Regrets? Hell no."
His obituary was written--but remains in media files.
For as Shelby's odds shortened, they ran out completely for a young man in Las Vegas. He suffered a brain hemorrhage at a craps table.
A relay of helicopters and a corporate jet brought his 34-year-old heart to Cedars-Sinai. And Shelby's initial post-operative memory is of a tall, bearded man wearing a hat and a long coat.
"I thought I was getting the last rites," he says. "So I told this fella: 'I'm really a little more Protestant than Hebrew.' He said: 'I'm not a rabbi. I'm an immunologist just figuring out what to do. You've got pneumonia and a temperature of 105.' "
Within days the fever was down, the patient was up, coronary arteries were firmly knitting--and an energetic, smiling, even gentler Shelby was working on a new enterprise.
"The Shelby Heart Fund," he says. "It's the dearest thing in my life right now, to do everything I can to motivate people to donate their perfectly good organs to people who aren't so fortunate."
And that's not just people unfortunate in health, he says, but people unfortunate by social, economic and family circumstances.
"I'm talking about indigent people . . . because nobody cares for them," Shelby says, continuing his typical, blunt Texas way of making points indelible. "The haves get the hearts in this world, the have-nots die."
Blue eyes sparkle in his strong face: "So now that I'm on the right side of the grass, the Shelby Heart Fund is my way of giving back."
The giving already has been splendid.
Several surgeries have been performed, one on a 6-year-old street kid from Culiacan, Mexico.
Proceeds from his speaking engagements, a Lake Tahoe golf tournament, a Palm Springs roast--maybe $200,000 in all--have been donated to the fund. Ask for Shelby's autograph at any car show and he will ask for a $10 contribution. He recently printed 100,000 bumper stickers advertising the fund's 800 number and its resolution: Don't Take Your Organs to Heaven.
And now Shelby has dug into the rusty, dusty hoardings of his Gardena warehouse to reassemble an automotive trove that could add about $10 million to his charity.
His fund raising hinges on mechanical leftovers from an Anglo-California sports car called the Cobra, inarguably the most famous performance automobile in American motoring's 100-year history.
For almost three decades, Shelby--conceiver, designer and builder of the car--has been storing a stack of original Cobra chassis, racks of unused engines and bins of spares.
Last year, he counted the parts, explored the cost of retooling and knew he had enough bits and pieces to reissue almost four dozen 400-horsepower Cobras.
That means this year selling mint, zero-miles, never-driven Cobras once ready for assembly but left in parts since 1965.
To isolated purists it's questionable commerce and first cousin to drumming liver tonics.
To car freaks, it's as grand as discovering that the funny pencil sketches Great-Grandfather brought back from Paris in 1889 were signed by a starving student named Henri Matisse.
The first two-seat, aluminum-bodied, Ford-powered, thunder-and-lightning Shelby-AC Cobra was built in 1962.
Its purpose was simple and pure red-white-and-blue Shelby: To blow the doors off the Chevrolet Corvette and flatten everything else, especially Ferrari in international sports car competition.
In 1964--after only two years in production as the fruit of Shelby's enduring partnership/friendship, with then-fast track Ford executive Lee Iacocca--Cobra beat Ferrari for the world's manufacturer's championship.
Shelby's California plants in Santa Fe Springs and Venice made 1,100 Cobras. One subspecies was the Cobra 427SC built for racing. Under international rules, 100 cars should have been produced before the type qualified for competition.