Friday, December 12, 2008

The world's fastest chicken farmer

     Well here we are as promised. What a morning it was. Hit the bricks at 8am and were out at Shelby's place by 8:30. First of all, I didn't realize exactly where his place was in relation to Las Vegas motor speedway. Turns out, it's right on the premises, and he's not alone. The property reminds me of the west side of Indianapolis or the business parks outside of Charlotte that are solely occupied by motorsports businesses. It's a very cool thing to just drive through and see one familiar brand after another from the racing world, like it's the inner sanctum and you're seeing where it all happens. 

    As early as we were there, something sounding very "full race" was already out on the big banked oval putting in laps. What a great way to start the day that must be. As we were making our way to the Shelby Corner Cafe, the first striking sight of the day hit me... a parking lot full of brand new Shelby Mustangs. It immediately made me think of those great period photos that we've all seen of the mid '60s lots full of '65 GT350s as far as you can see. Makes you crazy just thinking about it, and it was inspiring to realize how things haven't really changed that much from then to now. Stock GTs are still brought in from Ford and a small crew of guys at Shelby's facility modify them to his various specs. I was really struck by how small the operation was. It almost seemed manageable when you looked around. There was a lot where the already mechanically modified cars sat and waited to go to another similar building where they would get their Shelby badging, interior treatments, scoops, wings, spoilers, and finally stripe packages. 

    You could literally stand in one spot and see this process in action. Out from the main   building, parked, then across the way others are coming out another door looking much more muscular with their outer facelifts completed, then a quality control check going on, every now and then a couple would go by on a test drive, then a final cleaning, and lastly, the window sticker gets put in place and they are left in the shipping lot. 

    My friend Alan Funderburk and I took this in for a while and tried to pick out which one we would take home. I think we both settled on a solid black GT500KR. These are stickering for between $45,000 and $50,000, so I don't believe either of us are going to make a move towards one real soon, but it's a nice thought. We then walked over to the Shelby Corner Cafe. This was a surprisingly nice experience. Instead of a completely touristy vibe, which is what I was expecting, it really felt more like the local eating spot for all of the folks who work on the grounds of the motor speedway... which is really what it is. Most of the folks in there for breakfast that morning either had on their mechanic wear or were sporting some kind of golf shirt with a racing team or racing components logo. Kind of gave me a slight feeling of the old school race world comradery that we always hear about. For the record, I had the Shelby breakfast burrito and it was really really good. Ol' Shel can even make good breakfast food. 

    The cafe was done up with some pretty clever examples of how to use car parts as home decor. Something I'm sure only a car guy could ever appreciate. Things like big screen TVs mounted in Mustang hoods and Ford FE valve covers mounted on the wall with cut outs housing overhead lighting. Also, you had the usual memorabilia littered about the place, but the photos they chose for the wall papering were really inspiring. Lots of photos I'd never seen of Shelby in his racing heyday. In particular, several showing him driving various birdcage Maseratis... a car that I never knew he had much wheel time in. Also some Shelby shop scenes from back in the day- always inspiring. 

     So it was on to the small Shelby museum which is attached to the main building housing the offices and the large constructing facility. Not a lot of cars but what they did have were serious. How about the very first Cobra? This is the car that Shelby traveled around with shooting it a different color for each appearance to make the auto journalists think he was already in production. Classic Shelby. But it did the early road tests and auto shows and put the young company on the map. An un-restored car I'm happy to say, and how nice that he kept it all these years. Parked in with that was the FIA championship winning 289 race car. A car that, it could be said, was as important to the future of the company as the very first car as it showed, without question, that Shelby and his team of American hot rodders were to be taken seriously on the world racing stage. Also on hand were some Shelby Mustangs from down through the years. One a Shelby owned '66 that he bought from Hertz after it was retired. A patina heavy car, it was fun to think of Shelby knocking around in this back in the day using it as a beater. 

    On to the tour of the shop and building areas. The tour lasted for about 30 minutes and was a lighter affair than you would generally think something like this would be. The guide was a pretty happy go lucky guy in his 50s that has known Shelby for many years. Several times during the tour he would drop in little personal anecdotes about some of the legendary, and not so legendary, antics that Shelby and his crew have always been known for. Someone has to do a proper book on Carrol, he has got to be one of the most colorful characters motorsports has ever known. 

    Once out in the shop, the real stuff was finally revealed to us. Cobra bodies on horses in various stages of assembly, and completed and nearly completed cars scattered all throughout the shop. Just made the mind reel. I saw mine in BRG under a see-through plastic cover. There were even some customer cars in for repair- a surprise to me. The biggest surprise for me had to be finding out that, if you want to pay the premium, you can have your new Cobra body built by hand in England by some of the original AC motorcars old world aluminum craftsmen. Again, if you want to pay for it, these guys will pound you out a body, just like they did back in the day, by hand, using the same techniques and tools. Now that would be the way to go. Apparently that is the 3rd level of car that they make. The entry is a fiberglass bodied car, next is an aluminum car made mostly from stampings and hand assembled. The other surprise to me was that a new Mustang customer could order a GT from their dealership, ship it to Shelby, have it Shelby-ized, and shipped back to them with a note of authentication from Shelby and its number in the registry. Maybe that's standard issue stuff but it was news to me. 

    All in all, a very satisfying little visit. For the record, if the one small photo of the Cobra shop seems like a bit of a let-down, understand that I was lucky to get that as photography in the shop area is strictly prohibited. Yeah, I know, I'm a bad guy. I have to say, as we were leaving, I couldn't help being a bit knocked out by the fact that, at my age and having grown up reading about the glory days of Shelby America etc., I can go and visit a place like this where it's all happening again... and the man who started it back in the day is not only still with us but is still heavily involved in the designs and the decision making that goes on. Pretty magical stuff. Of course it is no secret that I lean heavily toward the vintage side of motorsport, and it's true that I just don't get a visceral feeling that I would ever be able to connect with and feel the direct communication come up through you in a new Shelby Mustang like you would in an early one. But that is absolutely no reason to knock the great achievements being made in the modern world of production sports and muscle cars. Obviously, on paper, they do everything better than the originals and in a much safer way... and how can you possibly knock a production car with 500-600, and in the case of the new Shelby GT500KR Super Snake 725!! hp, on tap? And that's with cold AC and a good stereo! My hat is off to the folks at Shelby and to Carrol himself for keeping the faith. 

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