I was watching Need For Speed, the 2014 movie that sought to establish Breaking Bad‘s Aaron Paul in the feature film genre when I kept hearing a plot point about a “Carroll Shelby designed Ford Mustang” over and over again. Yes, I’ve heard of a Shelby GT500 Mustang, but I got curious and decided to learn more about the iconic American behind the car’s design.

Carroll Shelby was a chicken farmer and a highly-decorated professional race car driver who had won the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1959 with British automaker Aston Martin.

When he retired from racing in October 1959, he took his talent to Chevrolet in order to convince them to build a new prototype of sports car. Chevy already had the Corvette as their signature car, so Shelby went to Ford and got a small amount of money and some Ford engines to begin work on the AC Cobra.

In 2002, the BBC produced a good documentary about Carroll Shelby and his role in developing the Ford GT40, which would usurp Ferrari at Le Mans, winning four times from 1966 to 1969. The GT40 itself was in development before Shelby joined the project in 1964, but his contribution to the team helped defeat the Italians, who had a solid lock on the Le Mans title, winning it every time from 1960 to 1965.

The other really good resource for understanding this era in car racing is the 2016 documentary The 24 Hour War:

“In the early 1960s, Henry Ford II and Enzo Ferrari went to war on the battlefield of Le Mans. This epic battle saw drivers lose their lives, family dynasties nearly collapse and the development of a new race car that changed racing.”

Today, auto racing has completely changed. Privateers are virtually nonexistent at the highest levels of racing. Even major teams with solid financial clout flail and seem noncompetitive against those with greater backing.

You also have to wonder: How much does a manufacturer’s success carry over into consumer sales? For instance, if a Toyota Camry wins the NASCAR title this year, will people go out and buy that car? Is there incentive for Ford to create a Mustang for NASCAR?

As it stands, the Ferrari-Ford rivalry was a good thing because of how it radically advanced technology and expectations about performance. I believe there are things to be learned that can be passed down to consumer versions of cars–but filtering out the truth from a million options available is where the buyer has to educate themselves.

Anyway, Carroll Shelby certainly made a huge contribution to the American car industry and researching him was really worthwhile.