Behind the Wheel with Aaron Shelby

By Author: Tim Allen, Date: Dec 17, 2019
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There’s history and magic in the Shelby name. Carroll Shelby and his companies have been involved in the design and manufacture of some of the most iconic American cars on both the street and track; the Cobra, GT 40, GT 350 and the GT 500. This past fall 20th Century Fox released a full-length feature film, Ford vs Ferrari, staring Matt Damon and Christian Bale to critical acclaim. To say Carroll Shelby and the Shelby name are larger than life in the performance automobile industry would be far from a stretch. We had a chance to hop behind the wheel with Aaron Shelby, Carroll Shelby’s grandson a board member of Shelby International and President of the Shelby Foundation, to learn more about his family history and the future of the company. 

What is your first recollection of being around cars?

My excitement about cars started when I was 8. My father started racing when I was that age. He started in Formula Fords and Formula Atlantics. That was about 1978-1979 time-frame. Carroll was not in the car business at that point. Obviously, I knew my grandfather at that age but didn’t know his history. When my dad started racing that was sort of my first foray into the car world. I fell in love with it from the first race I went to. I got to watch the cars race around the track and of course, you had people who drove their sports cars to the track so you got to see those as well.  

What was the first car you owned?

My first car when I turned 16 was a two-year old Acura Integra, base model, 5-speed. It was very simple, a good get-around car that my mother bought for me for my 16th birthday. It wasn’t that exciting at all but probably not a bad first car to have. 

Did you ever go racing?

No, I have not. I’ve been to Bondurant school and other schools as well. I really enjoyed it and I do like some track time but realized when I was out there that I don’t like being out there with 15 or 20 other people. 

You took a different path and went into banking and finance, what made you not follow your grandfather into the car business early in your career?

Well I actually looked at the family business and tried a couple different avenues when I was coming out of college, but really wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. Carroll was sort of in transition at that time, wasn’t doing much in the car business, starting to do a few continuation Cobras but nothing at scale. So, there was nothing I really could do with him either. I kind of fell into banking. It was a family business from my father and grandmother’s side of the family. I probably have a little more analytical mind than entrepreneurial mind so that plays into it as well. 

Tell me a little bit about your relationship with your grandfather? Was he really bigger than life like the stories say?

I had an outstanding relationship with him. We played golf together and I spent a lot of time at his farm in East Texas growing up. We’d spend weekends with him out there. We were close and he was a good grandfather. He could be larger than life but he could also be down home and the guy next door, we spent a lot of time on his farm in East Texas and he was not Carroll Shelby, he was just another guy from East Texas. There was nothing glitzy or glamorous and he never really looked for that lifestyle, he was just a guy.  

Aaron with the Aston Martin DBR1 that Carroll Shelby and Roy Salvadori drove to victory at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1959

He was a different person than you saw at a track. I went to the Indy 500 with him in 1991 when he drove the Viper for the pace car. When you plopped him down in the middle of a place where people knew exactly who he was, his personality could come on very quick. He was a people person, would talk to everybody, sign autographs and take pictures. He was real engaging with everyone who came up to him. That’s when I started to see the difference after going to a couple events with him and see the crowd react to him and people coming up wanting to shake his hand. It’s fun now to see that notoriety come his way on a bigger scale for people that don’t know his story. We just introduced a documentary on Netflix with Adam Carolla’s group to tell his story. We’d been working on that for about the last 18 months. 

What’s the hardest part about being Carroll Shelby’s grandson?

I don’t know if there is necessarily a hard part about it. I can walk around town and 99.9% of people don’t know who I am, and that’s great. I can go to a race track and a few people might recognize me. But if it’s a Shelby event, obviously I’m more recognized. I think there is an expectation to carry the brand a little bit and I don’t take that lightly. I understand the legacy he wanted to leave and I try to live up to that. I put a lot of effort in to making sure we’re taking the company in the right direction and the Shelby clubs in the right direction, to a place he would be proud of. 

You joined the board of Shelby International a few years ago, tell me what your responsibilities are in that position?

I do a lot of brand ambassador work so it’s a lot of showing up at events and representing and being the face of the company. I do a lot of work with the foundation, being on the foundation board and president of the foundation. That was a big piece of his reputation that he wanted to see continue. Making sure that the foundation was well-funded and stayed to its core values of helping families going through transplant needs and care with their children and then the automotive education piece. We have the Carroll Shelby Automotive Technical Training School at East Texas that we fund scholarships for. We also try to find similar organizations around the country that we can provide scholarship money for. 

For the past 3 years or so I’ve spent a lot of time on the international expansion. When Mustang went international in 2015, that opened a lot of doors for us and was a big opportunity for us to do Mustang modifications with Shelby packages in other markets. 

What’s the future of Shelby International, will we see a Shelby Mach-E?

So, I can’t answer that question directly, but I will tell you Carroll played with electric cars before he passed away and we continue to test out electric technology. I can’t speak to a Mach-E directly but I wouldn’t be surprised that somewhere down the road there isn’t an electric version of a Shelby out there somewhere. Carroll also played with hydrogen powered cars and natural gas power, he played with a lot of different technologies because he was a forward-thinking guy that really liked technology and where you could go with that. We try to maintain that in our engineering philosophy today. 

Aaron with a poster from the movie at the 44th Annual Shelby American Automobile Club Convention earlier this year

How much input did your family have in the movie Ford vs Ferrari?

It’s interesting, we had absolutely none as a matter of fact. We’ve been very pleased with the turnout I will say. The concept of this movie has been out there for 20 years or more. It’s been going in fits and starts. But when we heard that this one finally caught fire and was going to get funded, we reached out more from a company perspective about licensing logos and then providing any type of consulting help for the story. They said, “no, we’re good. It’s a public story and we’ve got it all taken care of, don’t worry about it.” So, we sat back with our fingers crossed and just said “Okay, let’s hope it comes out well.” And sure enough, it did. We’ve been really pleased with it. I, as a family member, I’m very happy with it. They obviously put Carroll in a very good light. It plays him out really nicely. I think from just a brand awareness perspective it’s been great. 

If I opened your garage at home, what would I find?

You would find my 2015 GT 350. You would find my 1967 Lincoln Continental convertible. That was actually Carroll’s car. Ford gave it to him after Le Mans in 1967. I bought it from his estate a couple years ago. It’s a fun car to just go cruising around in. And, a 2017 Ford GT. It actually belongs to my father but it’s in my garage right now. A lot of Ford products. 

Where do you like to go when you want to get away for a long drive?

Dallas has a lot of good roads just outside of town. It’s nice you can get about an hour outside of Dallas and find some nice, little country roads that are a lot fun to drive on. We still have property in East Texas about 2 hours from here (Dallas) and to go out on those country roads and have a little fun is always a good time. 

Any final thoughts?

We’re excited. It’s a fun time to be part of Shelby. Not just from a family perspective but of a company perspective. The movie’s been great, the enthusiasm around the movie has been a lot fun to watch. The documentary we have called Shelby American has been well-received and we’re excited to get Carroll’s story out there a little bit more. A lot of people know the ‘60s history well but not a lot of people know what he did before the Cobra and the fact that he was a successful race car driver for 8 or 9 years ahead of that. It’s news to a lot of people and we’ve been fortunate to find a lot of archived video footage of him driving race cars, and a lot of newspaper clippings and photographs. That’s been exciting for me and we look forward to what the future is going to hold. I think it’s going to be real exciting for Shelby.

Thank you for taking time out of a very busy schedule to sit down with us Aaron. We are just as excited to see where Shelby goes in the future. We’re pretty sure whichever direction it does go, it will go fast. 

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