A SIGN OF THE (L.A.) TIMES: WHEN ‘FORD V FERRARI’ SPINS AWAY FROM HOLLYWOOD’S FAST-N-FURIOUS WAYS OF DEALING FACT VS. FICTION
By Tom Hoffarth
As the cover story for the March 25, 1957 edition of Sports Illustrated, Carroll Shelby is called “The Gentle Leadfoot,” and referred to as “America’s hottest driver” as he headed into a big race at Sebring.
“You know, when I’m driving a race car I feel like I don’t have a problem in the world,” Shelby says in the piece. “I haven’t even tried to analyze why I do it. I guess there is just something there — a certain challenge.”
All the while, he wore these bibbed, striped carpenters’ overalls he says he bought for $3 at J.C.Penney’s “when I was in the chicken business.”
The beauty of the story is writer Kenneth Rudeen allows Shelby to talk through most of it, in his voice. That’s part of the Shelby sales pitch charm, playing up his Texas-bred stereotypes that followed him to a car designer, salesman and legend.
(Just for some context in that 1957 SI issue, the magazine also has a piece about the new Major League Baseball rookies who were likely to do well in the upcoming season. That included Baltimore’s Brooks Robinson and Cleveland’s Roger Maris. In its preview of the NCAA basketball final four — Kansas, San Francisco, North Carolina and Michigan State — there’s a story about how Kansas sophomore Wilt Chamberlain has become a “magnetic obsession.”)
In an expansion of our piece in Monday’s Los Angeles Times about how the new box-office hit “Ford v Ferrari” has been viewed by those who like to separate fact from fiction — it is a “based on a true story” about how Shelby and driver Ken Miles battled with Ford executives trying to beat Ferrari at the coveted 24 Hours of Le Mans in the 1960s, finally coming through at the end of the decade with four straight wins — we had a conversation with Shelby’s 48-year-old grandson, Aaron, about this.
The fact of the matter so far is RottenTomatoes.com has “Ford v Ferrari” with a 98 percent approval rating from viewers, and 92 percent from critics. The film was far and away the most-seen at the box office last weekend with a $31 million take.
Carroll Shelby, who died in 2012, remains a bigger-than-life sports figure with a company that started in Venice, moved to a hanger at LAX to do his work in the 1960s, and the family continues to have a home base in Gardena as well as a presence in Las Vegas. A piece about him, whether an upcoming documentary called “Shelby American” or this “Ford v Ferrari” is long overdue.
(And by the way, that’s Aaron in the photo above driving his first Cobra in 2016. Credit: Shelby American).
Aaron Shelby talks about:
== More of Hollywood’s interpretation of the story in “Ford v Ferrari”
“You might have seen they don’t even talk about 1964 when that is when this really all started, but they jump to ’65 when the first year Carroll is involved in the GT program.”
== On the title “Ford v Ferrari”
“When they were first filming this, the (Fox) studio kept telling us this is just a working title. ‘Don’t worry, we’ll come up with something else.’ But we just kept going down the road and I can see how it’s a good name-draw title, but Ford and Ferrari aren’t the prominent players.”
== On the new documentary “Shelby American” available at Chassy.com starting Tuesday:
“The first documentary (Adam Carolla and Nate Adams did in 2016) called “The 24 Hour War” was more of the true documentary of Le Mans ’66 with the nitty gritty details. After that, they had a lot of the other Shelby interviews that didn’t fit that film. They approached us about a true Shelby documentary — a birth-to-death piece. I know the 1960s are important to his life, but it’s not all about the ’60s. It’s surprising to me how many Shelby enthuiasts ask: What did he do before the Cobra? He was a successful race car driver for nine years and successful. We have at least 15 minutes of the documentary covering that with a lot of film that hasn’t been seen before, and more archived photos and stories. I’m excited about this part of it and the approach they used with having Carroll’s voice tell the story, from interviews he did over the years.”
== With Shelby International operations in Gardena, did Carroll Shelby ever race at the famous Ascot Park nearby there in the 1950s (before closing in 1990)?
“I don’t think so. I know I used to go there to watch motorcycle racing. I know Carroll was mainly a road course driver. I was once talking to (famed driver) Johnny Rutherford and he asked why Carroll never drove at Indianapolis, or even NASCAR. Maybe he just didn’t want to race in circles or where there were concrete barriers, but can’t give reason but he just stuck to road courses.”
== On the movie seeming to take its cue from the 2009 book “Go Like Hell: Ford, Ferrari and their Battle for Speed and Glory at Le Mans” by A.J. Baime:
“I think a lot was taken from that probably. It’s a common story. No one seems to have encapsulated it more than A.J. I’ve read it twice since then and the way he tells it, he’ll get technical but not too technical, and it’s a great read and presentation on how it plays out. They don’t give him credit in the movie, but I think they had this book in mind when they did it.”
== In “Ford v Ferrari” we see Shelby take a lot of heart medication pills, which basically ended his driving career. What isn’t really told is how he had a distinction for a time to have been one of the longest living person with a heart transplant:
“He was 67 when he got his heart in 1990 and lived to 2012 (at age 89). When he got it, the doctors said it would give him three-to-five more years, but mostly because they knew the medications would affect his organs. He lost both kidneys — my uncle donated his kidney in 2006. But he really was a medical wonder. His health issues go back the 1950s but even then, he was smarter than most of the doctors who were treating him. He was always looking for the next best cure and medical techniques. It was amazing to hear his knowledge of the medical world. We talk about the transplant in the new documentary, and his original foundation was created to help those who needed heart transplants.”
More media of note:
== Other pieces in the L.A. Times:
= How local Southern California tracks replicated race sites in the film
= Film critic Jack Mathews discusses other racing-themed movies have fared, such as Paul Newman in “Winning,” Tom Cruse in “Days of Thunder” and “Grand Prix.”
= How the classic Shelby race cars were brought to live again
= How director/producer James Mangold came to be the one who finally made this
= Film critic Kenneth Turan reviews “Ford v Ferrari” below, as well as online with this observation: ” ‘Ford v Ferrari’ has virtues well beyond immersive racing footage, offering humor, passion, strong personalities and stronger conflicts plus sterling acting by stars Matt Damon and Christian Bale and a tip-top supporting cast.”
== A trailer for “Shelby American” documentary
== CBS Sunday Morning’s piece with Matt Damon and Christian Bale about “Ford v Ferrari” from the Peterson Museum in L.A. Aaron Shelby is also interviewed.
== A review from Autoweek.com: “THE NEW ‘FORD V FERRARI’ MOVIE IS AS REAL AS IT’S EVER GONNA GET: Epic racing movie tells one part of the big story very, very well”
== A.J. Baime’s piece for the Wall Street Journal about the collector who owns the car that won the 1966 Le Mans.
== The Athletic Q&A with producer/director James Mangold, as well as Adam Carolla
== An ESPN.com piece on how “Ford v Ferrari” could also be “The Untold Story of Ken Miles”
== A.J. Baime has a piece in the Wall Street Journal in September about collector Bruce Meyer, the founding chairman of Petersen Automotive Museum in L.A., on his Shelby Cobra CSX2001.
== A 1964 story from Sports Illustrated about Shelby’s drive at Sebring.
== The Wikipedia entry on “Ford v Ferrari”
== The Wikipedia entry on “1966 24 Hours of Le Mans”