Vile Gossip: Godspeed, Ol' Shel
From the August, 2012 issue of Automobile Magazine / By Jean Jennings
What I would like to read right now is a classic David E. Davis, Jr., obituary on his old friend, Carroll Shelby, who died two weeks before this issue went to press. (Too mean to die, I told Shelby last fall in Las Vegas, when he was only 88. "I love you, Lindermood," he replied, quite sweetly.) David E. had the naked stories, the ones you still can't tell. He knew Shelby in the glory days and the not-so-glorious '70s, when the Detroit deals dried up and he exiled himself to Africa to hunt and to run safaris. Shelby suckered Davis into investing in some exotic Rhodesian Tuli cattle that he brought to Texas. When the deal went south, the difference between the nonchalance of the well-heeled gambler and the horror felt by just a gambler banking on becoming well-heeled was a painful experience that Davis took a while to get over. Yes, he would have gleefully built a literary pyre of Shelby injustices and reprobate behavior, poured on the gasoline, lit a match, then...blown it out at the last second and dismantled it. Because he loved Shelby.
Face-to-face, Shelby's billion-megawatt charm obliterated common sense, negated all the rumors (and actual knowledge) of wrongdoing, and disarmed every alarm a wily operator like Davis and an old cabdriver like me relied on to make it out with wallet, hard heart, virginity -- whatever needed protection -- still intact.
I'm pretty sure I first met Shelby in 1984 when he flagged off Parnelli Jones, Walker Evans, and me from the halfway point of the first One Lap of America, at the Portofino Inn in Redondo Beach, California. I gave Shelby David E.'s regards -- I was absolutely starstruck. But once we met, that was that. I ate the chili.
Shelby coaxed me to the 1991 Indy 500 with the promise of a ride in the Dodge Viper pace car. During our two hot laps (no helmets), he told me he was getting married "in a coupla weeks. Yeah. She was bugging me for a ring so I give her a big ol' rock." He busted into a good laugh. "She had it appraised and found out it was a cubic zirconia, and now I gotta marry her!" I was horrified. Less than a year had passed since his infamous heart transplant, and he hadn't let off the gas one tiny bit.
"I was out on Sixteenth Street the other night with Foyt," he told me. "I was going about 35, and this guy in a Chevrolet chops me off. Then he passes another guy, comes back, and chops me off again. So I drove into the side of him. I didn't think nothin' of it. But I didn't think I'd tear him up as bad as I did.
"I forgot about my mirror. It wiped out his window and the whole side of the door. He jumped out of the car yelling, 'You're a crazy man! You're a menace!' It was Eddie Cheever! Foyt really gave him a ribbing at the drivers' meeting. He said, 'I guess that'll teach you to screw with an old man!'" As if.
In early 1992, I convinced Carroll to play himself as a mad scientist in the pilot of a TV action series called Running Wilde, which had landed Pierce Brosnan to play the lead, Austin Wilde, an automotive journalist. The grateful executive producer gave me a part as his assistant Igor's assistant. Shelby's part called for a maniacal laugh, and mine called for a terrified scream. We practiced in his minivan all the way there. They taped me first. My scream was so stunning that the crew cheered, and when I stumbled off, Shelby declared, "I was afraid you were gonna pee in your pants."
"Here goes the village idiot," he said to me, as he stepped into position. The director, Mark Tinker (Deadwood, John From Cincinnati), was convinced Shelby wouldn't do it. Of course, Shelby howled like a total lunatic, and the crew cheered for him, too. The show never aired.
There were many other good times, but the best were the few quiet days in 1993 that I spent with him and his Swedish wife, Lena, (number four) on the ranch in East Texas. We fed the miniature animals, fished from the float boat, and laid around in the evening reading. Lena hated that ranch and ended up dying in a car accident near there.
Shelby came to my second wedding, when I became Jennings. "You'll always be Lindermood to me," he declared. My Aunt Red was tending bar and making name tags. "Oh, I don't need one of them," Shelby told her. "Look," she answered, "if you want a beer, you need a name tag. I don't give a shit if you have a question mark on it." Which is why Carroll Shelby was seen wandering around at my wedding with a question mark on his name tag. As if.
"I suppose she indented your life the way she did mine," he told my husband, Tim, that day. My life? It has been indented forever by his friendship. I will always remember him in the same way he once described me to Tim: He had the personality of a fart on a hot skillet.
And I loved that old fart.