Editor’s Note: Like most of us, I have seen the Ford vs Ferrari movie and walked out very impressed but also a little disappointed. It seemed to be a good movie for the masses but for a gearhead who was alive at that time it seemed to be missing some important details. I had previously watched the documentary on Shelby and seen the movie The 24 Hour War a few years back. If you have not watched either of these, please take the time to do so you will be rewarded with a much fuller understanding of the history of the GT40 Fords and Mark IIs.
DOCUMENTARY REVIEW: Shelby American: The Carroll Shelby Story
Produced by Chassy Media
Producers: Adam Carolla, Nate Adams
Length: 2 hours
Review by Wallace Wyss
If you know about Sixties’ endurance racing, I mean you can tell a GT40 Mk I from an Mk. II at a glance and you saw Ford vs Ferrari you were no doubt left a little lost in the chronology.
For those who are not regular nostalgia fans, it was a good family drama set within the racing world of over 50 years ago.
But now there’s a way to feel better about the 20th Century Fox drama and that is to view The Carroll Shelby Story, a documentary made by two veteran documentarians who only three years ago debuted The 24 Hour War, also about LeMans in the ‘60s, focusing on the battle between Ford and Ferrari.
The difference between the two is that the new one is totally about Carroll Shelby’s life and the LeMans ‘60s effort is only part of it. The reason the second one got made was, when editing the first documentary in 2016 Carolla and Adams were given a lot of rare footage of Shelby driving other cars during his racing career. They decided there was too much footage on Shelby not to do a separate one on him. To do so they enlisted two grandsons of Shelby to help produce.
The documentary starts out chronologically, right from Shelby sitting in a wooden toy cart, looking like a serious racer and then segues his failure as a chicken farmer led him to compete in sports car racing. His career as a race driver rocketed form regional races to being offered a ride from Aston Martin at LaMans only five years later.
When he won, you think his career would have been golden; but this doc reveals that heart ailments (specifically angina) were tertiary in his family and that his father had died at age 46. Shelby decided, once his doctors ruled him out of racing, to spend the rest of his life (and he was already in his ‘40s) making that dream car. It only took him a couple of years to have a finished driving saleable car.
The film is fun because it has a lot of quotes from former Shelby drivers he employed, or employees. One of them, Dan Gurney, even implies Shelby was a bit of a flim-flam man, and several more say when Shelby went to Ford with his idea for the Cobra, he was broke but acted like they envisioned a Texas wheeler-dealer would act (even for instance marrying a film star and going on his honeymoon in a borrowed Rolls Royce).
The Cobras are given the proper amount of time in this documentary, different from the feature film where their rejection for long distance racing is never explained (in a nutshell, their top speed was 165 mph but to beat Ferrari prototypes Ford needed a car that could top 200 mph).
But the documentary has its own internal drama, in which the real life participants, such as mechanic Charley Agaipou and racer John Morton, are quoted on film in interviews, and tell how, as spectacular as the Cobra was, it quickly was shunted aside by Ford once Henry Ford II in Dearborn decided that beating Ferrari at LeMans was the be-all-end-all goal.
And the car to do that with was the Ford GT Mk. II, powered by a 427 big block. The documentary like the feature film still skips the key moment that happened in real life when the new manager of racing, Leo Beebe affectedbut this change; after 289 small blocks blew left and right, he asked the engineers “What engine do we have around here that doesn’t blow up” and they all pointed to the engine used in NASCAR. So Ford asked Shelby to run that in ’65 to see if they could get it sorted out. But even though the documentary doesn’t mention that impetus, you get the idea that the 1965 year was the really trying one for Shelby in that he failed to win for Ford at LeMans but at least Ford was willing to go one more year, and in ’66 they won.
The saddest scene, besides when they talk about Shelby’s ace driver, Ken Miles, being killed testing a prototype, is when Agaipou tells about the LeMans crew coming back from Europe only to find out that many of them had been fired as Ford was beginning to replace Shelby’s original crew with crew cut engineers from Dearborn as the GT40 would take more than by-guess-and-by-gosh hot rodders to fettle.
Pete Brock is especially vocal about how the front engine Daytonas, which he styled, were tossed aside to make way for the high tech mid-engined GT40s.
This is the first documentary on Ford that gives any time on screen to Ferrari participants, including a driver and the chief racing engineer. In the Fox drama, they portray Ferrari and his men as petty, but in this documentary, they come across as reasoned men with too small a budget.
I think the best way to view this film is as a companion piece to Ford v. Ferrari. One is just for fun, to see the characters and the other is to set it in your mind in terms of historical accuracy.
How many folks who went to see the mass audience movie want to see a documentary with a lot of facts remains to be seen. But I predict it’s a long-range thing, first people will tell their friends they’ve seen Ford v. Ferrari but then their more car-hip friends will say “Yah but have you seen the documentary?”
THE CRITIC: Wallace Wyss is the author of three books on Shelby. More recently as a fine artist, he has prints of then of his paintings of Shelby, Cobras, and GT40s. For a list and prices for prints, write firstname.lastname@example.org