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Driving Legends: Carroll Shelby, from the farm to the Olympus of car racing

Disclaimer: uncompromising style may cause some eyebrows to rise. Before Carroll Shelby, wearing dungarees to the racing track was anything but glamorous; it was just odd and ridiculous. No one would have believed that a farmer would win at Le Mans with an Aston Martin or let alone create such an iconic way to drive a race car.

Rules tell us what clothing are and are not appropriate for each occasion. A finely tailored suit is perfect for an elegant dinner and working apparel is designed to withstand harsh conditions without falling apart. If you were Carroll Shelby in the 1950s, you loved to break every conception about motorsports: an American that has never competed in NASCAR who is able to beat Ferrari using dungarees as a trademark look.

Why dungarees? Because the man behind the legendary Shelby Mustangs and Cobras was formerly a chicken farmer, who loved to race European sports cars on tracks. Talk about the "American Dream": the man who beat Ferraris at Le Mans turned out to be a stubborn farmer who didn't let anything stop him from conquering the world of motor-racing.

Carroll Hall Shelby, passionate about flying and cars, was born in 1923 in Leesburg Texas and learned how to drive cars as soon as he was 5 years old. His early interest in machinery brought him to become an officer in the U.S. Army Air Corps during the war and then on to be a successful car builder. After pulling out of military life he started his first business, a truck company which proved unsuccessful. After this and another short-lived adventure in the oil business, Shelby decided to settle down and began to breed chickens. It was an expanding business in Texas at that time and it offered great opportunities.

It was during those months as a farmer that Carroll first participated as a hobbyist in his first motor races. His first circuit race was in May 1952 at an SCCA event in Norman, Oklahoma, with his own MG TC. He won his class right away.

While his chickens were becoming infected by disease and his farming was prone to bankruptcy, his career as a driver began taking off. Still a farmer in 1953, Shelby was one of America's most prominent Gentlemen Drivers and one with the most distinct style of clothing: dungarees. He wore those for the first time at the Eagle Mountain Naval Airbase, which he won. Why dungarees? He was working on his farm when he realized he was due to race: he felt comfortable in them and decided to keep them.

Shelby's trademark couldn't be more American: a distinct Gentleman Driver who loved to break the rules and re-invent his style.

After a successful season in 1953, he arrived in Europe in 1954 and kicked off his career behind the wheel of an Aston Martin DB3 that he used to compete at Le Mans, Monza and Silverstone, earning money for the first time as a professional racer. His fame as a fast chicken farmer became even greater when he brilliantly achieved multiple records at Bonneville and was featured on the front cover of Sports Illustrated in 1958.

The most significant success came in 1959 when he won the 24 Hours of Le Mans as a works Aston Martin driver with a DBR1 managed by the great John Wyer. Of course, he raised the champagne wearing his trusty oil-covered dungarees.

Known as the man who beat Ferrari at Le Mans, leading the Ford GT40 to victory in 1966, Shelby was a man who knew all too well how to communicate his own charisma. He broke the rules of style on the race track and introduced America to sports car racing, allowing a new generation of drivers to be inspired by his deeds on the track. If it weren’t for that chicken farmer, the Cobra, the Daytona Cupè, the GT40 and high-performance Mustangs wouldn't be a reality.

If rules do exist they need to be broken: dungarees are cool.

Jacopo Villa, contributor

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