Hubert Humphrey once said: “The greatest gift of life is friendship, and I have received it.” I can totally relate with this famous quote. One of the greatest byproducts of writing my Masten Gregory biography was the many wonderful friends I made along the way. Writing the book was a labor of love, but looking back, the friendships that I made have no price tag. I realize this now more than ever since so many have passed away. I miss them all. You can’t replace great friends.
With the new Ford vs Ferrari movie coming out this fall (see trailer below), it reminded me how much miss the cantankerous Texan Carroll Shelby who I became friends by virtue of the Gregory book. I am totally excited about this movie. It will be one that you won’t want to miss. Shelby was truly a one of a kind character who became the “Enzo Ferrari” of American motorsports.
Ol’ Shel was my one of my boyhood heroes growing up in a family that liked Fords, Mustangs and motorsport. How did this friendship begin? I’ll explain.
Back in the spring of 2000, I had wanted to write an article on my hometown hero Masten Gregory as I felt that he was a truly outstanding driver who deserved more recognition locally. Gregory wasn’t in any local, national or international Halls of Fame. It really angered me, so I sought to rectify that. Writing an article on Gregory would give him the necessary exposure.
In my research at the public library one day, I found Masten Gregory’s obituary in the Kansas City Star in a newspaper search. I noticed the list of his surviving family members that included his brother Riddelle L. Gregory from Lee’s Summit, Missouri. Masten Gregory died in November 1985, so I wondered if he were still living.
I grabbed a phone book to see if he listed. Sure enough, my luck that he was. I called him when I got home from the library. I was initially very nervous about calling him as some people don’t want to be bothered with such things. Especially by someone who had never authored a book or magazine article. But to my surprise, I was relieved to find out just minutes into our first phone conversation that Riddelle was totally receptive and on-board with the idea.
He had some articles and photos that I could use. Even better yet, Riddelle informed me that he and Masten were good friends with Carroll Shelby and that Shelby had wanted someone to write a book on Masten for some time. In fact, the articles and photos he had were in Shelby’s possession. Riddelle called Carroll the next day and told him that he had a guy in Kansas City that wanted to write Masten’s book. Riddelle told me that Carroll said “Great! Glad we found somebody”
Within a week, I got a big packet in the mail with the articles and photos sent directly from Carroll Shelby’s Las Vegas office. Plus, Riddelle gave me Shelby’s phone number and told me that Carroll was more than happy to help me anyway that he could. I thought “Wow! This is coming along nicely.”
Riddelle and Masten palled around with Carroll on the sports car circuit in the 1950s. Carroll raced against both Masten and Riddelle during that era. Plus, Masten shared a flat in London with Carroll in 1959. This is why this book was so dear to him. Masten was like the brother he never had. A part of an American fraternity of hot-rodders who dreamed of racing in Europe.
Carroll had wanted Ferrari expert and writer Michael T. Lynch (who grew up in Kansas City) to write Masten’s biography. However, Lynch (who I became friends with later) told me that he that most publishers he talked to questioned the size of market for such a book. Not to side track the story, but sadly Michael T. Lynch passed away on January 11th of this year.
So, this is how it all started. I had Carroll’s telephone number and plenty of questions. As you probably can imagine, I was extremely nervous the first time I called Carroll. Fortunately, he wasn’t in the office that day and his receptionist took a message. I got a call a week later. I had caller ID and recognized the number. Sure enough, it was Carroll. I instantly recognized his booming Texas drawl as soon as I answered the phone. I felt very honored to be talking to such a legend and he put me at ease with his humor and candor.
One thing I really admired about Shelby is that he didn’t mince words. He said exactly what was on his mind and he didn’t care who it pissed off. I learned this very quickly after asking him if I could use certain things he said for my book, that I deemed somewhat controversial, that he didn’t care. If he said it, I could print it. I used all of it in my book.
Carroll Shelby was gruff at times, he could be difficult to work with, but I never had any issues with him. Carroll had a heart as big as the state of Texas. It would be better to wrong him than one of his friends. He was very candid about Masten getting released from the Cooper Formula One team at the end of 1959. He told me that “Brabham got Masten fired because he viewed him as a threat” and he still seemed mad about it some 41 years after the fact.
Most of our discussions centered around his memory of Masten away from the track and specific races. But he always asked about how Riddelle was doing whenever we talked. One time he caught me off guard when he said “Tell Riddelle that I love him.” There’s not too many men that could get away with this without their sexuality being questioned. But Shelby could, even if he didn’t have plenty of health concerns.
Shelby was sort of the bionic man. He was a heart transplant recipient. He told he personally in one of our phone conversations “I’ve got a Vegas gambler’s heart.” Plus he was a kidney transplant recipient too. His son Michael was the donor. I felt that I sort of bonded with Shelby one day when I told him that I had heart issues as a child just like he did. And I was at one time, just like he was, I was not cleared by doctors to play contact sports. During this time in Shelby’s youth is where he read about Grand Prix racing and developed his love for motorsports along with riding with his father who was a mailman.
The reason why you love this new movie coming out is that Carroll Shelby was a great visionary as well as a great salesman. Masten Gregory’s first wife Luella fondly remembered a time that Carroll had a part-time job at a furniture store selling furniture. She said that Carroll was such a charming man that sales came easy for him with the lady customers.
Shelby had a sense of humor too. I remember one time when we were talking about Riddelle and he pipes up and says chuckling “Riddelle, he had LOTS of wives!” Yes, Riddelle had been married multiple times. But when I told Riddelle what Carroll had said, Riddelle smiled with an amazed look on his face and said “Well, Carroll has been married four times himself.” We both chuckled together.
Although I talked to Carroll many times over the course of my writing Masten’s biography, I did get to meet him in person several times at the Shelby Collection Event in Boulder, Colorado. One of my favorite photos from the event below.
One day out of the blue at a time after my book had been published, I got a call from Carroll. I saw the phone number come through on my Caller ID and wondered what was up as I wasn’t expetcing a return call from him or anything. He called to confirm my address because he said that had some posters made up from the 1955 Tourist Trophy race that he wanted to send me. He and Masten teamed up together to win the 1500 cc class in that event. Sure enough, the next week I get a tubular shaped FedEx package with about 20 of the posters shown below.
Carroll and I talked occasionally after my book was published when I was trying to organize an effort to get Masten inducted into some Halls of Fame. I was successful in getting Masten Gregory inducted into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame in 2005. However, I was shooting for motorsports halls of fame. Shelby told me personally “Masten Gregory should be in every racing Hall of Fame.” He promised me that he would do whatever he could to try to get him in. He wrote this article for Octane Magazine that helped.
Unfortunately, Carroll never lived to see the day as he died on May 10th 2012 and Masten was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in August 2013. But there is little doubt that Shelby’s death prompted Masten to finally be inducted as he had been vocal about it. I am very grateful that Riddelle, Masten’s family and I were there to witness the induction ceremony. And I’m sure Carroll was looking down that day smiling just like Masten was.