Many thousands of words have been written since auto designer Carroll Shelby’s recent death at the age of 89. Most of them documented his championship driving days, the Shelby Cobra he designed, his innovative run through the auto industry, his fundraising endeavors and his determination to keep going strong even after a heart transplant more than 20 years ago.
But to me, there was something missing from the resume. In a word, chili. I’ll bet chili heads (as we like to be called) around the world have raised a bowl of red in his memory.
Many of them probably are asking: He built cars, too?
Ever walk through your grocer and notice a nifty-looking brown paper bag with the words: “Carroll Shelby’s Original Texas Brand Chili Kit?” That’s Shelby. And by the way, the kit is still around more than 50 years after it first showed up.
Shelby, simply put, was the Chili King.
This is the man who founded the International Chili Society in the 1960s, and the hundreds of competitions held each year since have raised more than $90 million for a variety of charities. Each year, the chili season crowns a champion at the ICS World’s Chili Championships. The first one in 1967, naturally, was staged on Shelby’s ranch — “150,000 acres of rattlesnakes and rocks,” he once said — in Terlingua, Texas.
The grand finale of each chili season has become a moveable feast through the years, with winners being crowned in Arizona, California and Nevada, and more recently in New Hampshire and West Virginia.
From the start, Shelby picked trusted friends to run the ICS for him. There was Jim West, former manager of Bill Medley of the Righteous Brothers. Currently, the organization is under the direction of Carol Hancock, whose competitive fires helped her win the championship in 1985.
My wife, Jenny Kellner, and I were lucky enough to hang out with Shelby while researching our own chili cookbook. We stood apron-to-apron with him in judging tents all over California during the mid-1990s. We watched in awe as a 70-something Shelby tucked himself into an original Cobra and gunned it for a few laps around Pomona Raceway. We spent time at his cabin on Lake Tahoe, and basically shot the bull with a guy who had so many ideas he had a hard time deciding which one he liked better.
“He wants to be the best and he wants to do it fast,” a friend once said of Shelby.
He certainly wanted the best chili to be recognized.
To that end, he created his own genuine Texas twist that simply cannot be found in commercial chili mixes. And then the Chili Society put out the call for cooks to gather and vie for the title of best chili cook on the planet. All you have to do is concoct a perfect blend of meat and spices (no beans in ICS competition, thank you very much) — to win enough votes from a panel of judges hand-picked by Shelby and his advisers.
None of this was planned. Shelby was going to be a chicken farmer. But one day in 1951 he woke up to find 4,000 of his birds dead of limberneck disease. So he decided to drive race cars, instead. And he was good, going on to become one of the best known and most successful drivers.
A heart condition eventually pulled him off the track. But he wasn’t going far. If he couldn’t drive the cars, he’d design them. And so came the Shelby Cobra, which went on to beat Ferrari. And through it all… there was chili.
“I didn’t know anyone who didn’t like chili,” he told us during our interviews. “My mom and daddy both cooked chili and I remember it vividly. They put their own personality into it back then, the way people do now. I cooked chili at home because I enjoyed it, but I didn’t get into it until we started putting the cook-offs on.”
“What’s the best chili you ever tasted?” we asked at the time.
“Actually I hope I haven’t tasted it yet,” he said.
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