TERLINGUA, Texas—On a scalding May afternoon, it’s not easy to see how Carroll Shelby saw dollar signs between the stubby cacti nestled among the yellow rocks. Summer arrives earlier in West Texas than anywhere else in the U.S. The sun beats down on my bright red Ford Mustang GT’s shiny paint, and forces the air conditioning to work hard to keep the black leather interior tolerable.
I’ve driven about 350 miles from El Paso along the Texas-Mexico border to get here, past Spanish missions dating to the 18th century that anchor ramshackle villages stuck in time. Then as now, this was the frontier, a rough heat-soaked place where even the wealthiest had little to show for their success.
Barren West Texas offers little in the way of creature comforts, so it’s hard to imagine what was on Shelby’s mind when in the 1960s he began amassing what would become 350,000 acres of land—an area the size of Boston and New York City combined. Not that Shelby ever had much for those East Coast metropolises. The only answer has to be the simplest one: Shelby loved it here, out in the wild, far from anyone that could tell him what to do, or watch as he did exactly what he wanted.
2018 Ford Mustang GT in Terlingua, Texas
Well before he raced Aston Martins at Le Mans and built Ford-powered muscle machines, Shelby was born in a dot-size farming community southeast of Dallas. His family moved to the city, in part to be closer to medical care because he suffered from heart valve leakage as a youngster. Post-Depression Dallas didn’t buzz with energy, but it had a lot to offer a teenager with a love for speed—at least until war broke out and Shelby enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps.
From Lackland Air Force Base near San Antonio, Shelby trained bombardiers and got to know the entire swath of Texas, which transitions from hilly tree-scattered savanna around San Antonio to arid desert with rugged, imposing mountains in Big Bend National Park. West Texas is arid, starkly beautiful, and sparsely populated. Seventy years ago when Shelby saw it from the air, even fewer people called sprawling Brewster County home. The county is Texas’ largest—and that’s saying something—and also one of its least populated. Just 6,500 people called it home in the 1940s, a number that has ballooned to about 9,200 today. It’s a land mass the size of Connecticut that could empty out and fill a mere sliver of Michigan Stadium.