Did You Know Racing Legend Carroll Shelby Helped Found Chili’s?

Fast and Casual

byRob Stumpf|
Did You Know Racing Legend Carroll Shelby Helped Found Chili’s?

Carroll Shelby made his name from being one of the best racing drivers of his time. It's the reason his name is synonymous with speed, and why Ford chose to feature the Shelby name as part of its core product line. Shelby's name was also closely tied with food—the man loved to eat. Specifically, he loved to eat chili. And even with a heart condition that had him racing with nitroglycerin under his tongue, his unreasonable infatuation with the southwestern dish couldn't be slowed.

When Shelby had the opportunity to help build a restaurant empire that encompassed his love for food and friends, he immediately grabbed hold of the opportunity. And today, you have the legend himself to thank every time you walk through the doors of a Chili's.

Carroll Shelby and his friends pose in front of the Terlingua Ranch House (1965), via Terlingua Ranch

It all started with a vacation during Shelby's Ford years. Every few months, Carroll Shelby and his friends (one of who was then-Ford PR man, Tom Tierney) would make their way down to an area near the "seven-person town" of Terlingua, Texas where they would eat, hunt, drink, and partake in general automotive buffoonery. Eventually, Shelby purchased more than 200,000 acres near the town which would later become the famous Terlingua Ranch, and in 1967 it became home to the Championship Chili Cook-Off, which is widely recognized as the very first organized chili cooking contest.

Among those who attended the first cookoff was Larry Levine, Shelby's then son-in-law who was married to his daughter, Sharon. Levine became infatuated with the event. The atmosphere was everything he could have hoped for, and he began to understand why Shelby and his friends enjoyed their trips to Terlingua and subsequently chili.

Variety was the spice of Shelby's life, but if there was one thing spicier it was his love for Chili. In 1972, Shelby launched his own line of line of chili seasoning to share that love with the world. Now, Carroll Shelby was a man of many businesses. Over the years, he owned a dump truck company, a chicken ranch, an African Safari, his own racing team, and was the face of Pit-Stop deodorant. Of course, what he is perhaps most famous for is an automotive marketing and design empire that was sparked by Chrysler legend and father of the Ford Mustang, Lee Iacocca

Shelby in 2000., AP

By this time, Levine had developed a plan to open his own Chili-themed restaurant that shared the same values as Shelby's trips to Terlingua. It would be a place where a few friends could get together, have a beer, and eat some great food. In 1975, he approached his father-in-law with the idea, and, Shelby being the entrepreneur and chili love that he was, instantly provided the seed money for the very first Chili's restaurant in Dallas, Texas.

The racecar-driver-turned-foodie helped to curate the menu and design the restaurant's overall theme. It was a hit and would later become one of the most successful, fast casual dining chains in the United States.

Sadly, Shelby passed away in 2012 at the age of 89, but he was undoubtedly the king of a niche space. Even other icons in the world of cars and food knew how unique Shelby was in the industry—Guy Fieri even paid homage by cooking him up a plate of shrimp at SEMA in 2008. Carroll lived a long food- and car-filled life that is worth remembering.

I know where I'll be eating tonight.

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