A third-generation professional off-road driver, Shelby Hall started learning how to command vehicles in the dirt when she was a child. She's emerged to become a serious competitor in her own right in the last few years, winning her class at the 1,500-mile Rebelle Rally and competing in several other well-known races like the Baja 1000. Not that you'd expect anything different from the granddaughter of off-road racing pioneer, Rod Hall.
It seems that stepping a mere toe into the off-roading waters yields a connection to Shelby’s legendary grandfather, who is one of the reasons the sport exists today as it does. Rod Hall made a name for himself winning his class in the first-ever Baja 1000 back in 1967, winning it overall in '69 in a Ford Bronco, then running it 50 years in a row (with 24 more class wins) before health issues ended his career in 2018. He was omnipresent, one of the most dominating forces in desert racing over the last half-century. But as Aaron Shelby said about his grandfather (and incidentally, Hall’s namesake) Carroll Shelby, Shelby Hall didn’t see her grandfather through the lens of his fame until much later in life. He was her beloved “Papa,” and that was enough.
Hall and I will both be competing in this year’s Rebelle Rally, and she was an off-road instructor at my first training weekend in April. She’s relaxed behind the wheel, brimming with easy confidence built from years of experience. Hall grew up in the desert and the dirt, joining her family in off-road pursuits. She was a kindergartner tagging along and hanging out with her sister in the family RV while her parents ran an off-road driving school. The family business shaped Hall’s future, and she traces it back to those early years.
“I saw that they were adventuring and they were out having an awesome time,” Hall said. “They were free in the desert, making their own plans and calling their own shots. I wanted to do that too. I don’t think I realized what they were doing until later, but it just was so much fun.”
Often, at the end of each training day Hall would ask her dad, 4WD racer Josh Hall, to take them for a ride in the school’s racing truck.
“I was tiny,” Hall said. “I couldn’t even see over the dash, and he would strap me in and take me for a ride. I remember I’d always tell my dad to go faster, and that was my mentality evermore. I wanted to be out in the dirt, doing what my dad was doing.”
Starting when Hall was about 10, Hall’s family started working with Hummer and General Motors, and Rod would host “Hummer Happenings” for H1 Hummer owners. That’s when she really learned how to drive, she said.
“I’d ride on Papa’s lap; he’d work the pedals and I’d steer,” Hall remembered. “Now, I can imagine how frightened I’d be to have a 10-year-old in charge of the vehicle, but my grandpa loved it. He had no fear and would coach me on how to place the vehicle and what to do. We’d get that thing on crazy side hills and lead the group through the trail.”
When she was still a teenager, Hall started helping out at the Off-Road Hall of Fame, where her grandfather was the chairman of the board. She started out dusting the vehicles, checking the mail, and became the human presence at the Hall of Fame. She wanted to do more, so she started working more closely with the executive director, who started giving Hall more responsibilities. Slowly, she started taking on more and became the executive administrator, working for the organization full time from an office at the National Automobile Museum in Reno.
“There were moments I thought ‘Holy Smokes!’ I had no idea [Papa] had been so instrumental in the growth of desert racing,” Hall said. “It was really cool to me that he didn’t run around touting how amazing he was. Even as his granddaughter, I didn’t know these little things about him. And the more time I spent at the Hall of Fame, the more I got to chat with tons of people and learn their stories. The number of lives he touched over the years in his time in off-road was really awesome.”
Hall’s family business led her to a similar path her grandfather and father had traversed, and she drove in her first race in 2012. By then retired from the professional circuit, Rod Hall asked his granddaughter to compete with him at a VORRA (Valley Off-Road Racing Association) event, and they signed up as a privately funded team in an H3 Hummer. For this race, Hall rode in the right seat, but that was just a warm up. Soon after, her grandfather had her driving at the highly competitive Baja 1000.
They went on to race several more times together after that, but Hall had to skip a race when she took a “real job” in an office to support herself, and she recognized how much she missed the desert. She was attending the Mint 400 with her grandfather about nine months after she started her job when he asked her how it was going.
“It sucks,” she recalls saying. “It's not for me. I miss all this.”
“Well, you’ve made it there longer than I thought you would," he replied. "Do you want to go into business with me?”
Rod Hall’s idea was to start a business for just the two of them, managing a fleet of Jeeps and side-by-sides and conducting off-road driver training and adventure trips. They worked with destination management companies in the area, local dealers, and casinos, attracting people who wanted to off-road in the beautiful deserts of Reno. Unfortunately, the pair had to shutter its doors after two years due to Rod’s declining health. At first, doctors thought it was Parkinson’s disease, but the treatments weren’t working. Then he received his diagnosis of Progressive supranuclear palsy, or PSP, a brain disorder that affects walking, eye movements, balance, and more essential functions.
“Grandpa was probably sick in 2017 and we didn’t know it,” Hall said. “It was a pretty quick decline; the business was a lot, and he was at a point he couldn’t do anything. It became very stressful for him.”
Hall’s voice, thick with emotion, softened.
“It was a bit of a crossroads for me,” she said. “I never thought about losing my Grandpa. He was still racing at 75 and starting new businesses and I thought I’d have him as my racing buddy and business partner forever. It was really a tough time for me in 2019. I think I had relied on my Grandpa a lot; I spent all my time with him. He was my best friend and when I lost him, I felt pretty lost myself.”
Within the year, she found has passion reignited again in a new partnership with Ford. Before Rod Hall passed away in 2019, Ford representatives contacted Hall’s grandmother and told her about a special vehicle they were working on: the new Bronco.
“Ford said, ‘We’re relaunching the Bronco, and we’re so grateful for all Rod has done for the brand. We want to come to Reno and show him what the new Bronco is going to look like.’”
During a top-secret visit with Hall and her grandparents, Rod donned a virtual reality headset and Ford reps showed him what the new Bronco would look like clad in his own 1968 Bronco racing livery. Hall’s grandfather couldn't drive it in the real world by that point, but he was honored Ford would do this for him. “This is so cool,” Rod Hall told them. “I wish I could drive it.”
Later, Hall sent a message to one of the three Ford representatives who had come to Reno to show the Bronco to her grandfather, expressing her gratitude and explaining how much it meant to her Papa. Soon after that, Hall was invited to Dearborn to see the Bronco on the production floor. Now, Hall represents Ford at various Bronco events and competes with the Ford Performance team.
And every time she hits the road, she recalls the lessons she learned from her grandfather.
“I learned to just be myself from him,” Hall said. “I hear his voice in my head all the time and channel my inner Rod. I don’t know that he knew how much he was teaching me. We spent so much time together and I really listened to everything he said.”
This third-generation motorsports enthusiast is creating her own legacy, built on the foundation she built with her family.
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