By Teresa Flores
The Carroll Shelby Automotive Program at Northeast is truly unique. From being endorsed by automotive pioneer, Carroll Shelby, to the restoration of the Last Shelby car, no other college program across the nation has what the Shelby program has, an immeasurable amount of talent and dedication. Along with Shelby Automotive Director Keith Fennimore, Instructor Tony Whitworth helps add heart to the program.
From a young boy attending his first racing event to becoming a crew member on an Indy 500 winning team, Whitworth brings passion and an abundance of automotive knowledge to the Shelby program. “Tony brings a lot of racing experience,” said Fennimore. “It’s good for students to know, and he’s trying to inspire students about racing.”
In conjunction with the recent trial run of the Panamericana racecar built by Shelby students, the program recognized Whitworth’s 50 years of racing passion. Rob Miller, who commissioned the Shelby program to build the car for the 2,000 mile Panamericana Race this October, organized the event. “Having the opportunity to work with Tony is a truly unique experience. He is passionate about doing things right and has amazing historical perspective based upon his work with Shelby, Foyt and so many others,” said Miller. “The Shelby Panamericana Mustang has given over 100 students the opportunity to be part of building a historically correct racecar in the Shelby fashion and is a unique way to spread the word about the great things The Carroll Shelby Automotive Technology Program does. This car could not have happened without Tony Whitworth.”
Back on February 14, 1965, an eight-year-old Whitworth was standing in the crowd when driver Ken Miles raced a Shelby GT350 for the first time. “That was the first time that I went to a race, and my dad took me there for my birthday,” he said. Whitworth laughingly admitted that as a youngster, he didn’t really want to be there. But, it was a moment that changed his life. The weather, he said, was cold and gloomy, but the adventure on that day wasn’t. “I experienced the cars, the noise, the smell, and I think I may have even had my first cup of coffee because it was so cold,” he said.
From then on, Whitworth said he just knew. “I was wired from that moment,” he said. “I watched all of the cars race. When I went home that afternoon with my dad after the race, I was just totally wondering why he wasn’t doing that for a living.”
After watching Ken Miles race in 1965, Whitworth realized he had found his drive. “It was kind of my passion from that moment. It’s the bug I guess you call it,” he said, “Or the desire or insanity because there’s a certain amount of craziness that goes with it that pushed me into doing what I did.”
More than 20 years later, Whitworth met up with one of his racing idols, Carroll Shelby. In the 80s, Whitworth was given the opportunity to restore some of Shelby’s cars. “To be able to work on his cars, I thought was cool,” said Whitworth. “My dad was still alive so he got to look at some of the cars in my shop which he thought was cool.” Whitworth’s dad was from Winnsboro, just a few miles from the small town of Leesburg where Shelby grew up. “My dad wanted to go see him more than me,” he said. “Shelby was an idol because my dad idolized him.”
Still looking for a way to break into racing, Whitworth said he was curious and asked Shelby how he could get into the industry. “His reply was pretty simple,” said Whitworth. “‘It’s not happening here in Texas,’” said Shelby. “‘You have to get out of Texas to find a race team. You just gotta go.’”
Two weeks later, Whitworth received a call from a team in Fort Worth offering an interview. “I don’t know if Shelby directed any of this or if it was just coincidental,” he said. “I never asked him and I guess I’ll never know. It was ironic the way it all played out, but I accepted the job and I was off to Dallas from there.”
From one idol to the next, Whitworth was on the move. In 1999, Bill Spencer was set to be the new crew chief for the A.J. Foyt Power Team. Whitworth, who worked with Spencer at Butch Harris Racing, was asked to join the team. Whitworth said it was an honor because he felt like he had mentored Spencer. But now, the roles were reversed. “It was basically, at that point in time being a mechanic, the pinnacle of my career,” said Whitworth. “I always wanted to work for A.J. Foyt. He was my idol as a kid growing up just like Carroll Shelby.”
Whitworth’s first year at the Indianapolis 500 was memorable to say the least. “We were considered the B-Team. We were not the A-Team,” he said. “Our car was the car that we were supposed to just race. Nobody really thought we had a chance to win. It’s not that we didn’t have the parts, we didn’t have the same parts the A-Team had.” In the end, the so-called “B-Team” won.
“After Indy,” said Whitworth, “it was just 10 years of pure A.J. Foyt, just raw A.J. Foyt. The things that stick out in my mind the most was how I was taught to be dedicated, ever give up. You can’t stop. You have to keep pushing forward.”
Whitworth said one of the most enjoyable moments during his time working for A.J. Foyt was when he was given the chance to build his own car in 2000. The car was set to be the t-car or backup car. Despite receiving help from some selected crew members, he said the car was his. “The day, they call it Bump Day, is the last time to get into the Indy 500,” the instructor said. “Twenty minutes to go, roughly, A.J. calls for the backup car, and he wants to try and qualify it.” Racer Billy Boat had wrecked his car on the first round of qualifying, and Foyt decided to let him use his team’s backup car. “He needed a car and A.J. gave it to him,” Whitworth said. “That’s just the kind of guy he was.”
Whitworth said the backup car had never been started or on the track, and he had not performed a systems check yet. “My heart started feeling weird. My stomach started feeling a little nervous,” said Whitworth. “I remember we were running with the car out to the pit land and A.J’s in his golf cart, and he asked me, ‘Is that car ready?’” After explaining to Foyt that the pedals hadn’t been set for the driver and a systems check hadn’t been run, Foyt said, “Don’t worry about it. Let me worry about it.” Whitworth said, “At that moment, I stopped and I really felt bad. I was so scared that something would go wrong.”
Boat was able to qualify the t-car fast enough to get it in the Indy 500. Back in the garage, Whitworth mentioned everybody was talking about this car that had never been on the track qualifying for the Indy 500. He said, “A.J. came up and smiled, and he said, ‘Now wasn’t that fun?” Whitworth said, “Do not please, ever, do that again to me.” Foyt replied with, “I know who you are. You don’t trust your abilities, but I trust your abilities.”
Hearing those words from an idol, Whitworth said it took something like that for him to understand that the determination Foyt had in Whitworth’s ability is what he needed to see in himself.
There’s no doubt that Whitworth’s years with A.J. Foyt were quite life-changing and shaped his career. “I couldn’t tell you all the things I’ve done in one sitting,” said Whitworth. However, after realizing he was having issues with his hands and eyes, he started to think about his career. “Once you start losing the tools of this in the automotive industry, you start losing your feel of how you’re tightening and touching,” said Whitworth. He described the experience of aging as “wonderfully cruel.” The idea of growing older and gaining the experience and knowledge as time passes, Whitworth said was the wonderful part. The cruel part he said was the physical aspect of aging. “You start second guessing yourself. A good mechanic never has total confidence,” he said. “You’re always striving to be better, but once you start seeing your mechanical abilities leave you, you have to find something else to do.”
In a way, Whitworth’s life came back full circle. He started off his career working with Carroll Shelby and now is an instructor for the Carroll Shelby Automotive Technology Program.
Shelby program student Oscar Quiroga said, “Not many people around here have as much experience as he [Whitworth] does. I hope I get to learn a lot from him.”
His experiences and his obvious passion for racing have helped him find meaning in the Shelby program. “We have to stand out. We have to be different. Carroll Shelby was different. A.J. Foyt was different,” said Whitworth. “The message I send out to my competitors, which there are other schools that want to teach auto mechanics, is that we can take anybody. We don’t have to have the best students. We need students with passion. Passion is very important. It’s the foundation of performance.”