Always A Racer: 1965 Shelby GT350

Story by James H. Heine • Photography by Tom Suddard

Iconic is a word tossed around a lot when it comes to discussions about great cars. Sometimes it’s appropriate. Sometimes, well, maybe not so much.

One car that definitely deserves the “iconic” moniker is the Shelby GT350, not only because of its connection to the late, great Mr. Shelby, but also because of its milestone impact on racing–both at home and abroad.

Of course, we can’t forget about the GT350’s association with the Ford Mustang. Lee Iacocca’s 1960s motoring–and marketing–masterstroke changed perceptions about cars and driving for an entire generation, and it still resonates with the public.

Attend a vintage or historic auto event today, and you’ll inevitably find a few GT350 lookalikes. The original GT350’s Wimbledon White body and Guardsman Blue “Le Mans” stripes provide a suitable palette for a host of tribute Mustangs and an easy reference point for fans of motorsports history.

Occasionally you’ll even spot the real thing prowling the track or the show field, but the rarest sighting of all is the racing version: the GT350R.

Rolling Up Those Racing Miles


Among original GT350s, few have logged as many track miles as Darek Stennes’s 1965 Shelby GT350, No. SFM 5S 424. It began life as a street model but was converted to a racing version circa 1970.

Darek, an executive chef for The River Club in Jacksonville, Florida, estimates that his well-traveled Shelby has seen something in the neighborhood of 200 races, from the 12 Hours of Sebring and the Paul Revere 250 to, most recently, the SCCA Central Florida Region’s championship weekend this past October.

Darek’s father, retired hotel executive Gordon Stennes, was himself an avid SCCA and vintage racer. Gordon acquired the Shelby in 1978 and offered it to Darek as a (sort of) daily driver, something that a 16-year-old could drive to school.

“It was a dilapidated race car,” Darek remembers. “I kind of quickly restored it and put it back together. It never really had any creature comforts, but I think I may have put some carpet in it at some point to make it a little more civilized.”

The car was–as it still is–loud, a feature that neighbors both past and present have never quite appreciated. At least he didn’t get pulled over too much while driving it, Darek says. “I guess you could say loud pipes save lives.”

Once the car was running and fit for the track, the senior Stennes began racing it again, mostly up and down the East Coast, from Watkins Glen and Road Atlanta to Daytona and Sebring. Sometimes these were events held by the SCCA, but more often Gordon ran with East Coast vintage organizations that had formed by the early 1980s, such as the SVRA.

“My dad would check me–or, I guess, more specifically, the car–out of high school, and we would go racing. So I have followed along in his footsteps,” Darek says about his early experiences with the car.

His dad is now retired from racing, but he still does track days in the family’s Sunbeam Tiger.

While the GT350 has been run hard over the years, it remains a good, fun, reliable race car. “You just get in, hit the ignition and go. It runs all day long,” Darek says. “It’s clearly not the fastest car out there. It’s pretty much stock in the spirit of the way the cars were back in the day. Obviously it’s got a fuel cell and modern safety equipment, but it’s clearly mild compared to other cars.”

Darek’s GT350 features some upgrades that its former owners installed when they converted the car to racing trim. It also sports upgraded brakes and suspension bits, plus some pieces donated by a 1967 Shelby Trans-Am Mustang racer that Gordon also owned in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

“It’s got the original block and the original rear end. The transmission has been taken out of it for a more robust top-loader,” Darek notes. “It’s got GT40 heads on it. Some expensive things were done to it, but the base internals are still the same. You can still see the serial number on the block.”

As inevitably happens in motorsports, this car has seen some unexpected “excursions” over the years. That means crumpled fenders have been repaired and painted now and again, and other cosmetic wear and tear has been addressed occasionally.

However, both Darek and his father remain committed to keeping the car a basic racer circa 1965 and resisting the temptation to over-restore or over-modify. They have no intention of fitting it with big flares, extreme wings or other modern components; transforming its 289 into a horsepower monster; or turning it into a concours queen.

“That ends up being a slippery slope,” Darek says.


Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday: Revisited


Many enthusiasts believe that the Shelby–along with the Mustang–derives its iconic status partly from the fact that it was so accessible. Darek concurs. “You could actually just go buy a factory car ready to race, hop in it, put some numbers on it, and go,” he says.

“Think about what they got away with. With side exhausts, basically, they were selling race cars for the street. It was pretty phenomenal.”

Not until recent times, with the advent of cars such as the new high-performance Chevrolet Corvettes, have we approached the possibility of revisiting that era, Darek adds.

As for him, he’ll continue to race the GT350 whenever the opportunity arises and his schedule permits. On his radar is HSR’s Classic 24 scheduled for November 14–15 at Daytona, where he and Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance Founder Bill Warner will drive the car.

Darek also plans to hit one or more vintage races at Sebring or Daytona. “I’ll probably do the 24 Minutes of Daytona, which we did last year and which is a lot of fun,” he says.

In the meantime, the car still serves as an occasional daily driver, loud pipes included. Darek also displays it at local shows, such as the Cars and Coffee gatherings at the Times-Union newspaper headquarters in downtown Jacksonville, Florida, where it garners a lot of accolades.

And yes, there is another generation in the Stennes household, but so far its members have expressed little interest in the historic racer in the garage.

“They have no desire to ever drive the Mustang,” Darek says of his two daughters. “I think it’s probably too loud for them.”

How Does The GT350 Compare To Modern Race Cars?


In their racing careers, Darek Stennes and his dad have owned or competed in a variety of machines, from formula cars to Winston Cup and Can-Am racers. Compared to more modern race cars, the GT350 is “pretty rough,” Darek says.

“It’s a big go-kart. It’s got a locked rear axle. You just go into the corners and try to get the ass end around and then nail it. It’s not precise. The brakes are iffy at best. It’s got bias-ply racing tires–modern racing tires are much better, of course. You really steer the thing with the throttle.

Once you figure it out, you go, “Okay.” You kind of change your mindset in order to drive it. You can’t be precise like [in] a modern sports car.”

Still, he says, there are benefits in addition to the simple joy of driving this GT350R clone. After Darek’s last SCCA race at Sebring, the corner workers came by and thanked him for bringing the car out to race.



Behind The Wheel: With Peter Brock


It’s not often that someone offers a ride in their pride and joy, ’specially if it’s a cool vintage racer from the Shelby era.

Darek Stennes owns what has to be one of the most raced GT350R clones in the world, so when I asked how many races it had actually run, Darek wasn’t sure. “Several hundred. It’s been so long I lost count.”

Amazing and hard to believe, I know, but that is the essence of real vintage racing: great cars with dog-eared, grease-stained logbooks that still run hard–and are still owned and prepped by their original owners for the pure fun of driving a true classic.

I had come down to Florida on my annual trek to judge at Bill Warner’s Amelia Island Concours, so when Classic Motorsports Editor David S. Wallens called and asked if I’d like to check out an old Shelby racer on Saturday afternoon with my friend Chuck Cantwell, I didn’t hesitate.

Back in the day, Chuck was the head honcho on the GT350 program with me at Shelby’s LAX operation. So I knew we’d both enjoy inspecting, comparing, and maybe even doing a bit of driving in a car we’d both been involved in creating–’specially one that was still being vintage raced today.

David left instructions for Chuck and me to find the “airport.” I’d assumed it would be the high-end exec strip near Amelia with private jets parked on the tarmac, but it wasn’t that easy.

When I looked at the map, it didn’t make sense, showing a location right off the busy main road to Amelia. If we hadn’t known the turnoff and had a GPS system logged in to find it, we’d have driven right by. Florida can be pretty interesting.

So here we were, just a couple hundred yards off the main highway leading to Amelia Island, wondering how an airport could exist in the middle of a business district. The hustle and noise of heavy traffic was curiously erased as we turned in behind some nondescript warehouses. That’s when we found ourselves on a private road leading to one of the many “secret” private airstrips that seem to be hidden away almost in plain sight along much of Florida’s long, sun-splashed peninsula.

You have to admire the lifestyle. Each private residence and hangar along the periphery of the tree-shrouded runway teased with glimpses of color and intriguing shapes of all types–the visual trademarks of special toys that delight aficionados of old airplanes and cool cars. It was tempting to stop and turn in at every driveway.

The Reunion Begins


But our main focus was on a partially obscured white GT350R parked way up at the end of the runway. The crowd around the car indicated we’d found the right place.

When Darek first fired the engine, the sound was so strong I had to believe that it was just fresh off the dyno. Those early Ford V8 small-blocks have their own distinct note. I asked how many hours were on the engine. “Hours?” Darek replied. “I’m not sure. We haven’t rebuilt it in six or seven years!”

I’d have found that really hard to believe had I not had a similar experience with some of the engines we built during our quest with the BRE team cars for the C Production National championships back in the ’70s. We always changed engines in our racers between practice and qualifying and sometimes even overnight before the next day’s shootout against the season’s top Porsche and Triumph works-backed teams. (When you run a factory team, you never take chances with your sponsor’s reputation!)


But when I finally sold one of those championship-winning cars at the end of the ’71 season, the new owner only took one spare. With natural curiosity I followed his progress with the car. He won the next three divisional championships with it.

So when I asked after the third year’s run how often he’d rebuilt the engines, he said, “I’m still running the same engine you sold it with.” He’d never even had the head off and still had the unused spare! So much for club racing versus pro-level “club racing.”

The parallel with Darek’s GT350 was that many of its components were once in a works racer from the Shelby team. Darek’s dad had bought and raced No. 24, an ex-Shelby Trans-Am team car, at the height of the series’ popularity. That car supplied the engine, trans, driveline, wheels, tires, brakes and suspension for Darek’s fastback GT350R clone.

Interestingly, the engine was still the same matching-numbers block with GT40 heads that had run in the Trans-Am. The main conversion to GT350R specs occurred back in 1972, when Darek built the car for both SCCA and IMSA competition. It ran in both the Sebring and Daytona round-the-clock enduros in the mid-’70s as well as numerous shorter events.

Serious vintage racing began in ’78, with Sebring and Road Atlanta as the main SVRA events. Darek still runs this old warhorse every chance he gets, and it seldom lets him down.

Climbing In


After removing the steering wheel, I began to climb in through the narrow space created by the door’s side bar in the cage, stepping on the seat. Once I was halfway through, I had to carefully twist sideways to ease into the high-backed racing seat with its snug, rib-caged sides.

It seemed complicated to get in but really comfortable when I was finally seated and strapped in. I commented to Chuck and Darek that I didn’t remember anything so sophisticated when I’d run the test cars with Chuck out at Willow Springs in late ’64. “Well, I guess some things have changed,” they laughed–even for crusty ol’ vintage racers.

Darek pointed out the various switches to re-fire the engine while I scanned the instruments. I noticed there was no redline on the tach and that its reluctant needle didn’t exactly follow my throttle input.

“What’s the redline?” I asked, noting the laggard pointer. I kept thinking about the “six or seven years” on the engine and didn’t want to be the guy who ended that lucky streak with too many rpm as I headed down the strip. “Yeah, the tach’s a little slow, but you’ll get a feel for it. Seven thou’ would be top. You’ll feel it.”


With both the water and oil temps up from Chuck’s previous runs, I wasn’t hesitant about revisiting the dimension of speed. The clutch bit solidly and the back end slewed slightly sideways as I launched. The tach was way slow, reading only about 4500 when I could feel the engine reaching its peak–just as Darek had said.

Each succeeding shift felt solid, with the rear end again just hinting at some slippage as I hit second and third. We were on the edge of traction! The engine’s fast-rising guttural howl was still slightly ahead of the tach, but the surge was real all the way through the gears.

There was no speedo, but with the 3.5 gearing Darek later figured we were doing about 155 near the end of the shutdown area. It certainly didn’t feel that fast–the sign of a really well-sorted car. Darek mentioned that the car was officially timed at 186 mph at Daytona with different gearing, turning 7800 rpm. It felt like it would still pull those revs.

The turnaround at each end of the runway was heavy, indicating some strong caster in the front end. But that was easily solved with a little extra throttle! What a great-handling car.


Lasting Impressions


After a few passes it was becoming addictive, so I shut it down. Without another few miles of rights, lefts and long sweepers, it seemed like it was a waste of good time on an engine that had already put in far too many miles and should be respected.

I needn’t have worried; Darek pointed to the license plate under the rear bumper. This car is street-legal, so he also occasionally drives it to work. Some guys have all the fun. Thanks, Darek, for a great afternoon.

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mgmike69 New Reader
8/16/21 4:20 p.m.

Great read on the GT350

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