Everybody knows who Carroll Shelby is—the man who created the Shelby Cobra and Shelby Mustang, among many other significant accomplishments—but you may not be familiar with the name Rick Kopec. However, if you own or wish to own a Shelby, he needs to be at the top of your Christmas card mailing list. While Carroll Shelby spent six years immersed in the production of his Shelbys, Kopec has spent the last 40 promoting them through the organization he helped found, the Shelby American Automobile Club (SAAC). More is known today about this line of cars than any other produced in the U.S.
Here’s Rick Kopec and his 1966 Shelby G.T. 350 in 1971 during a trip to Watkins Glen to see the U.S. Grand Prix. That’s Seneca Lake in the background. When shown this photo recently, his wife, Colleen, replied, “I loved that Shelby. Who’s the guy leaning against it?”
Rick Kopec: Director, Editor, Writer, Driver, and Dish Washer
The reason SAAC is successful is because it’s run by folks who are truly enthusiastic about Shelbys, and the person who’s most enthusiastic is Rick Kopec. The highlight of every SAAC national convention is the dinner, and the highlight of the dinner is Rick’s master of ceremony performances—Rodney Dangerfield would be proud of him. He’s a leader, and his followers would walk over hot mufflers for him … and sometimes do. Besides having a hand in its operation (he’s now the director emeritus), he is the editor of the quarterly magazine, contributing writer to the magazine and newsletters, and was an active participant in the annual convention’s vintage car races until recently. We stand corrected—he also does the dishes, but under duress.
Rick working on the 289 Cobra A/P SCCA racer, at Riverside Raceway in 1966, with their 1966 Hertz Shelby G.T. 350 rental car in the background. A serious accident occurred during this race with the team’s Cobra, CSX2127 that was owned by Mel Wentzel, running in 10th Place. After stopping the race and clearing the track, the race was about to resume but the Cobra would not fire. Surgeon Kopec quickly shot his patient up with a dose of ether and the 289 was immediately revived. Noticing Mark Donohue’s Shelby G.T. 350 R-Model parked beside them had similar symptoms, he considerately handed one of the crew his can of ether and off they went as well. At the end of the race both cars were disqualified by a technicality—having someone other than the driver working on the car while the race was in progress.
Rick, trying to find the socket extension he’d dropped before the driver comes back, at Riverside Raceway, in 1966.
Match dot Cobra
We’re told that Kopec’s two favorite reads in high school were the latest issues of Car & Driver and Sports Car Graphic magazines, and he can still recall the day he fell in love for the first time. It happened in high school while working at a Sunoco gas station when a Shelby Cobra 427 pulled in for a fill-up of high octane. “What a gorgeous body,” he reminisced. There was no recollection of what the driver looked like, though. Two short years following the fill-up, he was the crew chief on a friend’s Shelby Cobra 289 A/P SCCA (Sports Car Club of America) racer, spending lots of quality time under the hood. They finished near the top in the NE region, which bestowed the team an invitation to the American Road Race of Champions at Riverside Raceway in 1966, which led to a tour of the Shelby American assembly plant at the L.A. airport nearby. There he met Lew Spencer, a partner with Carroll Shelby, and the rest, as they say, is history.
A short stint in college was followed with a trip to Vietnam, compliments of the U.S. Army. In 1970 he married his true love (his wife, Colleen, not the 427 Cobra) and returned to college. With his Special Education degree in hand four years later he began his career as a teacher, and in his spare time had a hand in starting the Shelby American Automobile Club in 1975.
Through his time spent pouring through records of Shelby American and his involvement in the Shelby Registry, this man with unlimited energy has amassed a wealth of knowledge, and therefore is recognized as the leading authority on Carroll Shelby’s automobiles. What he will be remembered most for, though, is his leadership in SAAC and his hundreds of witty, well-written works published in magazines over the past 38 years—that and a complete lack of enthusiasm when washing dishes. To learn more about this car club, visit www.saac.com
Another shot taken that day at Riverside in 1966. Kopec’s crew rented this black with gold stripes 1966 Hertz Shelby G.T. 350 for their weeklong stay in L.A. while competing at the American Road Race of Champions at Riverside. Immediately after picking up the G.T. 350 they expertly added the tow kit to the rear end (see photo) to haul the trailered Cobra around. Recently, an article was published in the SAAC quarterly magazine revealing this story (the statute of limitations had run out), along with the discovery that two owners of similar Shelbys have discovered holes in their bumpers and under carriage similar to those on the 1966 Kopec rental. This led them to believe they owned “the car.” It was never determined which car was the one Rick and crew had modified, but when confirmed it should be duly noted in the SAAC Registry.
Shown here are Dan Gurney on the left and Rick Kopec on the right, circa 1978. Gurney’s office manager, Kathy, and the guys in his shop loved it. No word on what Dan thought. As far as practical jokers go, Rick is a Hall Of Famer. His April Fools pitches in the SAAC newsletters always catch a few swinging and missing. For example, on April 1, 2011, he ran a story with a fictitious NY Times headline that a U.S. Senator was preparing tax legislation that would levy a tax on any antique or collector car, hot rod, or race car. The furious readers that bit on the prank caused a tsunami-like effect, stirring up websites across the country. And included in this spoof were pieces on a perpetual motion 1969 Shelby G.T. 350, and a 1968 Shelby that got 40 mpg. Maybe they believed those as well. The SAAC quarterly magazines have, at a minimum, several puns directed at 1965-1966 Shelby Registrar (keeper of the list of “who owns what car”) Howard Pardee, compliments of Rick. And if that weren’t enough, he sends out Christm
Seen here are Rick and Colleen, standing next to his 1965 Shelby G.T. 350 R-model.
Rick Kopec, holding the checkered flag with a smile on his face, the same expression your author’s father would give me when intending to make a point. Rick’s point is that the SAAC core people should receive all the credit for the organization’s success, not him. The five board members and the Registrars, like Howard Pardee, as well as others like Ron Richards, the webmaster and a convention organizer, all make up what Kopec calls the SAAC Family. And like a family that’s grown old and moved away from home, just because they don’t live close to each other doesn’t imply they aren’t still close and helpful friends. Close only counts in horseshoes, hand grenades, and a love of Shelbys.
In 1969 Rick purchased his first Shelby, a 1966 G.T. 350, from a friend, sight unseen. He didn’t get to drive it until 1970 after returning home from his tour in Vietnam where he picked up several souvenirs—two Silver Stars, two Bronze Stars, and two Purple Hearts. In 1981 he purchased another Shelby, the 1966 G.T. 350 R-model, number S5098, for a paltry $5,000, again sight unseen. R-models were built for racing and this particular car was raced by Shelby’s number one driver, Ken Miles. When Miles raced the car, it was #9. Rick wanted this car to be distinctive and pay tribute to Miles, so he changed the car number to the last two digits of the serial number, #98. After restoring this rare car, Rick competed in over 110 vintage car races without even laying a scratch on the body, and mechanically failed to finish a race only once. Not bad. In 2007, when #98 became too valuable to race on the track, it was time to sell. The new owner is a friend of Rick’s and lets him get behind the wheel at SAAC conventions,