Meet Shelby American, Las Vegas’ fast and flourishing car company

New initiatives include track days, in which buyers can drive on race course

Courtesy / Shelby American

Shelby American vehicles snake through curves on Nov. 7, 2015, at the Spring Mountain Motor Resort and Country Club in Pahrump. Las Vegas-based Shelby offers track day events in which prospective buyers can take the company’s cars on hot laps or ride with professional drivers.

Tires screeching, engine roaring like hell's soundtrack, Vince LaViolette takes a corner at the Spring Mountain Motor Resort and Country Club.

He's driving what he calls his "mule," a modified Ford Mustang that LaViolette, senior designer for Las Vegas-based Shelby American Inc., uses to experiment with suspension settings, engine modifications and other innovations designed to make Shelby's cars faster, more powerful and smoother to drive at the same time.

His work has paid off. LaViolette isn't having to muscle the steering wheel, pump the brakes or work the gears to keep the car from spinning out. In fact, he looks as if he could practically make the turn with one hand on the steering wheel and the other holding a latte, like a commuter in traffic.

Shelby American Track Day Series

A Shelby GT speeds along the race course at Spring Mountain Motor Resort and Country Club on Saturday, Nov. 7, 2015. Shelby, based in Las Vegas, has begun offering track days in which prospective buyers can test drive the company's vehicles at high speed. Launch slideshow »

"That's the goal: We want to make a car that can be driven fast but safely and under control," LaViolette says.

Welcome to the world of Shelby American Inc., which builds cars that are powerful and nimble enough for a racetrack but comfortable and manageable enough for a city street.

The company was founded in 1962 by Carroll Shelby, a champion racer who cracked into the auto industry with his Shelby Cobra, a mash-up of a V-8 engine and a lightweight body made by a British roadster manufacturer.

The spry and powerful Cobra was a hit on both the road and track, putting Shelby on a path that led to the only FIA World Championship by an American manufacturer, the creation of other successful race cars and also a partnership with Ford Motor Company to produce the Shelby GT 350, a hot-rodded version of the Mustang.

Five decades years later, modified Mustangs are Shelby American’s bread and butter.

The bulk of the company's business works like this: A customer buys a stock Mustang GT and ships or drives it to Shelby's facility (or one of the company's global mod-shops), where it's transformed to a 670-horsepower Shelby GT or 750-plus horsepower Shelby Super Snake by boosting the engine with a supercharger, adding body effects like air dams and carbon-fiber hoods, as well as upgrading wheels, brakes, exhaust and suspension to name a few components. By comparison, a 2016 Toyota Camry base model comes with a 178-horsepower engine

Prices for Shelby Mustangs range from about $24,000 to over $55,000 in addition to the purchase price of the stock vehicle.

In addition to modifying Mustangs, the company gives the Shelby treatment to Ford F-150 and Raptor pickup trucks and also still produces versions of its classic Cobra. For the classic cars, the chassis are assembled in Las Vegas and shipped to a third party that installs the engines.

Shelby American isn't the average car company, and it's not in a common place for the auto industry. For years, it operated out of a collection of buildings at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, but moved to its current location near Interstate 15 and Sunset Road a little over two years ago to consolidate its operations and get closer to the Strip and McCarran International Airport.

COO Keith Belair says there's no place Shelby would rather be than Las Vegas. That's not a hollow sentiment, either, since Shelby passed on the possibility of moving to Michigan when the company pulled out of the speedway.

"Ford wanted us to be there (in Michigan)," Belair said. "But we feel like we're in the ideal place. I have no interest in moving this company. That's not going to happen."

Belair said operating out of Las Vegas adds to the company's marketability and its attractiveness to customers. Shelby buyers like that their cars bear a dash plaque saying the car was built in Las Vegas, he said, and it adds "a little sizzle to the steak" to have customers pick up their vehicles in the shadow of the Strip.

Another reason the company wanted to stay rooted in Las Vegas was to keep its staff of 100-plus people intact. Belair said Shelby American employs one of the longest-tenured workforces in Las Vegas.

Shelby American is part of Carroll Shelby International, which operates in Africa, Australia and Europe and is exploring expanding into China.

Having survived the recession, the Las Vegas operation is cruising along. Production is at 95 percent capacity, Belair said, and the company recently expanded its product line. Shelby has launched new marketing and sales initiatives, as well, and the prospect of increased demand has Belair eyeing a vacant lot to the east of the facility as a site for growth.

Among Shelby's new initiatives is a track day series that redefines the term "test drive" by allowing prospective buyers to drive the company's cars on hot laps on the Spring Mountain race course, or ride shotgun with experienced racers like LaViolette.

Gary Schechner, vice president of sales and marketing, launched the series in 2015 with plans to hold 12 track days per year. At each event, participants receive transportation to and from the Pahrump race track, refreshments, gifts and a meal in addition to a full day of test driving. Cost is $1,750, which can be rolled into the purchase price of a Shelby vehicle.

"We wanted to give people a 'try before you buy' option," Schechner said. "When you get in one of our cars, it's a very visceral experience. Something that no glossy magazine story nor YouTube video can ever replace."

The December track day drew more than a dozen participants who got to drive such cars as the Shelby GT EcoBoost, a turbocharged four-cylinder model, and the V-8 powered Shelby GT and the 750+hp Shelby Super Snake. The weather was chilly, with temperatures in the 30s, but the day generated plenty of smiles both from shoppers and Shelby staff.

In a pre-event briefing, LaViolette and Schechner told participants to use caution at all times, drink plenty of water and have fun.

"Don't worry about your abilities," Laviolette said. "We're going to go as fast as you guys feel like going. If you've never been on a track, we'll work with you. If you've raced all your life, we'll work with you."

LaViolette, who has raced all of his life, then showed a passenger what a Shelby car could do in the hands of someone who's raced all of his life.

As he started a series of laps, he noted to his passenger that a car in front of them was a race-tuned Lotus. Its engine was less powerful than the one in LaViolette's "mule," but it was far lighter and was fitted with racing slicks that would allow it to take corners far better than the GT. It was already nearing top speed when the starter waved LaViolette onto the track, so catching it would have seemed unlikely.

But LaViolette believed in his car.

"Let's run it down," he said, and nearly did before he had to slow down to pass another car in a corner.