On Carroll Shelby, Wick Fowler And The Origins of Terlingua Chili

“You may suspect by now that the chief ingredients of all chili are fiery envy, scalding jealousy, scorching contempt, and sizzling scorn,” H. Allen Smith.

Way back in 1960, race car man Carroll Shelby and barrister David Witts purchased 200,000 acres of land in Brewster County, Texas. With an eye toward future development of the property they originated the Terlinqua Chili Cook Off. David Witts was appointed “Mayor of Terlinqua in perpetuity”.

Brewster County’s land area is equivalent to Rhode Island and Connecticut combined. Shelby’s parcel of land included nine goats and two donkeys.

Carroll Shelby: “Dave went to Tom Tierney, who had done PR for Ford in Dallas, and Tom came up with the chili cook-off.”

And thus the “Great Chili Confrontation” was born. The Wall Street Journal issued the appellation “The Chili Bowl” for the shootout.

Shelby continues: “We had H. Allen Smith (author) and Wick Fowler (journalist) as cooks. Frank X. Tolbert of The Dallas Morning News [author of A Bowl of Red] got involved and did a great job for us. But we had 300 press people there. That’s the kind of PR guy Tom Tierney was.”

Shelby was an old-school chili lover who nearly met an untimely end before becoming a heart transplant recipient in 1990. The donor? A 34-year-old man “who dropped dead shooting craps in Las Vegas.”

At high noon, the 21st of October, 1967, the first Terlingua Chili Championship was set, Texan Wick Fowler finished in a tie with Illinoian H. Allen Smith. There were three judges. The tie-breaking judge spat Smith’s chili out. Frank X. Tolbert referred to Smith’s offering as “a chili-powder-flavored low-torque beef gruel.”

The first Shelby GT Mustang, the car that put Carroll on the map had been released just two years prior in mid-1965 and sold 500 units, the buyers were chuffed to own these “Corvette killers.”

A three-time U.S. auto racing champion in the ‘50s, Sports Illustrated named Shelby driver of the year in 1956 and 1957; he would cap his competitive career by winning the Le Mans 24-hour endurance race in ’59, driving for Aston-Martin.

While Shelby was burning rubber around the racetrack, Wick Fowler was following a different path. Born in Big Sandy, Texas, back in 1909, Fowler attended UT and was a beat crime reporter for the Austin Statesman at the tender age of 23. After hanging up his Underwood he became a detective and highway cop before migrating to Dallas to join the daily paper after a decade in Austin.

The Dallas Morning News promptly sent the young man overseas to cover WWII where he saw plenty action. In Velletri, Italy Fowler filed this dispatch: “Our riflemen worked the area in long skirmish lines far to our left and right and fired blindly into possible enemy hiding places, a new tactic the division developed and used in this attack for the first time. There were hidden machine gun nests and we could hear the burp of the mean German machine pistol.

A Purple Heart was awarded to the Texas chili man when the building that housed the press corp was bombed.

Meanwhile, Carroll Shelby wasn’t just chasing girls and building hotrods. The Leesburgh, Texas native spent WWII stateside as a flight instructor for the Army Air Corp. When he fell in love with Jeanne Fields, the nascent hotrodder penned love letters to his betrothed and flew over her family farm where he dropped them out of the window of the plane inside an old boot. Fields would become Shelby’s first of seven wives.

When the war ended Shelby launched into oil field roughnecking before trying his luck at chicken farming.

Neither worked out.

The fates smiled on the man when an old wartime buddy showed up at his farm in a spritely MG automobile. Shelby saw a life outside the day to day grind of farming and soon enough was a dyed in the wool wheelman.

Meanwhile Wick Fowler was capitalizing on the fame he’d built during the war as a sharp-tongued newspaperman. When he returned stateside he set about becoming a public speaker and was soon traveling the country to some 300 engagements per annum.

The hardworking reporter still found time to be a roving correspondent for the News as well as serving as appointments secretary to then-Governor Allan Shivers.

In 1964 Fowler started his chili company, Wick Fowler’s Two-Alarm Chili.

For his part Shelby had his sleeves rolled up with his muscle car crew building what would become the most legendary race car of a generation: the Shelby Cobra Daytona Coupe, chassis number CSX2286. When it became clear that the build-out was not going to be completed in time for the 1964 24 Hours of Le Mans race, the old chicken farmer came up with a classic Texas country boy lie: the race car was damaged enroute to Le Mans and would not be able to compete.

Folks bought it hook, line and sinker.

A scant three years later a different kind of fame would come to Fowler and Shelby as the first edition of the Terlingua Chili Championship went off in front of a few hundred chili diehards.

Countless national publications were on hand from The Wall Street Journal to Sports Illustrated. From that event sprang a chili cook off industry as well as hundreds of packaged chili spice blends for home cooks.

Wick Fowler’s Two-Alarm Chili and Carroll Shelby’s Chili Kit are monster brands with penetration into hundreds of supermarkets worldwide.

Shelby’s International Chili Society boasts an annual operating budget of over $200k and his wild life is being brought to the big screen in fall of this year with Matt Damon starring as the old race car driver.

Fowler passed away in 1972 but left a Texas-sized legacy behind. His Original Terlingua International Championship Chili Cookoff has been rolling strong for over a half-century and shows no sign of slowing down. He died young but not before reflecting on his youth in south Texas where he ate five cent bowls of chili during the depression saying “It was cheap and greasy, and it saved my life.”

Shelby died in 2012, that heart he borrowed from a Vegas high roller gave out after two-plus decades of big living.

They’re just not making men like Carroll Shelby and Wick Fowler anymore.

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