In this month’s Racecar Profile [“Bound by Fate”], you’ll read that I recently had the opportunity to test drive the “King Cobra” that Shelby American built for the 1967 Can-Am season. While this is a fascinating tale of missed opportunities and misunderstandings, there are so many great pieces of history woven into this car that it was impossible to include them all. However, one aspect of this story that does deserve separate mention is the car’s primary driver, Jerry Titus.
Titus was born in Johnson City, New York, on October 24, 1928. Despite growing up during the Depression, Titus showed musical talent at an early age and would ultimately graduate from the prestigious Julliard School of Music as a very accomplished trumpeter. Titus played in a jazz band led by renowned trombonist Jack Teagarden, but eventually gravitated toward more stable work (working on automobiles) once his son Rick was born.
Securing a job as a mechanic at Bill Frick’s famous performance shop gave Titus the opportunity to work on some pretty exotic machinery. While honing his mechanical craft at Frick’s in the 1950s, Titus also penned his first article for Speed Age magazine in 1954, which would begin to crystalize Titus’s future of blending his technical work on cars, with his technical writing about them.
Titus’ ability to work effectively on cars and write about them would ultimately open many doors for him. As early as 1959, Titus began racing himself, starting with a Degrada in U.S. Formula Junior races. By 1961, Titus had taken a job, in California, as an Editor at Sports Car Graphic, which led to him campaigning a Sunbeam Alpine under the SCG banner. In this editorial capacity, Titus was now test driving a lot of cars and between that and his own racing, he was soon asked to help test and develop a number of new racecars, such as Bill Thomas’ Cheetah. However, Titus got his big racing break after test driving one of Carroll Shelby’s new GT350s, in 1965. Shelby was impressed enough with Titus’ capabilities that he offered him a B Production drive in the SCCA’s Pacific Coast region, which Titus would win that year. As a result of that championship, Shelby offered him a drive in the last race of the 1966 Trans-Am championship, at Riverside. Driving Shelby’s Team Terlingua Notchback Mustang, Titus won the race and set himself up for a life-changing decision.
For 1967, Shelby offered Titus a position as a full-time driver, which would entail not only running the full Trans-Am championship, but also spearheading a new Shelby Can-Am campaign as well. Titus ultimately chose to resign his post as Editor-in-Chief at Sports Car Graphic and threw himself into being a full-time, professional racecar driver.
Quitting one’s “day job” and becoming a paid racecar driver would have been a tremendous amount of pressure for a family man like Titus. While he had several years of experience under his belt with small-block production cars like the Mustang and GT350, he was now also charged with developing the new Len Terry-designed King Cobra, a car significantly outside the scope of his experience up to that point. As can be read in this month’s Racecar Profile, the Shelby Can-Am program would prove to be anything but smooth. Most of the photos, and contemporary reports of the effort, show or describe Titus as being either frustrated or angered by the King Cobra’s many challenges. Interestingly, in one of his books on the Shelby team’s race history, team photographer Dave Friedman had this to say about Titus, “Most of the crew felt that a better choice could have been made because, as good as he was in a Trans-Am car, Jerry lacked the experience, finesse, and know-how to properly evaluate a more powerful Can-Am car.” While Titus was clearly frustrated by the Can-Am program, fortunately he notched up four wins in the Trans-Am to lead Shelby and Ford to that year’s championship.
The following season saw a disappointing string of Trans-Am DNFs that, combined with Shelby’s diminishing fortunes, likely led to Titus’ leaving for greener pastures. For the next two seasons, Titus raced a Pontiac Firebird prepared by his own T-G Racing Team. Sadly, while practicing for the Road America Trans-Am race in July of 1970, the steering gear failed on Titus’ Firebird resulting in him violently crashing into the track’s Billy Mitchell Bridge. Jerry Titus succumbed to his injuries 17 days later on August 5, 1970.
Regrettably, like the King Cobra, Jerry Titus remains another one of those great “what ifs” in Shelby racing history. Had circumstances unfolded a little differently, who knows what heights he might have attained.