The phrase “legends are made, not born” is a truism: no one, at birth, has done anything worthy of lore. Yes, the miracle of birth is impressive, but it’s happened to all of us. What differentiates legends from the rest of us, then, is in the “making” part. Or parts, plural. That is, when certain, irrepressible qualities in a person meet the right circumstances.
Or as Shawn Ellington once put it, “I’ve always been famous — just not everyone knew it yet.” That is, before he became synonymous with the Murder Nova, his racecar and, arguably, the most notorious 1969 Chevrolet Nova in existence. But we’ll get to that part later.
Though born in California, Shawn did his growing up in Southwest Oklahoma, in the small city of Sayre, to which he moved at the age of five with his family. There, his father owned an auto body shop, the place where Shawn’s passion for cars was first realized. As he explains, “My dad has been a body guy my whole life — he’s been in collision repair. Of course with collision repair comes restoration of old cars. And that’s just what I fell in love with.” From sweeping floors, to wet sanding, and eventually to the paint gun, he put in his time and established his firm footing in a life with cars.
And for almost 20 years, that was his scene — restoration and show cars. That changed only after Shawn left behind the small-town life and arrived in Oklahoma City, as an adult, in 2005. “When you’re in a little town, and you have the reputation that I have, where not a lot of people… ‘like’ you?’, Shawn says with a laugh, “even once you grow up, and you change the way you were, when you were younger, that never leaves. You’re always ‘that guy.’”
So, he began to look for other places to go. And having started his own power-line business with a friend, all his work was on the road. That meant his home location wasn’t critical, and Oklahoma City was as good a place as any.
It was there that Shawn first encountered a critical mass of people who put function far over form — street racers. And in his case there was no special invitation, personal connection, or rite of passage; he simply happened upon a drivers’ meeting on his way home one night. Not from work, though. “I believe I was coming home from a bar,” Shawn admits with a laugh, “and I saw a whole bunch of [race]cars.” As he recalls it, “I followed them, and whenever I followed them down this abandoned one-way street, I got out and started watching.” Shawn had only been living in the city for about six months at that point, so although he had seen some of the cars cruising at spots like 39th Street, he didn’t know any of the racers. Even so, he says, “It didn’t take long for me to realize that that’s the place I wanted to be.”
He already did have his own car, a ‘69 Camaro, black, with a beautifully chromed-out blower and blower hat, on top of a big block in a well-presented engine bay. The whole package was meant to look good, while also making some power. And of course he was up for racing it, too. So, not yet having any real connections in his new city, Shawn set out for the usual spots.
As he tells it, “I remember my first race in Oklahoma City: I went out, I cruised around on 39th Street, I sit in this parking lot with everybody else — it was either a Sonic, or O’Reilly’s — and Chief walked up to me, and said, ‘Hey man, are you wanting to race this thing?’ And I’m like, ‘Yes! That’s why I’m here!’” And in that way, Chief set up Shawn’s first street race in OKC. That race also gave Shawn a “reckless driving” ticket, a “speed contest” ticket, and three or four points on his driving record, but hey, experiences are priceless.
Anybody can think that they’re a good driver, when everything goes the way it’s supposed to go. You learn real quick who the drivers are, when the shit hits the fan.
And if you’ve been paying attention over the last eight or so years, you know that none of that deterred him a bit. In fact, not only was Shawn determined to be among that group of racers he had encountered on the abandoned road that night, he set out to make a statement — to become dominant. As he puts it, “Before I really ‘knew’ Chief, I knew that I was going to change the game. That’s what I wanted to do.”
The process began with his own basic intuition: “I realized really quick that, if you’re going to race on the street, and you want more traction than everybody else, you need a bigger tire than everybody else,” he says and continues, “and at that time, everybody was on small tires.” Of course, it’s one thing to consider the playing field and come up with an idea… it’s another matter entirely to make sacrifices in order to implement that plan. But Shawn was ready to do just that. And the Camaro chassis was jettisoned. To take its place he found a particular roller — a 1969 Nova. As he explains it, “It was a big tire car, and at that point in time, it looked like everything that I wanted it to be.” The powertrain from the Camaro would simply be swapped over, as part of the plan.
But before that even took place, before he had even returned home from purchasing the car — it was still in-tow on the open trailer — there was another coincidental encounter. This time, though, it was someone else who happened upon Shawn. “I’m driving home,” he starts, “and I notice this van following me. So I make a couple turns, and I notice that this van’s still following me. So I pull over in a parking lot. And the van pulls into the parking lot… and I get out of the truck, and I look. And it’s Chief.”
“At the time, Chief worked in the heat & air business, driving that same van to and from jobs. Even back then, he was known for knowing every racecar in Oklahoma City, and every driver in Oklahoma City. And on that day he saw a stripped-out racecar with a big tire on it, still in flat grey primer, being trailer-ed into the city and he didn’t know who it was. As Shawn continues the account, “He pulls in, and I say, ‘Hey, what’s going on, man!’ And he said, ‘Whose car is this?’ I was like, ‘Well it’s mine.’ And he’s walking around, he’s looking underneath it, he’s checking everything out. So he asks the question, ‘Where are you going to race it?’ I say, ‘On the street… .’ And, he looked over at me, and… something just ‘happened’. Because ever since that moment, we started talking, and we started hanging out, and I started talking to him about the build.”
Indeed, Chief’s combination of knowledge and skill was a key element in the rapid rise of the MurderNova to dominance. For in that place and time, the two men’s ambitions complimented each other. As Shawn describes it, “You could tell that it was something that he had always wanted to do, but didn’t have the money to do. And with the business I had, I had the money, and I was willing to put the money out. I wasn’t afraid to spend it on something I was passionate about.” And so with Chief’s help, Shawn created a program that became and still remains one of the most dominant, and resilient, in street racing.
To translate those capabilities into wins, though, requires something else still. That is, after the transbrake button is released, a whole lot remains in the balance. And no more so than on the street. As Shawn puts it, “Somebody could buy the Murder Nova from me today, and they still couldn’t go out and win races.” The last element, of course, is the driver.
Before I really ‘knew’ Chief, I knew that I was going to change the game. That’s what I wanted to do.
What sets Shawn apart, then? “Like I said, I’m from a small town,” he starts, “I started driving when I was 12, 13 years old. And we lived down the dirt roads, gravel roads, and it didn’t matter what [car] you were in — when you hit that gravel road and you kicked that thing sideways, you learned how to drive at a young age.”
Even as he got older, he and his friends turned to those dirt roads for their adrenaline rush on the weekends (Sayre was a bit lacking in nightlife, as you can imagine). As he recalls, “We’d just spend all night long, out back-roading with our buddies, driving. And every corner that you bent, you were getting sideways.” He goes on to explain that, “Anybody can think that they’re a good driver, when everything goes the way it’s supposed to go. You learn real quick who the drivers are, when the shit hits the fan.”
For in those sorts of circumstances on the edge, of equal importance to experience is one’s innate ability. No amount of training can endow people with the “wiring” it takes to get to the other end, when it’s sink-or-swim time. And Shawn’s raw ability completes the package.
So, what does this all mean for the present-day? At least as we saw on the most-recent season of Street Outlaws, the original group of drivers from OKC was venturing back out from the well rubbered-in road of seasons past. As that season progressed, they began to face surfaces that brought back the challenges — and imperfections, and unpredictability — of the roads around Oklahoma City where they all got started. In Shawn’s opinion, that’s a much needed change. “We need to get back to our roots of going down any road, anywhere, anytime,” he says, “And we kind of got away from that for a while.” Naturally, his enthusiasm has a lot to do with his own track record: “I feel confident that the OG [Murder Nova] can do that. And it’s proved it, in Nebraska, that it can with the best of them.”
Keep in mind though, as I think I’ve shown you, it’s not just the car that makes the difference.
Catch Shawn Ellington and more of street racing’s top stars on STREET OUTLAWS: AMERICA’S LIST Mondays at 8 p.m. ET on Discovery and streaming on discovery+.