Ray Tilley

By Dave Herrold

Dave Herrold originally wrote this article about his friend, Ray Tilley, for The Daily Item in Sunbury, PA, on July 19, 2002. It appears as it did in that newspaper.

Tilley makes long-awaited return to Selinsgrove Speedway

Editor's note: The writer, a retired Daily Item copy editor, wrote his first auto racing feature story on Ray Tilley on Aug. 5, 1965. The two last saw each other more than 30 years ago. This week, they sat down in Tilley's home for a second interview.

By Dave Herrold
For The Daily Item
PINE GROVE -- Thirty-seven years ago, Ray Tilley set the auto racing world on its ear when he established a one-season record for victories in Central Pennsylvania with 47.

He followed that up in 1966 by winning 41 times, those win totals adding up to the number on the car he was racing.

Tilley, then 31, was in his first season driving for Bud Grimm, a Maryland businessman, in the famous No. 88 Ford-powered car.

In 1965, sprints had not yet made their way into Central Pennsylvania on a weekly basis, and Tilley was competing in what were then called "bugs" or "30 by 90s."

Today, Tilley, 68, is retired and living with his wife, Ruth, in Swatara Village, a retirement community near Pine Grove. They have been married for 49 years.

Tilley is still the all-time leading feature winner at Selinsgrove in the bug/sprint division with 69 victories. The closest driver to him is the late Mitch Smith with 58.

Saturday, after more than 30 years, Tilley will return to the Selinsgrove Speedway. He is expected to join another star driver from the past, Lynn Paxton, in signing autographs during Williams Grove Old Timers Night. A number of restored race cars will also be on display, including one of the No. 88s that Tilley drove.

Those who can go back more than 30 years may remember that Tilley was critically injured in a crash in a national modified championship race at the Langhorne Speedway. That 1969 accident left Tilley with head injuries. His family was told he might not live, and that, if he did survive, he
would never be the same.

The left rear housing broke, Tilley said this week, recalling the crash entering the first turn. He had set fast time and started the race on the pole in a field of more than 40 of the greatest modified cars and drivers on the East Coast. He was running third at the time.

"The left rear housing broke, and the car went into a reverse spin," he said. "It hit the guardrail and stopped quick. I got an excessive whip lash (no head rest had been installed in the car). It partially severed the stem of my brain.

"I regained consciousness within a couple weeks. I needed electric shock treatments on my one leg, which I couldn't move, in order to walk. As a result, I walked out of the hospital in two months. They said they never saw so much mail for one guy."

A devout Christian, Tilley said, "We believe in the power of prayer. Many people and several churches were praying for me."

He spent his ordeal in a hospital in Bristol, not far from Langhorne.

The only other serious injury Tilley suffered was in 1968 while competing at the Lincoln Speedway.

"The return fuel line came off and was spraying my legs with alcohol," he said. "My legs started to feel cold. Then it backfired and ignited. My lower legs and hands were burned."

Tilley had to sit out a year after his Langhorne accident. He briefly attempted a comeback, but soon aborted it because his family was against it 

"I had gone to Jennerstown (Speedway), and told Ruth and Thurmon (his middle son) that I would not race," Tilley recalled. "I took my helmet and uniform along, and ended up driving Roy Morral's No. 880 in a 100-lapper. I heard that Thurmon was going to be at the race with Betty (Hamilton, wife of car owner Al) and her son, Tim.

"I felt guilty, because I promised them I would not race, and I could just imagine Thurmon sitting up in the stands watching me when I lied to him.

"I was leading when the caution came out with 25 or 30 laps to go. I was so excited about leading that I worked up a sweat and my eyes watered. I had trouble seeing, but I could see the tail lights on the pace car. I felt stress from lying to Thurmon and Ruth.

"When the green came out again, I followed the pace car to the inside of the track and into the pits. Roy asked what was wrong, and I told him I couldn't see."

It was 1970, and the 36-year-old Tilley had just driven in his last race.

"I later learned that Thurmon never did come to the race with Betty," he said.

Tilley worked for Hamilton at the time, and the family lived in Clearfield 

The Tilleys are parents of three sons, Bryon, 46; Thurmon, 43; and Roger, 37. There are six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

How did it all start for the son of a Baptist minister?

Tilley was in the service and had come home on furlough in 1955.

"My brother, Ron, was racing," he said. "He left me drive his car at Hilltop Speedway (Myerstown). I loved it so much that when I went back to South Carolina I looked up a guy at a garage.

"I talked him into getting a car. I ran it less than a year at the Myrtle Beach Speedway. We competed in the coupe division.

"In 1956,wo businessmen who had a car at the track saw potential in me, and I joined up with them. We won the track title that year in the hobby division."

Tilley was discharged from the service in 1957. He raced sportsman cars that year at Myrtle Beach, then moved to Fredericksburg, Lebanon County, in 1958. He raced coupes at the Silver Spring Speedway for less than two years.

He said his next move was to the more powerful cars running at the Williams Grove Speedway in 1960 or 1961. He raced at The Grove and Susquehanna Speedway before becoming a regular at Selinsgrove in 1963.

In a career that did not run as long as many other drivers, Tilley estimated he has "something over 200 wins."

Track titles?

Well, there are no less than 13 of them four each at Selinsgrove, Williams Grove and Susquehanna, and one at Myrtle Beach.

Prior to retiring in 1996, Tilley was a truck driver.

While competing for Grimm, who lost his life to cancer less than 10 years ago, Tilley even raced without a roll cage.

"When we went to Florida (in the winter months) to race with IMCA (International Motor Car Association), they did not allow cages," he recalled. "I would guess I raced some 20 times without a cage."

Fortunately, Tilley never got on his head while racing cageless.

Prior to his accident at Langhorne, Tilley was asked if he had any hopes of moving higher on the racing ladder.

"Yeah, we did," he said. "As a matter of fact, we had an offer through Ford if Bud would go Indy-type racing. Bud would have had to close his garage, and he couldn't afford to."

Fans of the mid-1960s racing era will recall Tilley in one of the only Ford-powered racers competing against a field of Chevrolets. It was something he loved.

"I enjoyed running the Ford because everyone else was in a Chevy," he said with that familiar smile.

His teaming with Grimm occurred after the latter's driver at the time, Neil Haight, stopped racing.

"After Neil retired," Tilley said, "Bud and a part-owner approached me before the 1965 season. I jumped at the chance."

His most cherished win?

Believe it or not, it came at Selinsgrove.

"They had a 69er (Big 69) race in 1969 at Selinsgrove, and we won it," he said. The race ran for 69 laps, thus its name.

With all the tracks Tilley competed on in his star-studded career, he considers Selinsgrove one of his favorites.

"That track, for me, was the easiest to get around," he said. "It was easier to drive. Selinsgrove was a very comfortable track to run. I enjoyed the camaraderie with the fans."

Since he left the racing game, Tilley believes he has been to just one race, at Williams Grove.

"I'll say, no, it wasn't hard' (to stay away) because I knew if I went to the races it could be hard. I wanted to do things with my wife."

Living in retirement, the personable ex-racer said he enjoys bowling, going for walks with his wife and attending a weekly prayer breakfast.

"I also drive a tour bus part-time," he said.

As far as top drivers he raced against, Tilley said, "There were so many. I can't help but think of Bobbie Adamson, Mitch Smith, Toby (Dick Tobias), Leroy (Felty), Jan Opperman, Kenny Weld, Gus Linder, Lou Blaney ..."

His feelings are high on the late Jack Gunn, who promoted races at Selinsgrove and Williams Grove.

"He was a great promoter and announcer," Tilley said. "He really had racing knowledge. He was a friend."

How did Ruth feel about attending races in which her husband competed?

"Until I had a serious injury," Tilley said, "she liked the races. When I was injured it was strictly taboo."

Looking back, he said what he most liked was the competition.

"I just enjoyed being able to outmaneuver my fellow man."

He and Grimm were a perfect team.

"I could tell Bud what the car was doing or was not doing, and he knew what to do," Tilley said.

Admitting to having some anxiety about returning to Selinsgrove after all these years, he said, "I'm happy to come back if there are any old-timers who would want my autograph. I'll be delighted to meet the people who still remember me."

Trust us, Ray, you haven't been forgotten.

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