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Day 6: 'Road atlas' Tilley rife with stories

May 08, 2014, Mike Hembree, Special for,

One of ride's founders, former NASCAR mechanic has seen it all

BEAUMONT, Texas -- Don Tilley is the Yoda of the Kyle Petty Charity Ride Across America.

Tilley, one of several founders of the ride 20 years ago, is 78 years old and has been in the lead group of every ride since Petty began the event in 1995. A former stock car racer, NASCAR mechanic and motorcycle racer, Tilley owns Harley-Davidson dealerships in Statesville and Salisbury, North Carolina.

Tilley has ridden motorcycles on seemingly every interstate and back road in the United States. He is the ride's unofficial road atlas.

Better to ride through downtown Houston or take the interstate loop around the city? Tilley knows. Best scenic roads in the West? Tilley knows.

And he has stories.

Day 6 recap

Started: Beaumont, Texas.
New Orleans.
Miles traveled:

"We got up one morning in Colorado and had to go over a pass in the Rockies that day," he said. "Somebody said, 'We can't go. There's a foot of snow across the mountains.' Kenny Schrader said, 'I'm not going. I'm not going. I've never ridden in the snow.'

"I convinced Kyle that the people there knew how to handle the snow with plows and such and that we should go on instead of backing up and going 40 miles in the other direction. Everybody was shaking in their boots. But we got to the top, and it was beautiful. About three feet of snow. Everything was white.

"People on the ride still talk about that one."

Ride director Morgan Castano, Petty and Tilley map out the ride route each year. It's not an easy task. Fuel stops must be timed appropriately. Driving in or around large cities in rush-hour traffic is a no-no. And a certain amount of eye-popping scenery is a must.

"This thing has always been an adventure," Tilley said. "I absolutely love it. When this one is over, I could go out there and do it again. I love it that much."

Tilley is one of only 10 riders who have participated in all 20 rides. Tough as beef jerky, he shows no signs of letting go.

Tilley's connections to the Petty family pre-date the ride by many years. He worked as a racing mechanic for Lee Petty, Kyle's grandfather, in the early 1960s before driving in several NASCAR Sprint Cup Series events himself.

His days working for the often-irascible Lee Petty provided some interesting travel experiences. Although most drivers now fly to race sites, in the 1960s many hit the road with their race cars in tow.

These trips produced more than a few wild stories over the years. Tilley often traveled with Lee Petty because, he said, most of the others on the road crew generally declined. "Most guys didn't like to drive with Lee because he smoked cigars, and he'd throw the butts in the floor," he said. "He wouldn't put them out, and they'd get to stinking and he'd pour a drink on them."

So it was Tilley and Petty together on the long ride back from a race in Riverside, California.

"We had a box truck in front of us with a trailer and race car on it," Tilley said. "I was driving Lee's Chrysler 300 with a trailer and a race car on it.

"We got to Mississippi, and the trailer started swaying back and forth. I tried to hold it, but it finally got to the point where the trailer was coming around so bad that I could see it swing from one side to the other. Lee said I'd better lock it down because there was a pretty bad curve coming up. I did, and the trailer came around and hit the quarter-panel of the car and slid us around to a stop.

"All it did was bend the quarter-panel. Dale Inman (long-time Petty crew chief) was driving the truck in front. He still tells that story. As he puts it, 'You're the only man alive who's spun Lee Petty around on a Mississippi highway.' "

Day 6 recap

Started: Beaumont, Texas.
New Orleans.
Miles traveled:

Notes: Big crowds greeted the ride at fuel and rest stops in small Texas towns. One fan showed up in a nicely aged T-shirt from Kyle Petty's Sprint Cup days driving for Sabco Racing. … Best sign of the ride to date is at a restaurant in a crossroads hamlet in Texas: More Than 3 Dozen Served. … Rain sprinkled the start of the ride Thursday, but cooler weather was celebrated.

Friday's route: New Orleans to Slidell, Louisiana; to Daphne, Alabama; to Ponce de Leon, Florida; to Tallahassee, Florida.

Donate: The Kyle Petty Charity Ride raises money for the Victory Junction Gang Camp, a summer camp for chronically ill children. To donate,


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