One of the top Central Pennsylvania drivers in Flathead Stock Cars, Supermodifed “Bugs,” Modified stock cars, Midgets and winged & wingless Sprint Cars, Ray Tilley (May 16, 1934 – August 19, 2011) of Pine Grove, Pennsylvania, was a front-runner in every kind of racing car that he drove. But more importantly, Tilley was a gentleman in every respect and humble about his considerable racing accomplishments, which made him admired and respected by all of those who knew him, saw him race or competed against him.
Born in Riverside, New Jersey, the son of a Baptist minister, Tilley was an Airman at the U.S. Air Force Base in Myrtle Beach,, South Carolina, when he first began racing in 1955 at the half-mile Coastal Speedway, and in 1956 he won 20 races and the Hobby Division point title there in the No. 39 Woodland Esso 1937 Ford coupe.
Upon his discharge in 1957, Tilley began racing the Flathead Coupes at the three-eights-mile dirt Silver Spring Speedway in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, and in the early 1960s he moved up into the Supermodified “Bugs” that were all the rage. He really began to make his presence known in the Forry Brothers No. 4 cut-down 1932 Ford coupe.
In 1965, Tilley drove the blue and white Ford-powered No. 88 owned by Maryland businessman Bud Grimm and while racing against a bevy of Chevrolet-powered “Bugs” he set a single-season victory record when he won 47 races and the season championships at Central Pennsylvania’s Williams Grove Speedway in Mechanicsburg, Selinsgrove Speedway and Susquehanna Speedway in Newberrytown. He then backed up that stellar performance in 1966 by winning 41 races and the track titles at Selinsgrove and Williams Grove.
After those two dominating seasons, the rules at most of the tracks in Central Pennsylvania were opened up and full-fledged winged Sprint Cars became the region’s main attractions. The Grimm-Tilley team came prepared for such a change as Tilley drove the blue and white No. 88 Sprint Car to championships at Williams Grove (1968 & 1969), Selinsgrove (1968 & 1969) and Susquehanna (1968).
The winner of an all-time record of 69 races at Selinsgrove, Tilley had 22 victories at Susquehanna and 18 at Williams Grove. But winged Sprint Car racing was not his only interest.
Tilley competed in United States Auto Club Sprint Car competition with the wingless edition of his blue and white No. 88 and finished second on March 31, 1968, to fellow EMPA Hall of Fame driver Larry Dickson in a 30-lapper at the old half-mile dirt Reading (Pa.) Fairgrounds. He also drove the famed No. 24 Offy Midget of EMPA Hall of Fame car owner Ken Brenn Sr. in the late 1960s and it was not unusual for him to make an occasional run with the Sprint Cars of the United Racing Club where he had one career victory.
Tilley also had more than a passing interest in Modified stock-car racing and he entered the Langhorne National Open several times in the 1960s and competed on the old Pennsylvania one-mile track in both its dirt-circle and asphalt “D-shaped” incarnations. In 1966 he finished second in the 100-mile asphalt race to EMPA Hall of Famer Will Cagle.
On October 12, 1969, however, Ray Tilley looked to be one of the favorites in the race as he started from the pole for what was now a 200-mile event. But his yellow No. 5 1935 Chevrolet two-door sedan crashed hard into the first-turn wall when the left-rear axle housing broke while he was running third and he suffered serious head injuries.
After sitting out for a year, the popular driver attempted a comeback but ultimately decided to retire from racing with over 200 career victories and the many friends that he made with all of the people that he had met while racing.