Hundreds of Harley riders will converge on Statesville Sunday to celebrate the life of Don Tilley, who died as he lived most of his 78 years: Riding a motorcycle with his wife.
Tilley was a legend in racing and Harley-Davidson circles, having led all 20 of Kyle Petty’s “ Charity Ride Across America” treks to raise money for seriously ill children. He died when he lost control of his motorcycle on the Blue Ridge Parkway south of Asheville Friday evening.
Robinette Tilley, his wife of 53 years, was riding with him. She remains hospitalized in Asheville with serious injuries, said Vickie Kress, a staffer at Tilley Harley-Davidson in Statesville.
Tributes and concern poured in as word spread over the Labor Day weekend.
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“Don taught me how to ride long distance, love Harleys & most importantly how to be a friend,” NASCAR driver Petty tweeted.
Winston Kelley, executive director of the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, called Tilley “the Superman of motorcycles.”
“He rode more miles per year than anybody I personally know,” Kelley, a motorcycle enthusiast, said Monday.
Don Tilley was also known for wearing a helmet, even in states where they weren’t required. His reputation as a careful rider is one of the reasons his wreck came as such a shock, Kelley said.
Sunday’s memorial service will be held in Statesville High School’s stadium to accommodate the crowds expected to turn out – many of them riding motorcycles from the Tilley dealerships in Salisbury and Statesville, thundering in with a police escort.
“You’re going to see probably one of the biggest rides you’ve ever seen in your life,” said Kress, who was acting as a family spokesperson.
Don Tilley got his start as a motorcycle and stock car racer in the late 1950s, when he worked for Kyle Petty’s father, racing star Richard Petty, according to a history on his website. He also worked for a Statesville Harley-Davidson dealer before opening his own shop in 1972. The business and his name in racing circles grew in the ensuing decades.
Tilley organized and supported many charity events over the years, but the biggest is the Petty trek to benefit Victory Junction, a camp south of Greensboro for children with serious medical conditions. As a longtime family friend, Tilley helped launch the charity ride in 1995, after a handful of friends rode their motorcycles from North Carolina to a NASCAR race in Phoenix. Riders have donated a total of $15 million to Victory Junction and other children’s charities, according to the website.
The 20th ride took place this May, with riders going from California to Florida. Longtime NASCAR writer Mike Hembree, chronicling that trip, called Tilley “the Yoda of the Kyle Petty Charity Ride Across America.”
“Tilley has ridden motorcycles on seemingly every interstate and back road in the United States. He is the ride’s unofficial road atlas,” Hembree wrote. “Better to ride through downtown Houston or take the interstate loop around the city? Tilley knows. Best scenic roads in the West? Tilley knows.
“Tilley is one of only 10 riders who have participated in all 20 rides,” Hembree added. “Tough as beef jerky, he shows no signs of letting go.”
Robinette Tilley has always been at her husband’s side, whether working at the dealerships or accompanying him on rides, Kress said. At 74, Robinette Tilley is a competitive jazz and tap dancer.
Don Tilley has also been a stalwart supporter of Alcoholics Anonymous, which helped him stay sober for 44 years, Kress said. And in 1986 he founded Statesville’s Harley Owners Group, which his website describes as North Carolina’s first.
That group had a Tail of the Dragon ride scheduled for the Labor Day weekend, along a twisty mountain road at the N.C./Tennessee state line. Friday evening, Don and Robinette Tilley were riding along the Blue Ridge Parkway. He was driving and she was in back, Kress said.
The wreck happened around 7:50 p.m., near the French Broad River overlook at the intersection of the parkway and Brevard Road, south of Asheville. The U.S. Park Service is investigating and has not released details.
Kress said Robinette Tilley has already had three operations, with another scheduled later this week.
Don Tilley’s last tweet marked their 53rd anniversary, on July 23. “It has been great,” he wrote. “Met her by taking a ride on my Harley.”