Don Tilley, the legendary race tuner and Tilley Harley-Davidson owner from Statesville, North Carolina, died Friday from injuries suffered in a motorcycle accident on the Blue Ridge Parkway near Asheville according to newspaper reports and his dealership’s website. He was 78. It was also reported that Tilley’s wife, Robinette, was riding with her husband and was critically injured when their motorcycle left the parkway at mile post 394 in Buncombe County, according to U.S. park rangers.
Tilley was a well-known personality in motorcycle racing. He was involved in all forms of racing from motocross, to flat track to drag racing, but he is perhaps best known for the championships he earned as tuner of Lucifer’s Hammer, an ex-factory Harley-Davidson XR1000, that Gene Church rode to three consecutive AMA Battle of the Twins Championships in the mid-1980s.
Tilley was running a bike in the Stock class of Battle of the Twins with Church when he got a surprise call from Milwaukee in the summer of ‘83.
“Dick O’Brien called me and asked me if I’d like to take Lucifer’s Hammer and see what I could do with it,” Tilley said in a 2011 interview. “I said ‘I’d love to.’ HOG (Harley Owner Group) told me they would sponsor it, and it wasn’t much let me tell you. That’s when HOG just got started.
“I went to Milwaukee and got the bike, brought it back to my shop and did some modifications to the engine. We painted it tan and brown. I had a Lucifer’s Hammer decal made and put it on the bike. It was Dick O’Brien’s wife who named it. Some said it was named after a comet. There’s two or three stories about how it was named, but the name stuck. I think part of it was because we had a Church riding Lucifer’s bike.”
The pairing of Church on Tilley’s machine made both of them all-time legends in Battle of the Twins racing.
Tilly’s fame continued to surge in the early 1990s when he teamed with rider Scott Zampach in the Harley-Davidson 883 Series. Together they dominated the class, winning three national championships.
Tilley went on to run a Harley-Davidson satellite Superbike team, which featured Scott Zampach and later Tripp Nobles as riders. Tilley had success in the Pro Thunder class with rider Shawn Higbee. Tilley also backed a championship-winning drag racing team featuring a Harley-Davidson V-Rod ridden by Nobles.
His dealership grew from modest beginnings in 1972 to the point where he owned two large dealerships, one in Statesville and the other in Salisbury, North Carolina.
“He and Robinette were coming back from Nashville and a dealer meeting,” said Tilley’s former rider Gene Church. “It’s a sad day. I don’t think I knew anyone who liked motorcycles and riding Harley-Davidsons as much as he did. He really was responsible for the success I had. He stepped up for me to be the rider for his Battle of the Twins team even though I was nothing but a struggling dirt tracker at the time.”
Church said the two of them were relatively quiet people and it made for some long cross-country trips. “I used to tell people we’d drive to a race in California and you could’ve probably recorded our entire conversation on a 30-minute tape. But when Dick O’Brien retired from the factory he used to travel with us a lot and I loved laying back there on the bunk listing to their stories. They would talk about Brelsford and Rayborn, and lots of it nobody else ever got the chance to hear.”
Tilley was one of the truly unique personalities of the sport and the entire motorcycling community will mourn his loss.