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  • Writer's pictureGinny Talley

Continuing the Tilley Family Legacy

Charity Riders Denise and Terry LeVan remember Don and Robinette Tilley and share why they choose to continue riding in their honor

Considering the family she was born into, it’s no doubt that Denise Levan likes to ride motorcycles – they’re practically part of her DNA. As the daughter of the late Don Tilley, she was put on a motorcycle before she could walk – heck, she was racing motorcycles by the time most kids her age were losing their first teeth! For those of you who don’t know, Don Tilley is quite a legend in the motorcycle world, specifically the Harley-Davidson world.

In the late 1960s, there was a motocross track being built right up the road from the Tilley’s house in Statesville, NC. “Daddy asked me and my sister if we wanted to race motorcycles and of course we said yes,” said Denise. “So he built us two Harley-Davidsons, and then we joined him as racers at the Statesville Motocross Park.” Then a flat track opened just down the road in Turnersburg and Don was approached about sponsoring a racer there. He agreed to sponsor, but also changed course and began racing on the flat track as well. “In Turnersburg, that’s where he wrecked. He was leading the race, then wrecked, and six or eight motorcycles ran over him and broke both of his legs,” said Denise. “But two weeks later, he rode his Superglide across the country. With two casts on, he strapped his crutches on the back of his bike and off he went.” That’s just who Don was – two broke legs couldn’t stop him from riding.

Riding motorcycles and building motorcycles was his life. “He just flat out loved to ride. He loved it more than anything,” said Denise. “He would complain of his back or legs hurting, but then he would get on his motorcycle and it’s like all his pain would disappear when he rode.” He had a bike shop in his basement for a number of years, then had a Chopper shop for a bit too. But in 1972, Don got his Harley-Davidson dealer license and opened the doors to Tilley Harley-Davidson that October in Statesville. “As soon as Daddy got his dealer license, that’s when he stopped racing,” said Denise. It was a family affair at Tilley Harley-Davidson, with Don and his wife, Robinette, both working there and, soon after, their kids did too. “My mom pretty much ran the place,” said Denise. “He was the face – the one who knew motorcycles – but she ran the business.”

Don Tilley on the inaugural Kyle Petty Charity Ride Across America in 1995.

Don was a skilled mechanic, having worked not only on motorcycles, but also race cars. And not just any race cars, Don worked on Lee and Richard Petty’s cars in the 1960s. That’s where he formed a connection with the Petty family, including a young Kyle Petty. Once Kyle was older, he not only purchased motorcycles from Don, but he also would ride to and from NASCAR races with him. However, one ride they took together led to something special. In 1994, Kyle, Don and a few others rode their motorcycles from North Carolina to a race at Phoenix International Raceway. Friends joined them along the way, and by the time the group reached Phoenix, it had grown to 30 riders. The turnout inspired Kyle, and he decided to nurture the event into something bigger; thus the Kyle Petty Charity Ride Across America was born.

Don pointing out the route in a Rand McNally atlas.

The following year was the inaugural Kyle Petty Charity Ride Across America. Because Don rode all across the country on his bike many times before, he knew the best roads to take – the most beautiful roads, the most fun roads, the roads that pass through all the coolest towns. That’s why Kyle turned to him to map out the routes for the Ride, which also led to Don taking the spot as the lead rider in the group and being nicknamed “Rand McNally.” “He loved to ride out of the way, off the beaten path,” said Denise. “I swear he knew every road in America.”

Robinette and Don Tilley on the 2010 Ride.

For the next 20 years, Don never missed a Ride. He started bringing Robinette along with him and it became a huge part of their life that they cherished and took pride in. And not only did they participate as riders, but Don and Robinette always sponsored the Ride through Tilley Harley-Davidson. Tilley Harley-Davidson has been apart of the Ride from the start.

And while both Don and Robinette have since passed away, the Tilley family legacy continues to live on and continues to be a huge part of the Ride. Don’s last Ride was in 2014 – the 20th Anniversary Kyle Petty Charity Ride Across America. The following year, Denise and her husband, Terry LeVan, came on their first Ride, riding in honor of her dad, and have been back every year since.

Terry and Denise on their first Ride in 2015.

Terry began working at Tilley Harley-Davidson in 2007 and is currently the Sales Manager. To date, Tilley Harley-Davidson works with the Ride to continue the sponsorship that Don and Robinette began – from shipping bikes to the starting location to providing bike servicing, police motorcycles and merchandise. “Don always said the Ride was the most fun you could have raising money,” said Terry. “He sure was right!” But they not only show their support during the Ride, Tilley Harley Davidson hosts additional fundraisers for Victory Junction on their own. “Every year, we have a ‘Sunday Bash’ fundraiser at Tilley’s to raise money for Victory Junction,” said Terry. “It’s just a big party at the dealership that everyone looks forward to and is a great way to have some fun for a great cause.” Denise does the same at her dance school – Tilley Dance Academy. For the past five years or so, she sells tickets and concessions at the dance recitals and donates all of the proceeds to Victory Junction.

“We knew how much the Ride meant to Don and Robinette, but since being a part of it ourselves, we now know why it meant so much to them,” said Terry. “Some of the greatest people in the world are on this Ride who we are blessed to call friends. And riding to help all the kids at Victory Junction is just the best feeling.” But ultimately, it’s the connection they feel to Don that makes this Ride special to Denise and Terry. “My favorite Ride was our first Ride in 2015 because that was the last route my daddy planned,” said Denise. “Getting to see some of the places he loved and roads that he rode on was something I’ll cherish forever.”

And Terry and Denise show no signs of stopping anytime soon. “As long as the Ride wants us around, Tilley Harley-Davidson will always support it and so will me and Denise,” said Terry. So here’s to continuing the Tilley family legacy for years to come… And, we know Don and Robinette will always be there, riding along in spirit!


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