Last week, I introduced Highland stock car driver Jerry Tillman.
Tillman raced hobby stock, and in more advanced levels, in San Bernardino and Corona.
Tillman talked about some of the great racers of Highland and his once in a lifetime opportunity to meet his stock car hero, No. 43, Richard Petty.
“The best racers in the 70s were the Beckers, from Highland,” said Tillman. “There was Junior, Randy and Rick. They were racing every week.”
Ivan Baldwin was another racer that Tillman acknowledged as being a top racer.
Most racers had people who influenced their desire to tear up the asphalt, and Tillman was no different.
“My hero was the top guy, Richard Petty,” said Tillman. “When I was racing, I wanted to be like Richard Petty.
“If you ever get to meet your hero in life, then you’ve gone to the top of the hill, and I did.”
Petty was filming a movie, during the week, at the Corona raceway, according to Tillman.
“Back then, we were racing over there,” said Tillman.
Tillman took the day off to race.
“My pit man had a ’36 or ’37 Dodge 4-door sedan that his grandfather gave him,” said Tillman.
The movie crew was looking for old cars for the movie.
The movie was called “43, The Richard Petty Story.”
“They were going to film, and Richard Petty was going to be there,” said an excited Tillman.
“We went over there with the old car,” said Tillman. “They said that this will work well for Lee Petty, Richard’s dad.
“They wanted me and the other racers to drive around the track. We told them, no problem.”
Tillman and his fellow racers were compensated for their time on the film.
L.Q. Jones and Darren McGavin were the professional actors in the film.
“Darren McGavin played Richard Petty’s dad,” said Tillman.
“We did a lot of stunts going on that half-mile track,” said Tillman. “I broke a tail-light. They paid us for that too.”
Tillman was very excited that he was able to be in the presence of his stock car hero.
“At one point the media had Richard Petty surrounded,” said Tillman. “They were asking him, question after question.”
Tillman and his pit man Bob Eddy were sitting in Eddy’s car.
Petty, at one point broke away from the throng of reporters and walked over to Tillman and Eddy, in the infield.
“Richard Petty walked over and leaned into the rear winder,” said Tillman. “He said, well boys, this car is exactly what we were looking for daddy’s car.”
Tillman was in seventh heaven, at this point.
“I told him, why don’t you sit down here, if you would, I’d like to ask you a couple questions.
“He did,” said a happy Tillman. “I reached over, opened the rear door, and Richard Petty got in the backseat.”
“The three of us talked for 20 minutes about suspensions, tires, coil springs and other racing things that the normal media would not have asked him,” said Tillman.
“I asked about going through the ‘S’ turns at Riverside. It was very interesting.”
Tillman wished that there would have been technology for him to have recorded this treasured experience.
“After a while, he gets a phone call from the tower,” said Tillman. “They said, Richard Petty you have an important phone call. “He said, well boys, I gotta go.”
As Petty was ascending the steps to the tower, Tillman and Eddy realized that, after their 20-minute conversation with their celebrity, they failed to get his autograph.
Tillman sprinted the steps and caught Petty, just as he was at his last step.
“I asked him, you wouldn’t mind signing my 1972 NASCAR license,” said Tillman. “I pulled it out of my wallet, that was the only paper I had.
“He signed my 1972 NASCAR license. That’s my treasure,” said a jubilant Tillman.
“I got to meet my hero!”
From meeting his idol, Tillman’s advice to race car drivers is to “keep going.”
“Don’t let a little stress get to you,” said Tillman. “Keep the competition behind you. Stick to it!”
If you know anything about the history of Highland, I am interested in hearing from you. You can reach me at (909) 816-0318.