Mrs. Betty Lilly, NASCAR Pioneer

The Betty Lilly owned #24 Ford, driven by Sam McQuagg, provided one of the most iconic moments in NASCAR history, as McQuagg tangled with Cale Yarborough (27) while racing for the lead in the 1965 Southern 500.

By Mike Bell
Posted in Feature Stories 3/11/11

When I sat down to write about Mrs. Betty Lilly, I wondered if all those South Georgia racers realized what an influence she was on racing down there. She spent an enormous amount of money helping Sam McQuagg to become “Rookie-of-the-Year” in NASCAR’s Grand National Division, the premier division of racing as far as Southerners were concerned at that time.

She legitimized all of the efforts those Saturday night racers – of which Sam was one. He went from racing in the streets around Columbus, GA, his hometown, in 1956 to winning the “Firecracker 400” in Daytona Beach in 1966. You don’t do that in that length of time and not have a lot of talent.

But as all the people that have tried out for the popular TV show “American Idol” can tell you, it takes that chance to do your best for the big audiences that makes you a star. Sam and Jimmy Thomas had actually tried it on their own but, without an enormous amount of cash, they came to know it was all for nothing.

Enter Mrs. Lilly. From where did this benefactor come?

This is Betty Wisenbaker before she was married to Paul Lilly. She attended several schools after graduating high school and obtained an Associates‘ Business degree and work with an eye doctor before her marriage.

Miss Betty Marie Wisenbaker (the future Mrs. Lilly) came into this world on July 9, 1924 in the Valdosta suburb of Dasher, GA. She was the daughter of Charles Sheard Wisenbaker and Ethel King Wisenbaker.  She had one sibling – a brother named Charles Ray Wisenbaker. She attended the Dasher Bible School through the 12th grade and went to David Lipscomb College in Nashville, TN for one year, Georgia State Women’s College and finally the Georgia-Florida Commercial College in Valdosta. She worked for Dr. T. H. Smith, a local optometrist for four years before marrying Paul Rex Lilly, JR. on August 25, 1947. They lived in Daytona Beach where Mr. Lilly’s father and Mr. Lilly were in the real estate business, The Lilly Company.

The oldest of five children, Steve, was born in 1949, with Ann, Mary Clark and the twins, Cathy and Rex to follow. About the time she married Paul, Mrs. Lilly found out she had Rheumatoid Arthritis. She carried the twins after she became confined to a wheelchair. She said she felt better when she was pregnant.

Mrs. Lilly’s son Steve started going to the races at Valdosta ‘75’ Speedway in 1963 with his friends. He became a huge fan and asked his mother to go with them to the races. She finally agreed and became an instant fan. Her favorite driver was Sam McQuagg. One of Steve’s friends ran the Colson Printing Company in Valdosta, who did the programs for the speedway. Steve was a talented artist and drew some of the covers for the programs.

In an article by Charlotte sports writer Bob Myers, Mrs. Lilly was quoted as saying, “My boy led me into racing. He never missed a race at our Valdosta ‘75’ Speedway and he always came home bubbling over with excitement. So I decided to go to a race with him I watched one race and became as excited as he did. I kept going back because I liked the speed, the noise, the skill and the courage of those drivers. Right away, my favorite was Sam McQuagg. He drove so well, it seemed to me, and he seemed to be the perfect sportsman, win or lose. I started pulling for Sam and I started thinking that I’d like to give him a good car to race against big stars on big tracks.”

One night, when the races were rained out before they could get in the time trails, Betty and Steve drove to the Green Turtle Restaurant in Valdosta, which was a good restaurant in its day. While Mrs. Lilly and Steve were eating, Sam McQuagg and Jimmy Thomas came in to eat as well. Betty had a waitress tell Sam that she wanted to talk to him. Sam turned and looked and she waved.

Georgia Racing Hall of Fame member Sam McQuagg poses besinde the Lilly Enterprises Ford.

As Sam remembered for Birmingham News sports writer Clyde Bolton years later, “I looked over and there was a lady sitting in a wheelchair. I walked over and she introduced herself as Mrs. Betty Lilly. She told us how much she enjoyed the sportsman races and how sorry she was they were rained out. Then she asked me how much I would like to drive Grand National. I told her driving Grand National was the dream of every race driver. She told me to call her and we’d talk about it.”

Sam figured he would invest in a $2 phone call and find out what it was all about. Mrs. Lilly and her husband Paul discussed the expenses they would see in running a car on the Grand National circuit. Initially, Sam and Jimmy started out with about $25,000 but Sam figured that all together they spent about $50,000 that first year.

Jimmy Thomas and Sam went to Dearborn, Michigan, where they got a new 1965 Ford hardtop from the Ford Motor Company at a discounted price. The car was white and had a 352 CI V8. The car was taken back to Jimmy Thomas’ Shop in Columbus, where Jimmy built it race ready. They got an engine from Holman-Moody. The car was painted in Valdosta by Langdale Ford. It was painted yellow, which was Jimmy and Sam’s color. For the paint job, Langdale Ford was painted on the quarter panels, a cheap price for a lifetime of cheap advertising.

McQuagg in the Betty Lilly Ford at Daytona in 1965.

The car was lettered and numbered by Red Sikes in Valdosta, who lettered all the race cars around the area and painted signs all over town. He was very good. The ’65 Ford’s first races were the qualifier and the Daytona 500, where he finished 8th. They were off to a great start. Sam drove that car in 10 races that year. The money went fast and Bill France, Sr. would call later in the year and help pay the expenses to get them to the races.

Steve Lilly showed his enthusiasm for the races at Valdosta ‘75’ Speedway by drawing these covers for the tracks weekly program. Colson Printing of Valdosta was in charge of the programs and Steve was a friend of young Wally Colson, son of the owner of Colson Printing. You will note Steve’s artist signature in the lower right hand corner. The cover depicted an incident from the previous weeks racing in a lighthearted manner. We’ve never seen another small track do this.

One of the many stories Sam told was to the program at Valdosta ‘75’ Speedway. In their Track Gossip section, Sam related an incident from the race at Darlington, “I was coming into this curve a little too fast and a little too high. When I tried to get back in the racing groove, I lost control of the car and went spinning down off the apron. My car had come to a complete stop when all of a sudden here comes a green horn rookie aimed right at me. He hit me right in the front left fender. The impact bent the entire frame; just totaled the body. We were lucky in that the engine, which had only a few hours on it, wasn’t damaged. I got a cracked shoulder bone out of the deal. The way we were positioned when we went out of the race left us feeling that we could have finished in a real good front place. We had planned to make a late pit stop and this would allow us to possibly lead the race for a few laps. But you never know.”

Sam went on to win NASCAR’s “Rookie-of-the Year” title in 1965 with a best finish of third at Bristol and the chance to prove himself to all the factory teams. When Bobby Isaac left the Ray Nichels’ Chrysler team, Sam made another phone call and an airplane ride to Indiana. With Mrs. Lilly’s help, Sam was able to become a factory team driver for 1966, leading to that fateful day in Daytona.

This photo was taken after she was diagnosed with arthritis and in general confined to a wheelchair. Left to right are Steve Lilly, the twins Cathy Lilly (Brown) & Rex Lilly, Ann Lilly (Dawkins) and Mary Clark Lilly (Hamlin) all with their mother Betty Lilly standing without the chair. She carried then twins while confined to the wheelchair.

But Mrs. Lilly wasn’t through with her love of racing. She asked Sam to recommend a driver to replace him in the Ford. Sam told her about Bobby Allison of Hueytown, AL. Mrs. Lilly and Bobby struck a deal for him to drive the car in 1966. The car was then taken to Hueytown and Bobby rebuilt and reskinned the car to a 1966 body. It was painted red and white.

Bobby was an upstart in NASCAR Grand National then, but he was no stranger to NASCAR. Bobby was the 1965 and 1966 NASCAR National Modified champion as well as the 1962 and 1963 Modified Specials champion.

Mrs. Lilly was quoted in the local paper as saying, “We hated to see Sam leave us. But he said he got a deal from Nichels that he just couldn’t pass up. We definitely think he is headed places and we hope Bobby will do as well.”

Bobby was quoted in the same article saying, “I want a chance to run against the fastest and the best. I feel I can hold my own with the best NASCAR has to offer and I am sure the equipment I will get from Mrs. Lilly will be the best. I know all the tracks and I am ready.”

Bobby Allison smiles from behind the wheel of the Betty Lilly owned Ford at Rockingham in 1966.

Bobby ran 11 races in that car in 1966, but wanted to run more races and race on dirt. Mrs. Lilly only wanted to run the bigger races on pavement. Bobby left the team to race the J.D. Bracken’s #2 ’65 Chevelle. The Lilly Enterprises’ car was then taken to Columbia, SC to the shop of Lyle Stetler who maintained the car. Lyle also had a 1964 Ford #55 that Tiny Lund drove. Tiny drove the Lilly Enterprises car in three races. Other notable drivers for Mrs. Lilly’ race teams in 1966 included Ned Jarrett and Curtis Turner. Of these, only Tiny had a top ten finish at Daytona in that same Firecracker 400 that Sam won. Tiny finished eighth and won a grand total of $1375.

Steve Lilly stands next to his mother’s 427CI Ford Fairlane with Jack Harden in the driver’s seat. Jack was a virtual unknown in the Grand National ranks as he had only raced modifieds a few years in Alabama. He and Eddie Deihl formed a team out of Huntsville but when it was all over, Jack disappeared – literally.

For 1967, Mrs. Lilly chose little know modified driver Jack Harden of Huntsville, AL. The team upgraded to a new 1967 Ford Fairlane they purchased from Holman-Moody. Again they were running for NASCAR’s “Rookie-of-the-Year” title.

Jack ran the car out of his shop in Huntsville, AL. He quit his lucrative job at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville. Jack drove the car in nine races in 1967 with a best finish at Trenton, NJ in mid-July. For his 11th place finish, they received a grand total of $400. They had made better money at Charlotte in the World 600 where they placed 20th and won $1375.

Jack was quoted in Southern Motoracing in February of 1967 as saying, “I decided to go Grand National as a result of my trip to Atlanta for the 250-mile modified race at Atlanta International Raceway last fall. The fact that we were successful in setting up the car, and I was able to drive it pretty fast and hold my own with the Grand National drivers until the clutch started slipping.” Jack started in 38th position but moved up to 14th by the 10th lap showed him that he knew what he was doing. Asked why he quit a high-salaried government job to race, Jack could only say, “I don’t know, I guess I am trying to find out something about myself.” Jack was a graduate from North Carolina in Physics.

On a visit to Florida, the whole family with Grandmother “Mama Mae” Lilly, Steve with his cousin Susan Eye behind him, the twins Cathy & Rex, Ann and Mary Clark surround their mother in her wheelchair.

Jack has become somewhat of a mystery in that he sold his shop, divorced his wife and seems to have disappeared from the racing scene. Ed Deihl, his crew chief and chief mechanic with the Lilly racer, has not heard from him since he left town in late 1967. Eddie says the equipment was sold to someone in South Carolina, as that was where he delivered everything. Bobby Mausgrover drove the Lilly car in the last three races the team ran in 1967, and did not finish any of those races.

In April of 1967, Ford pulled their factory teams off the NASCAR and USAC circuits because race officials had made Ford’s new overhead cam engine eligible but with an added weight requirement. This helped the independent teams such as Lilly Enterprises.

Betty Lilly, during the years of her career as a NASCAR car owner.

Quoted in the local sports column of Martin Miller, Mrs. Lilly said, “Financially, it has helped us. With the factory Fords gone, the tracks are crying for independents to put against the other model cars. They’re willing to pay a lot more in appearance money. They offered enough appearance money to make it worthwhile.”

Mrs. Lilly got out of NASCAR Grand National racing because of the price of operating a race team without major sponsorship or factory support. Mrs. Lilly went to the NASCAR races and sit in her car behind the pits and watch her race car in action. Her son Steve said she had very few female friends in NASCAR, but most all the drivers would come by and talk to her in her car every weekend. Bill France, Sr. made it a point to come by and see and talk to her at each race. He always made sure she had everything she needed they became very good friends.

Steve told us that going to Valdosta ‘75’ Speedway and then being in NASCAR was a great time in her life. She died at the young age of 50 in 1975.

She was quoted saying, “Racing has added a lift to my life. I have met the nicest people and had so much fun, and well, the racing cars have given speed in my wheelchair.”

Mike Bell is the CEO and historian for the Georgia Auto Racing Hall of Fame Association, Inc. (GARHOFA).

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