1942 – 2022
“Pert and Petite” is how the media described Judy Lilly back in the sixties when she had first begun drag racing. She was one of the first female drivers to make an impact on the then all-male drag racing world. As a 19-year-old from Littleton, Colorado, she started in the 1/4-mile straight-line sport with a stick-shift D/Sport 1961 Fuel Injected Corvette, and local success was instant.
Judy, then a hairdresser by trade, was married to Lou Lilly and was drawn to drag racing “because I love to compete, I love the feeling of speed and power,” she stated. And driving, expertly handling that 4-speed manual transmission, was her key to success from the very get-go.
“My husband was the first to drive our Corvette, and he would always ‘straight shift’ [lift the gas between shifts]. There was another racer at our local track who would ‘power shift’ the car and do it so good it sounded like an automatic,” she said. “I told him he should shift that way, and he told me if I thought I could do better, I should get in the car. So, of course, I did.”
It was in 1966 when Judy was approached to give up that Corvette and drive a Mopar® vehicle, and a very special Mopar vehicle at that, a 1967 Street HEMI® Belvedere I Sedan with 4-speed manual transmission.
“I was at the NHRA World Finals, then held in Amarillo, Texas, when I was asked about running a car from Chrysler.” Judy was deep into the mechanicals of her Corvette that day, covered in grease and working under it on the rear end, changing the ring and pinion to a different ratio. She had taken the car down there alone as her husband couldn’t get off of work. “I knew we had to change the rear end,” she remembered. “But I went anyway. I was out in the parking lot, I had grease all over me.” That was the moment when a gentleman came up to her, observed what she was doing, and said, “We can use someone like you on our team.”
It turned out it was Dale Reeker from Chrysler Racing. Soon after, he provided Judy and her then-husband Dennis Maurer with a brand-new 1967 Plymouth, made specifically for drag racing, no sound-deadner, no undercoating, no heater. Nothing that wasn’t needed for straight-line competition. A HEMI engine and A-833 4-speed gearbox, Dana 60 rear end, front disc brakes. That was Judy’s first Mopar vehicle!
Part of the deal was that she needed a dealer in her area to help sponsor her. After hearing no, no and no, there was finally a Denver Plymouth dealer named “Pappy Fry” that agreed to support Judy and her potent HEMI engine-powered sedan. She ran that car for the 1967 season, winning “Super Stock Eliminator” at the Denver High Altitude Nationals.
For 1968, when the factory had Hurst Performance assemble the now legendary A-Body HEMI engine-powered drag cars, Judy and her husband, who served as the engine builder and crew chief, were given one. She continued to win locally with the car, and in 1969, she traveled to Canada where she won the Super Stock Eliminator at the Canadian Nationals. During this time frame, the car was painted a shade of blue lacquer that faded into a very light blue, with a finish that almost looked like a fish. Boldly, her name appeared in a signature-style font on the doors. And being a factory driver, it always had “P-L-Y-M-O-U-T-H” lettering in large on the sides.
It was in 1971 when she made her first finals in NHRA Super Stock competition, going to the runner-up spot at that year’s Springnationals. The big splash came at the 1972 NHRA Winternationals, where her car, now painted with a huge lilly flower along the side, was the winner in Super Stock. Judy had officially hit the big time!
In 1973, she was runner-up at the Winternationals, and went on to win at the NHRA Springnationals in Columbus, Ohio. In 1975, now in a Duster, she won the Gatornationals and the Fallnationals, and was runner-up at Indy. Also that year, she won the independent race, the Popular Hot Rodding Magazine Championships. She was so popular that she was voted by the readers of Car Craft Magazine to be “Driver of the Year” for the Super Stock category for 1972, 1976 and 1977.
She was always a popular and favorite subject for the writers in the sports pages of national newspapers when the NHRA events were taking place in their area. An example came at the 1975 running of the Fallnationals, in Seattle, Washington. She was photographed in the Seattle Times standing with her Duster Super Stocker, with this headline: “Judy Lilly is pre-destined to be good at something. She’s good at drag racing.” The article quotes Judy with the following: “I like the thrill of competing. There is a satisfaction within myself when I know I’ve run a race without a flaw. I like to feel within myself that I did as perfectly as I possibly could.”
And at that time frame in her career, 1975, she won three of five races in the West Central Division (Wyoming, Kansas, Colorado, North Dakota, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri and Manitoba, Canada) to take a division championship for her third time.
Her last Super Stocker was a Plymouth Volaré equipped with a 360-cid small block and automatic transmission. It was a far cry from the previous HEMI engine-powered cars that she had run; however, at that time, the focus from the factory was to race what was on the showroom floor.
Judy did hang up her helmet in the end of the 1978 racing season, she had obviously accomplished a lot and it was time to spend more time at home and with family.
Fast forward to the staging lanes of the 1984 NHRA Winternationals in Pomona, California, there was a surprising sight: Judy Lilly sitting in a Dodge Omni Charger Pro Stocker! While her 8.01 run didn’t qualify, she was had no trouble adapting to the Lenco racing transmission and eventually running in the high 7-second range.
But they needed a sponsor to make it a first-class operation, and because that didn’t happen, she chose to get out of drag racing, this time for good. She made this comment about her time in a Pro Stocker, that it was quite the ride: “Coming off the line is like being shot out of a cannon and trying to hang onto the cannonball with my fingertips. It’s a fantastic feeling!”
To anyone who ever saw Judy run her cars, and I was fortunate to see her at Divisional and National Events competing, the lady always ran very strong, did impressive burnouts, left hard and straight and true down the quarter-mile. She knew how to cut a great light and handle a racecar. And how to win in Super Stock competition.
After her drag racing career, she got into running barrel horses in the late 1980s and participating at local rodeos. “You can say that I traded one kind of horsepower for another,” she said in a 1994 interview. And in that same interview, she did say that her permanent retirement from racing was difficult. She had tried bowling, camping and other things, “but I got bored a lot. It was hard to adjust.”
Because of her Colorado location, she did regularly visit the NHRA Mopar Parts Mile-High Nationals, as well as attend the Mopar Block Parties in Golden. “When I joined Chrysler and the Mopar Direct Connection teams, I was truly part of a family,” she had said when John Bandimere, Jr., presented her an engraved medallion when she was entered into the Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2005.
During her last time running a car on the Bandimere drag strip, inside the “Mopar Liquid Metal” Dodge Drag Pak car in 2008, the car was done up in her familiar white and blue colors, with her name painted on the sides. It truly was an impressive performance in a car she had never even driven before. Behind the wheel, doing a massive, powerful burnout and then staging, leaving on “Big Daddy” Don Garlits in a major fashion on the fun exhibition display run for the new HEMI drag package cars.
“It was a high point for me,” she said afterwards. “It was nice to know they hadn’t forgotten me.”
It was Top Fuel racer Krista Baldwin who was able to spend some time talking with Judy Lilly at the NHRA Mile-Highs in 2021, in reference to the Hemmings Auction of her former 1967 Belvedere drag car, plus asking her all about her career. Marriage, family, children Nancy and Philip, driving, it all was covered! Included in Krista’s Q & A session was this:
(KB): “Looking back at your career, what is the one thing that you are most proud of?”
(JL): “To find something that I was good at. And I was able to capitalize on the fact that I did something with it. So many different people, overly intelligent and overly talented individuals, do nothing with it. And I thought that the Dear Lord gave me some talent and I was able to do something with it.”
Services took place for Judy Lilly-Gunson in Brighton, Colorado, on the morning of September 9, 2022. She passed away August 9 at the age of 80 after a remarkable life.
Author: James Maxwell