As veteran driver Terry Lillo came into the pit area at Gondik Law Speedway in Superior during the season opener on May 31, his 11-year-old grandson, Eric, had a surprise for him after Lillo won his first Late Model feature at the track.
“It was supposed to be like a Gatorade dump, a celebration,” said Terry’s son, Aaron Lillo. “So dad pulls up, takes his helmet off and my kid takes a water bottle and poosh! Right in his face. And I was like, ‘Nooo, no, not like that.’ ”
Everyone broke out laughing. Well, almost everyone.
“Not my dad,” Aaron Lillo said, laughing. “He was kind of surprised by it. I’m guessing it was a little cold.”
It was certainly a night to remember. Terry Lillo, 58, is part of a well-known family of racers. He has been racing 38 years, including 20 years in Late Models, and has won in Proctor and Hibbing, but the Duluth driver had never won a Late Model feature in Superior until that day.
Lillo was asked if he thought that elusive first win was ever going to happen.
“It wasn’t looking like it,” he said. “I was right up there a number of times, but could never get it. This class is just so competitive.
“It didn’t dawn on me that I won until I was going down the back straightaway. I just thanked the Lord. My car hadn’t been working really good before that.”
Lillo started on the outside of the front row, with Kevin Carlson on the pole. Carlson seized control at the start, but about halfway through the 20-lap race, Carlson checked up in a corner, allowing Lillo to duck inside and take the lead. Lillo then held off a late charge by local stalwart Darrell Nelson to take the checkered flag.
“I always say if you can beat the No. 44 car, you’ve got a great night going,” Lillo said of Nelson. “He could make a dump truck go fast.”
While almost every car goes by numbers, Terry Lillo has his signature UPI car, after longtime sponsor United Piping Inc. of Duluth.
“If it wasn’t for UPI, I don’t know what I’d be doing,” Lillo said. “Maybe racing a Midwest Mod — maybe. I love this class (Late Models). It’s the fastest, and it allows for the most adjustments on the car. They’re fun to play with.”
Lately Lillo has been making the right adjustments. He is first in the season points standings in Superior, second in Proctor, third in Hibbing and fourth in Grand Rapids.
Lillo, whose father and uncle raced, grew up racing in a horse pasture near Homecroft. He isn’t part of a big-money team. He said drivers can put up to $80,000 into a new Late Model, but he’s only got about $35,000 invested in his, a 2016 model he upgraded to a 2019.
Lillo’s brother, Tim, and sons Aaron and Chris are the same way, with lower-dollar Late Models, and his 13-year-old grandson Lucas is already racing a Hornet after finding a car for under $1,000.
“That’s probably what I’d be racing if not for sponsors,” Terry Lillo said, laughing.
The Lillos are in it for the right reasons. Tim races when it’s convenient because he does shift work, while Aaron’s car has had engine issues, so he’s itching to get back out there, joking that he’s tired of spending his summer “mowing the lawn.” They all help each other with parts and in the pits.
“When you get too much money involved, it takes away from it and adds pressure,” Aaron Lillo said. “You see some people get so high up (financially) they can’t have fun with it anymore.”
Terry Lillo agreed.
“Then once somebody finds something, then everybody wants it,” he said.
Lillo was always known as a smooth racer and is consistent, but consistent and winning features are two different things. He has been consistent enough to win two Late Model points titles in Hibbing.
Lillo invested about $10,000 into his car over the offseason, and the results appear to be paying off. Superior features a bigger track, and perhaps that is part of the reason he never won there.
“The straightaways are a lot longer, so it helps having more power,” Lillo said.
Lillo is a heavy equipment operator. Robin, his wife of 37 years, wasn’t a racing fan initially but jumped on board when everyone became involved.
“Out here, it’s family,” Aaron Lillo said on Saturday from the pits at Gondik Law Speedway.
Terry Lillo is laidback and well regarded. He isn’t one to talk a lot and doesn’t remember exactly what he said following his big win other than he was excited. He’s got plenty of family to do the talking for him.
“Anytime you can win in this class, it’s just incredible. He was always knocking, and finally got it,” Tim Lillo said. “There’s so much money tied up in this, but Terry, he’s just an average guy. We’re just out here having fun.”
And with the Lillos, a win for one is a win for all.
“That was a cool night,” Aaron Lillo said. “Superior has never been his track, so to see him get one finally, it was awesome. That was as exciting as it gets.”