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Joe Reilly remembered as Lancaster opens stock car season

Last September plenty of tears of emotional happiness filled the Thompson Racing team pit area just after the conclusion of the final night of the Lancaster National Speedway and Dragway stock-car season when veteran driver Mark Pennell and his team clinched Sportsman division point championship. It was truly a special moment for all involved.

Among those celebrating was Thompson Racing team crew chief Joe Reilly.

When the Thompson team arrived at Lancaster last Saturday for the 2016 stock-car ppener, the team was shedding tears of sadness.

Reilly, 47, of Cheektowaga died suddenly on April 24 of complications from back surgery. His death has cast a dark cloud over the Thompson Racing team as well as the entire local racing community which served as his very large extended family.

Reilly was a husband, father and friend to many and was very well liked and respected. He was a very successful racing crew chief.

With heavy hearts, the Thompson team arrived at Lancaster deciding to race, determined to carry on in Reilly’s memory. The team has always operated as a close family and as a great supporter of local racing. Long lines of mourners came to Reilly’s wake and funeral this week, testimony to how well he was thought of by the many who knew him.

Reilly was married to Tracy Thompson Reilly and leaves behind two daughters, Mariah and Samantha. Thompson Racing owner Jim Thompson is Reilly’s father-in-law. The Thompson team also features Reilly’s sister-in-law Jayme Thompson, who also drives in the Sportsman class. Reilly’s other sister-in-law Jnan Knab is in the grandstand weekly supporting the team. Pennell’s son Chris Pennell drives the team’s 4-Cylinder entry.

It was an emotional moments on Saturday during the pace laps prior the 35-lap Sportsman feature. With Tracy and family looking on from the main grandstand, in ceremonial fashion, Mark Pennell and Jayme Thomson lined up side-by-side at the head of the field as its circled the oval. Then Samantha Reilly waved ceremonial checkered flags from the front stretch as the field passed by.

On the next lap, as Pennell and Jayme settled back into their actual assigned starting spots, the pole position was left open for another lap in Joe Reilly’s memory. Once the race began Jake Lyon went on to win with Mark Pennell fifth and Jayme seventh.

“It was pretty emotional seeing my niece Samantha up there and waving the double checkers for her dad,” said Jayme. “It’s been an emotional day all around. So I think that was probably more of a smile moment for me and for Joe. Both Mark and I finished in the top ten today. Joe would be smiling today.”

Mark Pennell offered his thoughts on the emotional day as well.

“This is very difficult,” said Mark. “There are times that I don’t even want to be in the car but I know what Joe would want. I kept forcing myself to do what Joe would want. That would be to get in the car, don’t be a baby and run it and run it as hard as we can. We are all a big family. The Thompson family and the Reilly family are close and they all have great big hearts. I love them all to death. I will miss my buddy Joe and I thought about him every lap today. I’m proud of what we’ve done and I’m glad we did it together.”

Tracy Thompson Reilly not only is present each week in the grandstand cheering for the Thompson team but is also very busy on stock car race nights at Lancaster assisting the Friends of Auto Racing (FOAR Score) Fan Club raise money that goes directly into the Lancaster stock car drivers annual point fund.

At this past December’s FOAR Score annual awards party, the dedication that the Thompson family has extended to the sport of local stock car racing was duly recognized. Tracy received the club’s Woman In Racing Award, not only for her efforts on behalf of the FOAR Score club but for the enthusiastic cheering that she is well noted for every time a Thompson Racing team car flashes by the Lancaster grandstand.

At the same awards party, Jim Thompson received the highest honor that the club awards annually when he was presented with the 2015 Dick Hammond Dedication to Racing Award.

“When Joe was in the hospital, he told me that I better not come visit him in the hospital because it was getting close to opening day at Lancaster and he needed me working on the race car,” said Jim Thompson. “That’s how much he loved racing and our team. I’m at a loss without Joe. I don’t know what to do or say now. I guess we’re here at Lancaster but it’s going to be so hard.”

The Thompson team along with the local racing community is understandably having a difficult time dealing with Joe’s loss. He went out at the top of his game as the reigning Lancaster Sportsman class championship crew chief.

On another note, veteran retired driver Ron Williams was also on the minds of many in the racing community last week as he continued his recovery from a stroke.

Williams won many races and championships over many years in his familiar “Evil 1” cars.

Ford Hughes, 85,a long time Lancaster drag racing supporter and former team owner died Saturday after a brief illness. He is the father of Lancaster drag racing chief starter, Glenn Hughes; staging lane director Holly Hughes Welsh and driver Phil Hughes. Ford is also the father-in-law of Lancaster drag racing program director Sharon Hughes. Arrangements are pending.