St. Louis Post-Dispatch – June 24, 2001
By Joe Holleman
ELDON, Mo. – He won the National Wrestling Alliance world championship eight times and became a favorite at the Chase and Kiel after starting in the ring at age 15 because he’d punched his high school principal.
The man from Quitman, Mo., never quit — he spent five decades in his sport, traveling the world, and now operates a wrestling academy at Lake of the Ozarks.
He bragged, strutted, cheated and bruised his way to the top. He made millions by being the object of hatred and the target of verbal abuse. He was cocky and brutal, tough and cunning.
He was known around the world, with both his fans and his detractors clamoring for his autograph.
He even had his own action figure.
He’s “Handsome” Harley Race, an eight-time world champion of the National Wrestling Alliance. Aside from a few losses that spawned venomous and lucrative rematches, Race held the belt from 1973 to 1983. He was a fixture, the top draw, at Kiel Auditorium and KPLR-TV’s “Wrestling at the Chase.”
Before Hulk Hogan, before Stone Cold Steve Austin, before The Rock, Race was THE wrestler. He is the bridge between old-style and modern pro wrestling.
Before Race, sweaty grapplers played to a relatively small, but loyal and dedicated, group of fans. After Race, wrestling is a megabillion-dollar industry with huge television contracts, pay-per-view spectacles and a sleazy soap-opera sensibility.
Mickey Garagiola, the longtime ring announcer for “Wrestling at the Chase,” said Race was the biggest draw in the 1970s.
“Harley Race was the tops. He was a great wrestler and a great guy,” said Garagiola, who also is the brother of baseball and NBC’s Joe Garagiola. “And he wrestled inside the ring, not like all this Hollywood hullabaloo they have now. He was involved in some of the greatest matches I ever saw at the Chase.”
Race, 58, also is an engaging gentleman, a gripping storyteller and one heck of a nice guy.
He lives in Eldon, the northern gate to the Lake of the Ozarks, about 140 miles west of St. Louis. He and his wife, B.J., run a wrestling school — the Harley Race Wrestling Academy — out of a two-story brick storefront on Maple Street, the closest thing to a Main Street in this town of roughly 5,000.
Race is president of World League Wrestling, a minor-league circuit that supplies wrestlers to VFW halls and school auditoriums throughout the Midwest.
He’s a Mason, a Shriner and a regular at Donna’s Diner. With his polo shirt, khaki shorts, deck shoes and tanned skin, he looks like any of a thousand retired lake lovers, living life in three-quarter time.
And, most of all, he’s a happy man.
Harley Leland Race was born April 11, 1943, in Quitman, Mo., a town near Maryville in Missouri’s northwest corner. Race was one of six children, a substantial portion of the town’s 103 residents.
“Last time I was up there, I think the sign said there were 47 people still there,” Race said in a recent interview.
Race hit the road when he was 15, due in almost equal parts to his love for wrestling and his temper.
“I used to watch wrestling on television. The DuMont network had a pro wrestling show, one hour long, from the Marigold (club) in Chicago. I decided then I wanted to be a wrestler,” Race said, in a voice that hasn’t lost a speck of its growl.
Race might not have started his career at 15, by which time he was already 6 feet 2 and 225 pounds, if he hadn’t had scholastic problems — namely, punching out the principal of Quitman High.
One day in the school gym, Race and a classmate got into a fight. As they tangled, the principal yelled for them to stop. “I didn’t hear him, so he came over and kneed me in the back of the head,” Race said.
A woozy Race stood up and heard the principal reprimanding him.
The man had a sneer on his face, Race said, “so I got into a fight with the principal, and I punched him. That, basically, was the end of my high school career.”
Race already had wrestled in carnivals that traveled around the Quitman area. As the carny wrestler, he would antagonize locals and then challenge them to step into the ring.
“If you won, you got paid. If you lost, the local guy got paid,” Race recalled.
From that, he landed a plum job – at least for a pro wrestling devotee in the late 1950s. He became the driver for Happy Humphries, a legendary, 600-pound-plus wrestler.
“Happy was too damn big to drive, so I was his chauffeur for two years, starting when I was 16,” Race said. “My first year, I drove more than 150,000 miles, town to town, with Happy. I made extra money by wrestling in the opening match or refereeing a match.”
Race noted that wrestling was nowhere near the cable-extravaganza status it holds now.
“We drove all night to get to the next town. You’d stop, wrestle and then get back in the car.”
Despite the rigors, Race said he knew his choice was a dream come true.
“Here I was, a teen-ager, and I was meeting all these famous wrestlers — Lou Thesz, Pat O’Connor, Vern Gagne. I was having the time of my life.”
Race set out on his own career in 1961 in Nashville, Tenn. He was wrestling five, six, even seven nights a week in small auditoriums. And then, in moves aimed at improving his standing in the industry, Race began to move around. And, boy, did he move.
He was in Nashville until 1963, then Kansas City for a year. Down to Amarillo, Texas, for a year, then San Francisco for several months. “Damn, I hated the traffic in that town,” he said.
It was back to KC for a while, then off to Frisco for a year. He came back to Missouri for a bit, then set off for Minnesota, where he and Larry Hennig began to make waves as tag-team stars. The pair won the world tag-team title in 1969.
Soon after, Race was back in Amarillo for another year and then switched back to Kansas City in 1970.
Race also began visiting Japan.
“Pro wrestling started getting hugely popular over there in the early ’60s,” he said. “It’s that way all over the Pacific Rim, and it obviously comes out of their love for sumo.”
Ask Race what his favorite moment was during his career, and he has a ready answer.
“I’d be a liar if I said it was anything other than May 23, 1973. Kansas City, Mo. I defeated Dory Funk Jr. for the world title,” Race said.
Of course, to win the belt eight times from 1973 to ’83, he would have to lose the title seven times in the National Wrestling Alliance, headed by St. Louis’ Sam Muchnick. He last lost the belt to “Nature Boy” Ric Flair.
Race was in wrestling’s big time. In Japan, where beauty obviously lies in the beholder, he gained the nickname of “Handsome.” He traveled all over the world.
“I wrestled on every continent except Antarctica, and I wrestled in every country in North America, South America, Europe and Asia — except for Red China and the U.S.S.R.,” he said.
He flew first-class, stayed in the nicest hotels and was pursued for his autograph everywhere. It would be easy to dwell on the jet-set notion of being the champion, but Race’s best memories of that time revolve around education.
Race said he realized that he had a rare opportunity to educate himself and make up for his abbreviated career at Quitman High.
“I’d say that 99 percent of all wrestlers, when they travel, get up in their hotel, hang around there, go to the match, then go sit in some bar. But I decided to see things. I’ve toured the Vatican and the Catacombs. I met with Emperor Hirohito — not his son, the old man. I went to museums and took tours.
“I still remember being incredibly moved in France. Off the coast of Nice, there is a little island with a monastery, where the monks did these carvings. I just stared at these wood carvings and was knocked out to think that some monk — 800 years before me — sat in the same spot, looking out at the same sea and made this beautiful art.
“I still remember when I was in Egypt and saw the pyramids. For all of your intelligence, we still can’t figure out how they got a 20-ton piece of stone 300 feet in the air.
“That sort of stuff just intrigues the hell out of me.”
Race’s time at the top began to fade in the mid-1980s, when wrestling underwent a drastic change — one that some say is a bad one. Vince McMahon and the World Wrestling Federation introduced tons of sleaze to the business.
Now, wrestlers spend most of their time in the ring yelling obscenities at one another and lacing their diatribes with four-letter words.
“Championship matches used to be one-hour long, two out of three falls. Now, a half-hour match, if you’re lucky, is the longest match on the card,” Race said.
Race has worked in the promotional side of big-time wrestling. He said that he helped bring pro wrestling to Ted Turner’s station, WTBS in Atlanta, back in the mid-1970s.
“I basically ran (World Championship Wrestling) from 1972 to ’74,” Race said. He also managed Van Vader, the WCW champion in the mid-1990s. But he is no fan of McMahon’s style.
“I remember one night in Atlanta and Vince comes up to me and says I ought to sort of mince out effeminately. I looked at him and said, ‘I spent my whole life making Harley Race a man’s man, and you want me to ruin all in one night for a stupid stunt like that?'”
Race’s last match was in 1991, and he walked away clean from the profession in 1996. No more managing, no more promoting, no more wrestling.
“The fun was gone,” he said.
He wasn’t gone for long. Race was living in Kansas City and dating his wife, B.J., who was a bank vice president. She said she was hesitant about Race when she found out he was a pro wrestler.
“I’d never heard of him and had never watched wrestling. But he was persistent. On our first date, he brought me a dozen roses and a bottle of Dom Perignon. He said we’d drink the champagne if he was lucky enough to get a second date.
“He’s a romantic, basically. He was courteous and held every door. And he still does that now,” she said. The couple has been together for nine years.
Race was married once before, a union that ended bitterly. He has two children.
When B.J. retired from the banking business, they moved full time to Eldon (Race had kept a summer home there for years.) But instead of taking it easy, he opened up a gym and his wrestling academy.
“I probably could still be doing something with McMahon, but I just don’t want to,” he said. “Since I’ve been down here, I’ve led a normal life. And I got to do something I’ve always wanted to do — I became a Mason, and in December, I became a Shriner.”
These days, Race sets up matches in towns such as Fort Riley, Kan.; Buffalo, Mo., and Clarinda, Iowa. He teaches students at his wrestling academy how to work inside the ring. But he is by no means, or by choice, a workaholic.
He loves to play golf, a game that has become a little more challenging because of Race’s aches. He has had a hip replaced, five vertebrae fused together, eight abdominal surgeries and has a metal rod for a forearm.
“Some years ago, before all that crap, I was a 2 or 3 handicap. I still shoot in the mid-80s,” he said.
Race is looking at getting a cable contract for his World League Wrestling, signing up more wrestlers and spreading his influence in the Lake of the Ozarks area. But he is not driven.
“I don’t want to devote all of my time to this. I’ve enjoyed the big time, and I’ve had my fun in this business. But there are other things I like to do.
“I’ve been involved in wrestling, professionally, since I was 15 years old. I’ve been all around the world and made a lot of money. How many people can say that they’ve been able to do what they truly love for over 40 years?
“Do I consider myself lucky? Every day of my life.”