A year later Karras gave Race a shot wrestling on his Midwest circuit based out of St. Joseph. By the time he was eighteen, Race was earning a living as a professional wrestler and working his way up the ranks. He'd also married a girl named Vivian from his hometown. The two were expecting a child when they got into a car to visit Race's parents on Christmas night 1961.

Seventeen inches of snow fell that day. Their car collided with a tractor trailer along the highway. Vivian died instantly.

Race's doctor said he would never wrestle again. The accident shattered one of his forearms and damaged his right leg so badly that doctors contemplated amputation.

One of the biggest stars of his generation, Harley Race often wrestled up to 350 matches a year, defending his NWA World Heavyweight Championship against the top names of each territory.
One of the biggest stars of his generation, Harley Race often wrestled up to 350 matches a year, defending his NWA World Heavyweight Championship against the top names of each territory.
Harley Race in his office with a Harley Race action figure.
Jennifer Silverberg
Harley Race in his office with a Harley Race action figure.

Nearly two years after the accident, he returned to the ring.

"The wrestling helped me cope with it," Race says of the tragedy. "That's one of the amazing things about being out in front of live audiences. They give you a reason for wanting to go on, for wanting to succeed. Had I not been able to go back to what I was doing, God only knows what would have happened."

Soon after his recovery, Race joined the American Wrestling Association, Verne Gagne's renowned Minnesota circuit, and in 1965 he won the AWA World Tag Team Championship. It was his first belt. He was 22.

Race won the National Wrestling Alliance World Heavyweight Championship for the first time in 1973, by defeating Dory Funk Jr. with a ring-rattling suplex. As champion, Race traveled across the country to defend his crown against the top names of dozens of wrestling circuits, wowing packed crowds with his innovative moves — such as his hanging vertical suplex or his flying headbutt from the top turnbuckle. He was a 6-foot-1-inch, 245-pound slab of equal parts muscle and flab who knew how to work a crowd into a frenzy with his barroom-badass ring demeanor.

"He read the crowd well," says Larry Matysik, a long-time wrestling play-by-play announcer and author of three wrestling books. "He understood the audience. He understood what he did and how it related to the crowd. Harley Race was not afraid of real heat."

Race became the highest-paid wrestler of his day, earning $350,000 a year through the late '70s and early '80s. He'd fight six or seven times most weeks, in six or seven different cities, sometimes twice in a single day. He was a main-event draw with a tenacious work ethic. If you wrestled Harley Race, Ric Flair once said, you wrestled him for an hour.

"I was as good or better than anyone that ever stepped in there," says Race with a satisfied grin.

His archive of celebrated matches would fill a car trunk with VHS tapes. There were the highly anticipated title showdowns against Bob Backlund and Dusty Rhodes. There was the time Race was annihilating Jack Brisco for most of a match, before Brisco suddenly kneed Race in the chest as he flew off the top rope, then slammed him to the mat for the pin. And there were the 30 or so times Race and Terry Funk beat each other with chains and leather straps.

"What really made him a great wrestler was that Harley Race never considered himself anything other than the very, very, very best," says Funk, who has wrestled Race more times than he can remember. "And it wasn't just wrestling. He considered himself the world's greatest card player, the world's greatest driver, the world's greatest drinker, the world's greatest shooter, whatever. And the world's greatest wrestler. And I'll be damned if he wasn't all of those things."

One of Race's most memorable matches was his bloody battle with Ric Flair in a steel cage in 1983 in Greensboro, North Carolina. Race was the venerable champion, and Flair a rising star. In a television promo a few weeks before the bout, Race put out a hit on Flair: "Flair, you have pushed me as far you're going to push!" said Race, standing next to a silver briefcase brimming with cash. "Right here is $25,000. And it goes to any human being that can eliminate Ric Flair from wrestling!"

That night in Greensboro, when Race walked past the curtain, onto the ramp leading to the cage, there was no entrance music, no pyrotechnics, only an unremitting outbreak of boos. Cloaked in a red-and-white polyester robe with "Race" stitched in sequin cursive on the back, he stood at the top of the ramp flanked by policemen and breathed in the swelling jeers. He puffed out his chest, put his hands on his hips then defiantly turned his head left and right to scan the sold-out arena, holding the pose for half a minute before leisurely sauntering to the ring.

"I always enjoyed being able to make that crowd do what I wanted them to do," he says. "And you can do that a hell of a lot easier by making them dislike you than by making them like you."

That night was the beginning of the end for both Race's career and the NWA. Soon Vince McMahon would buy out most of the major circuits, including the one Race owned in Kansas City, called Heart of America Wrestling, and turn his World Wrestling Federation (later changed to World Wrestling Entertainment) into a national brand.

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