An article by Mike Mooneyham
Published June 6, 1999
Owen Hart’s recent death in Kansas City, Mo., marked the first fatal accident in a U.S. wrestling ring since 1969 when Iron Mike DiBiase died of a heart attack during a match in Lubbock, Texas. Harley Race witnessed firsthand both gut-wrenching events.
Hart died after falling from a 90-foot-high catwalk preparing for an aerial descent into the ring.
“It doesn’t seem like a good omen for me to be around,” Race said from his home in Kansas City.
The former eight-time NWA world champion said he joked with Hart before the match and told him to make sure his rope didn’t break. He said Hart laughed at his comment before leaving for the catwalk. Race was one of the last people to see Hart alive.
“Owen was always joking,” said Race, who first met the youngest of a family of eight boys and four girls when Owen was only 4 years old. “I had no earthly idea something like this was going to happen.”
[ad#MikeMooneyham-336×280]Race, 56, said he thought Hart may have been apprehensive about the stunt.
“I had never been around him when he did it (the stunt) before,” said Race. “But his brother told me later that he had been telling him for a long time that he didn’t want to do that. I heard that he had told the promotion, too, but I don’t know whether that’s true.”
Race, who was in the back in the shoot area at the time of the tragedy, said he knew something was wrong when he saw someone from ringside come running out and screaming that they needed the paramedics.
“I knew it wasn’t an angle, that some thing horrible had happened. At that point and time, I had no idea it was Owen, because I didn’t know he was going on that quickly when I was talking to him.” Race said it was only five or 10 minutes after he had talked to him that Hart fell.
Race discounted the theory that Hart may have accidentally hit the release mechanism to trigger the fall.
“If a person’s afraid of that, he’s not going to touch it, that’s for sure,” said Race. “Owen was wearing a jump suit over his wrestling gear so nobody would recognize him until he got to the ring. I think what happened, and this is only my opinion, is that when they hooked the harness to the cable, a piece of that other material got hooked in the latch.”
Race said he didn’t know if Hart wore the jump suit when he rehearsed the stunt earlier.
“I’d just be surmising, but I wouldn’t have thought that he would, although I think if I’d have been doing it, I would have had on everything I was going to have on when I actually did it.”
Race said he followed the ambulance to the hospital. When he arrived, the doctor asked him how to get in touch with Hart’s family.
“When Owen left the building there, they were still working on him,” said Race. “I left at about the same time the ambulance did, and by the time I got to the hospital, they had given up on him.”
Race also vividly remembers the night Mike DiBiase, the stepfather of “Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase, died.
Race, who was booking the West Texas circuit for Dory Funk Sr. at the time, said DiBiase had complained earlier that evening about being tired because he had spent most of the day moving.
“I told him that we would work something out if he didn’t feel like going out,” said Race. “He said that he was fine and went out anyway.”
Race, who was watching from the back, said the match was about 10 minutes old when DiBiase grabbed his chest and fell in to the ropes, hitting the second rope and falling outside to the arena floor. “The way he went out, I knew something was wrong.”
“He died in my arms,” said Race. “I tried to resuscitation him with mouth-to-mouth and by pumping his heart. We had a pulse going on him when he left, but he apparently died en route to the hospital.”
That death also hit Race hard.
“When something like that happens and you’re there personally involved, it really hurts, especially when it involves someone that you care for. It was a similar thing with Owen.”
Race said that he’s spoken with the Hart family several times since the accident.
“Owen’s mother (Helen) is taking it worse than Stu, or at least worse than Stu acts like he is. Stu has been a hard-nosed old guy all of his life.”
Race, who usually holds a cookout at his home for the wrestlers when they come in to town, didn’t stage one that particular weekend because of a personal tragedy in volving his wife’s two sisters two weeks before the WWF show.
“They were stopped dead-still at a high way on Highway 169 north of the city, and got rear-ended at 60 miles an hour. One had laid in a coma for a week before passing away. Owen died the following Sunday. It was three weeks in a row that we were involved with all of this stuff.”
Race said his wife’s other sister suffered four ribs broken off of her breast bone on each side and suffered major facial injuries.
“The last time they (the wrestlers) were in town, Owen and the boys were over at my house to eat, but this time around, with all the other stuff going on, I just didn’t feel up to it.”
Race, who started wrestling professionally at the age of 15 and was active for more than 30 years before taking a managerial role in WCW, currently is involved in an independent wrestling promotion in Missouri.
“I had more sense than to do some of the things these guys are doing today. But I’m paying the price for what I’ve done.”
Several years ago Race was injured in a car wreck that required hip surgery.
“The hospital dropped me and I had to have another operation. This time I ended up with an artificial hip.”
Two wrestling-related fatalities occurred during the mid-’70s and involved matches with the notorious Ox Baker. Alberto Torres died of complications from a ruptured pancreas that he suffered several days earlier during a match in Omaha, Neb., that pitted Torres and Cowboy Bob Ellis against Baker and The Masked Claw (Tom Andrews). Georgia-based star Ray Gunkel collapsed of a heart attack in a Savannah locker room following a match, also with Baker, who was noted as the “master of the heart punch.”