Racingkc.com is extremely happy to announce the induction of Jim “Hoss” Harkness to the Hall of Fame. Jim worked at Riverside Stadium starting in 1968, first as the announcer and the last eight years of the track he was the promoter. The track closed after the 1988 race season. Before we get to the Riverside Stadium days let’s start with where it all began.
Jim and his family lived on the east side of Kansas City. Like many from this era, the east side of Kansas City meant hearing the roar of the racing engines from Olympic Stadium on Sunday night. Hearing the sound Jim wanted to go but his father could not go on a Sunday night. However, their next-door neighbor was none other than Tom Randol who owned the Randol “Offy” campaigned by various racers including Jud Larson. Tom offered to take Jim with him when Jim was 12 or 13 years old and Jim’s father agreed, from there shall we say the rest is history. Tom Randol became like an uncle and was known to Jim as Uncle Tom.
Like all young boys at that time, Jim loved to get behind the wheel and saw it back and forth, pretending to be the driver on race day. Bill Chennault was driving for Uncle Tom at the time and went to lift Jim, the pretend racer, out of the car when Uncle Tom told Bill he could have the seat when Jim was done with it.
Jim went to work for Jerry Weld and it was Jerry who named him “Hoss”. It seems one day Jerry was removing a transmission from the car and had unbolted everything, he told Jim he would be back he was going to get a transmission jack to lower the powerglide transmission. While he was gone, Jim went up pulled the transmission out and set it on the floor. Upon Jerry’s return, he asked Jim what happened “did it fall out”? Jim replied he had pulled it out and sat it on the floor. Jerry’s response was simply to call Jim “Hoss” a name which stuck with him for life. Because of his work for Jerry Weld, “Hoss” became known to many in the racing world including Dick Sutcliffe, all the Welds, and of course at Riverside Stadium to all the fans.
Hoss was the track announcer at Riverside Stadium starting in 1968. Mr. Young who owned Riverside Stadium had a falling out with the previous track announcer. He was looking for a new announcer when Bob Lewellen, a future Kansas City Councilman, told Mr. Young to give Hoss a try. Hoss took to the announcing and public relations job.
Johnny Luteran, suggested Hoss add the leather jacket and 10-gallon hat, that way those in the pits who had interesting information for public relations would know who to go to with the information. Of course, at the time there was a famous Hoss on television, Hoss Cartwright, of the television show Bonanza. Not wanting to step on Hoss Cartwright toes played by Dan Blocker, Hoss Harkness wrote Blocker a letter requesting permission to use his likeness. Not only did Blocker approve the request, he sent a picture of himself as Hoss Cartwright and wrote a note which stated, “Look like me, go ahead, feel sorry for you though”.
Harkness got to work with some great people, Charlie and Virginia Nelson (C.A.R.B. Founder) and Johnny and Carol Luteran. Hoss recounted a story of a time a driver said something unobliging to Carol and Johnny went through the pay window after the driver. A time when chilvary counted!
When Jim was asked about Mr. Young he stated he was a tall man, took 3 years to get to know him, seemed he only showed when there was trouble, and he was a race fan first. Mr. Young intimidated many a person and that included Hoss, initially. Speaking of being a fan first, Hoss was a fan first, announcer second, and he tried to share his enthusiasm as a race fan to everyone hoping they would grab the same love for the sport that he shared. Many of us who had the pleasure to hear Hoss call a race will attest, mission accomplished.
These last few years Jim has suffered from a stroke, but it is a blessing he still has his memories. Some of those memories came out as we talked. One memory involved the time the midgets were racing at Riverside and John Backlund jumped the wheel of another driver and the car stuck in the catch fence with Backlund still in it. Frank Baker, tow truck driver, went and retrieved a ladder to get Backlund out of the car. Another memory included having too much Schnapps and waking up at Leonard Hunt’s home, thanks for the ride Leonard!
There was also the infamous stop off at Zig Zag Lounge (Pit Stop Bar) where Jim’s brother Bob was the bartender. Jim turned to Ralph Parkinson Jr. and asked are you ready, and Junior said sure. Jim hollered out “Bobo” bring us another round of which the bartender complied. When it was Parkinson’s turn he hollered out “Bobo” bring us another round and “Bobo” brought the round but grabbed Parkinson by the shirt collared and said quit calling him “Bobo”. Parkinson asked Hoss what he had done wrong and Hoss advised his name was Bob but he had been calling him “Bobo” for 30 plus years. Hoss brother and Jerry Weld shared the same birthday and through his brother’s connection Jim went to work for Weld.
Another story included the time Hoss attended the races in Topeka and it was a dusty dry slick track with a yellow every two laps. With the night progressing long he told his ride he was going back to the truck and take a nap. At that time trucks had the camper shells on the back, so he climbed in and covered up with some tarps. Three hours later he wakes up and he looks into the cab and does not recognize the driver. The driver does not recognize Hoss and calls the highway patrol via the CB. Soon, the police are there and Hoss climbs out recounts the story and discovers he was in the wrong truck. Fortunately, the officer gave him a ride back to the east toll booth. Moral to this story go the races and watch the races!
Hoss states he was fortunate to work for Mr. Young, Johnny Luteran, and Larry Kaster as promoters. Larry taught him how to be a family man, a fun-loving man, and clean living man. He worked for Kaster at the rural Topeka track as they called it. One of his fondest memories is Dixie Kaster would hand out a ticket for the workers to go get a chili dog. As he stated he could almost taste it just recounting the story. In 1980, Hoss took over promoting Riverside Stadium.
As a promoter, he remembers the time two street stocks took out a light pole, breaking it. He figured it would take $500 to repair the pole but after the races George Grigsby came and ask, “do you need a pole”? Hoss said, “Do you have one for sale”? Grigsby said, “Not for sale but one you can have” and the next day brought it to replace the broken pole. Hoss asked what do I owe and Grigsby said buy lunch and we will call it even. Another time he broke a knuckle on the grader and Gene Kessler came and welded it better than new. Came time to pay and Gene, know to several as Indian, said just glad to get it ready for Saturday.
1988 was the last year for Riverside Stadium. The insurance company had come to Hoss and needed several things fixed, a wooden wall along the back straight replaced with cement, something under the bleachers to ensure children did not fall through, another fence built, and several other items. Hoss went to Mr. Young and asked for a five-year lease to ensure if he made these improvements he could recoup his investment. Mr. Young stated the track had been on a one year at a time lease since 1955. Hoss sold the water truck to CMS. Mr. Young saw the water truck leaving and called Hoss. Hoss stated the water truck was sold. Mr. Young wanted to know what he was going to use the next year and Hoss stated he was done because he needed a five-year lease. A couple of weeks later Andy Claiborne was looking to run the track and Hoss was showing them how to turn on the lights and equipment. Claiborne asked how long it took to get the track open and Hoss suggested he better check with the insurance company. A week later Claiborne pulled out of promoting the track.
Hoss stated he is trying to outlive everyone, that way the stories he tells today can become the lies of tomorrow. There will not be anyone to correct him. He had the best dadgum time of his life those years at Olympic and Riverside Stadiums. Congratulations Jim Harkness!