By GREG KEIM
THE GOSHEN NEWS
Calling Harley Yoder a veteran harness racing driver at the Elkhart County 4-H Fair would be an understatement when considering all he has done for the sport.
Referring to him as “The Father of Elkhart County 4-H Fair Harness Racing” might be more appropriate.
Yoder has been there since the return of harness racing to the fair back in 1976. He won the first race, driving Proud Dancer to a track record that stood for several years.
Yoder is being recognized for his efforts by being named the fair’s 2013 Citizen of the Year.
“It was a surprise when they told me,” Yoder said about the award. “Thinking back it’s been a long time that I have been involved with the fair and harness racing so it might be time for something like this to come along.
“The only thing they have told me so far is about being in the parade. I went out and got a carriage from an Amish man I know. My wife (Ann) and I are going to sit in the back while my son (Dewayne) and his wife (Brenda) drive.”
Fair harness racing director Tim Graber is serving as the fair president this year. He selected Yoder for the honor.
“When I was approached about my choice for the honor no one came to mind right away,” Graber said. “Then Ronda Chupp, who works with the award, asked if there wasn’t someone from harness racing. Right away Harley’s name came to mind. It was an easy choice when considering what he has done for harness racing.”
Yoder, 79, grew up Amish and became licensed to train and drive horses in 1958 at age 25. He took to the sport quickly, winning the Indiana Driver of the Year award for the first time during his initial season.
“I consider Harley a part of my family,” said Brooke Harvell who works with Graber running the fair’s harness racing program. “I cannot think of a more deserving person for the award.”
Harness racing in Elkhart County dates back to the 1890s. The sport’s return to the 4-H fair began in January of 1976, with the founding of the Elkhart County Trotting and Pacing Horse Association. Its purpose was to promote Standardbred Harness Racing in Elkhart County and to assist the Elkhart County 4-H Fair Board in every possible way with the harness racing program at the fair.
Yoder was a member of the original steering committee along with Joe C. Blocker, Gordon Rowell, Bill Mowry, Mel Cross, Lloyd Shank, Joe Prough and L. Orville Miller. The Association Attorney was Robert Hepler.
“I had no idea when we started how popular the sport would become,” Yoder said.
Yoder won the first race at the fair in the summer of 1976 when he guided Proud Dancer to a win in 2:07 1/5, setting a track record that stood for several years.
Yoder’s relationship goes back a long way with Graber.
“Tim’s dad and I used to race against each other, but I also drove some horses for him and we traveled together a lot,” Yoder said.
Graber recalled, “Harley has meant a lot to me. He and my dad started racing the same year. A man by the name of Lloyd Shank had a training track in Goshen and the both started there. My dad had a pretty good horse and Harley raced him for my dad.
“I traveled with them a lot. Some of my earliest memories are of running to get Harley french fries between races. I grew up around Harley and he had as much influence on my life as anyone other than my dad.”
Over the years, Yoder has suffered his share of injuries including broken bones, cracked ribs, concussions and separated shoulders. He was even struck by lightning while warming up for a race at Jackson Raceway (Jackson, Mich.).
Yoder served for more than eight years as a mentor to children in the only Harness Horse 4-H Club in the state.
One of the many highlights in his career concerns his first wife Barb. In 1997, he told his wife to pick out a yearling at the Topeka Speed Sale. She selected a trotting filly named Hoosier Millie. Unfortunately, Barb died in the summer of 2000. One year later the Barbara Yoder Memorial Trot was held, with Hoosier Millie — driven by Yoder — winning in her honor.