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Home  >>  Articles  >>  Interviews

Oscar Koveleski Interview Part II

Published: August 4, 2003

About two months ago I was graced with the honor of conversing with Oscar Koveleski, founder of Auto World. Auto World was easily the largest and most famous mail order business for automotive related hobbies such as model kits, radio control, and of course, slot cars. Every year they sent out catalogs that to many a young American boy became their bible that year as they memorized verse for verse each product, how much it cost, and how much they would have to save to fill out that all-important order blank included in the catalog. Though the publication itself was a catalog, Oscar had the forsight to include how-to articles, race results, event notices, contest winners, and more, making this an Auto World "Magazine" as much as a catalog.
It was clear from that first interview that one would not be enough, and Oscar graciously offered to "open up the floor" for questions from the visitors to Slot Car Illustrated. The questions that came from this were thought provoking, as well as straight forward. Oscar has not sent back his answers, and I think you will enjoy what he has to say. If you haven't read Part I, I highly recommend you read that first. You can read Part I of the Oscar Interview Here.
[SCI Viewer] Oscar's view of the slot car marketing milestones in the USA was interesting. Given that we are now in the new millennium with all the new technology at our disposal that was not available in the 60's, what would be Oscar's advice to current 1:32 slot car manufacturers who are looking to create a new set of milestones as they look to ignite the USA market once again?

[Oscar] I don't think there's a mass market craving anymore for collecting or racing, modifying slot cars, building tracks, forming clubs or regularly visiting slot car racing centers or at home as
there are too many other ways to spend their time and money on goods and events that were nonexistent in the "slot car daze" that give more back for the buck.

My suggestions to provide a new experience of "driving- racing" of slot cars would be to (1) develop a radio controlled hand controller (no wires) you take with you when you deslot. Just put your car back on the track and go racing wherever you are. I suggested this back in the 60's along with (2) develop a R/C controlled power pack supply (in each lane) which has a "voltage tuner reostat" so the voltage in each lane could be adjusted to allow full races to be run without hip-hopping lanes (alternating).

Anyone that wants to be part of the slot car market today, should study the market and how to reach it not "read my lips" as I don't know anything about it today.

The "easiest" low cost way today for the sale and promotion of specialized categories of products is "online" and Ken is doing a marvelous job on presenting the goods. He's blessed with a great gift of show and tell and we all owe him a great deal of thanks for his efforts, and I urge everyone involved to support him and his efforts.. [Thanks, Oscar!]
[SCI Viewer] Most of the stories I've read about the heyday of the Can-Am seem sort of sterile, but after hanging out with some of the racers of that era at the Road America Can-Am reunion, they seem much more, ahem, colorful. Please share your favorite off track Can-Am story.

[Oscar] A. At the Can Am Pre Race Party at the first Road Atlanta Can Am 1970 thrown by Arthur Montgomery at his "club" (Pres. of Coca Cola who built and raced Dooling 61 gas powered tethered model race cars on a wire before RC) (his club had
gold plated handles on the urinals and a attendant in a tux).

A "sloshing good time" was had by all and everyone spoke very freely.... (maybe even the punch was spiked?) My lady, my lover, my wife, mother of our four kids who handled our teams timing and scoring Elaine got into making a strange bet with the banker who bankrolled the track.

The track (for some unknown reason?) decided to rent a Can Am race car for the legendary stock car driver Lee Roy Yarborough to race us.

Apparently this "banker" guy liked to bet. Probably that's how he got into loaning money to build race tracks in the first place? My wife gave him 10-1 odds that I'd beat Lee Roy "Yabows" ass to which they agreed on.

Race day the track temp was 120 degrees and with 88 gallons of 130 octane heavily leaded fuel weighing 528 lbs were pumped into the bladders ( the fuel was so potent it burned your lips and nose inside ) so you could run 200 miles without pit stops.

Each gallon of gas is the equivalent of 6 sticks of dynamite or 528 sticks and it's good to know nobody does that anymore.

Nobody, then knew about cool suits, power steering or having a cool ice box with liquid cool drinks pumped into your mouth through a tube powered by a slot car Mabuchi motor! That came much later.

It was not the best race or the best of times for many but our team did well with a 4th place finish and $8000 winnings. I got out of my car and walked to the shower where all I did was "soak" under cold water then shoved Chapstick up my nose and put some on my lips. I drank about a gallon of water.

Back at the car, the banker showed up in his southern dress, white suit, tie, Panama hat and paid his debt to my wife Elaine. At 10 to 1 odds this is going to be good. It was great! He he paid her off in 10 $1.00 bills!

I asked her why she only bet $1.00. Her answer, I only had $2 in my purse. Were happily married 51 years this year. She worked on the first Auto World catalogs- we did trade shows in USA, Europe- races in USA, Canada- we worked together, took our kids when we could and left them home when we couldn't.

[SCI Viewer] I'd like to know where or who owns the Auto World McLaren M8 B/C and is the Jerobee McLaren the same chassis (updated) or another car all together? Might we see either in Vintage Racing this season?

[Oscar] The Bruce McLaren MK 8B (team car) was almost destroyed in a fire many years ago at a hill climb and sits somewhere awaiting it's fate. Several years ago My only ever racing mechanic Jack Deren reconstructed a body like the Jerobee MK 8B to fit on a MK 8C (original Red Burmister #34 McLaren MK8C) chassis to run in selected historic events.

[SCI Viewer] ...Also am I dreaming or did you race a McLaren M6 also?

[Oscar] I bought the M6B color green "show car" from
Teddy Mayer (of McLaren) for $11,500 in 1969. I bought a rebuilt 327 Chevy engine from Traco for $$4500 and Weber Carb manifold and setup from Dean Moon for $1100 and went racing. Jack Deren put it together, we debugged it in a few early races (won them all) Our first Can Am race at Mosport we finished 7th.

[SCI Viewer] I'd like to know if Oscar still has any of his old cars? If not, are they still making a vintage circuit somewhere?

[Oscar] NO. The MK 6B is somewhere in Europe. The others are long gone. Including the Cobra Daytona Coupe I bought from Shelby for $4000 and sold for $10,000 to Don Nichols. It's the one that sold at Christie's Auction for 4.5 million U.S. a few years ago.

I'm still President of the Historic Can Am Assn and try to encourage people to own, restore, keep these great cars as original as they can and encourage them to come out and race them at our special Can Am events.

[SCI Viewer] Lots of opinions have been given over the years about what caused the demise of the slot boom in the US. A common legend is that the mail order business outright killed the hobby, because renting track time alone could not pay the rent for the racing shops, and the inability to compete with the mail order houses in stocking and selling slot products did them in.

[Oscar] When the cost of a hobby exceeds the fun and doesn't attract new people the game is over. The mail order businesses didn't kill it. It just sort of dwindled as other racing "hobbies" became available.

The "professional slot teams" did alot to discourage "family fun racing" and "scale model car racing for fun" at slot car centers. I don't think a 35 year old Pro Slot Car Racer is a roll model for a kid. I didn't think then that was the way to promote slot car racing to the masses. I still don't.

We tried to encourage Fun events like "Birthday party races" special "age group races" events at race tracks, auto shows (we did the Dodge/Car Model Drag Race at the NY Auto Show- also a 24 hour Aurora AFX race) Auto Dealerships but it never really caught on. I saw Alan Smith at Lime Rock, Indy, etc. doing a great job promoting Scalextrix a few times and the track was always crowded.

If I were one of the big manufacturers I would advertise in the slot magazines, racing magazines, online sites "Test Drive The New ______Cars" at the following races (CART-IRL-NASCAR) tracks (list the track date place) and then I would know what I did and what happened. Real action and results are what matters. Not "research reports".

[SCI Viewer] I for one don't think it was quite that simple, and while the math of running a shop may have had something to do with it, there were other critical factors as well.

[Oscar] It wasn't and isn't.

[SCI Viewer] As THE pre-eminent mail order slot business 'back then,' while not mentioned by name, Auto World is indicted by inference as having a role in slot's demise. I'd like Oscar to respond to the view that mail order killed slots in the US.
[Oscar] See above. Only thing I'd like to add is that we through mail order, Auto World and other catalog houses introduced hundreds of thousands of potential new buyers into slot car racing who didn't buy from us, (what retail stores offered a money back guarantee then?) but created the interest via the expensive to publish and distribute catalog pages who then went to the shops (they found in the yellow pages or the list we published in Car Model Magazine) to see and try for themselves. If the store owner or product failed to interest the buyer it wasn't our fault. Mail Order overall did more than most others to promote the hobby but failed to get recognized for it. It's all about Ying and Yang. Learn to look at the "whole picture".
[SCI Viewer] I would like to know if you have any idea of the size of the slot car industry in the 60s? I've seen references to a industry worth anywhere from $100 million to $300 million a year. Do you have any idea of the reality in those figures? Ditto for the number of commercial slot car raceways: I've seen figures of 3,000 to 5,000 at peak in 66 or so.... any idea?
[Oscar] As the founder and co- publisher of CAR MODEL MAGAZINE I advise you to NOT BELIEVE ANY press or research reports.

Lately I've seen what I thought to be worthless reports that companies have spent $100,000's on. In my opinion they didn't help a bit. Only the research company made money. But- I've seen some of these companies take over (like JD Power- stock market gurus) and it's scary.

Think about Enron, Worldcom, Some banks, and the other "corporate" ding dings. How did they make it work. Greed, greed, greed. The reverse "Robin Hoods". They steal from the poor and keep the money themselves.

NASCAR doesn't do research, they don't have time. They do races. Great exciting (stock car?) races. If they did research, would they have started the Grand Am race series?

The young kid that edited the first issue of the ABC's of Model Car Racing (which we wrote at Auto World) is J.J. O'Malley, author of books about Watkins Glen, formerly Press Director of Watkins Glen, is now down at Daytona as Director of Communications of the Rolex Grand Am Series.

Picture courtesy VSRN Online.
[SCI Viewer] ...Of course, if he'd like to share the AW sales figures with us, that would be very interesting too, but I'd understand if he didn't. Figures on number of catalogs distributed would be great, along with best-selling cars/sets in HO, 1/32 and 1/24...

[Oscar] Best recollection is, we published millions of catalogs over the years, sold 100's of thousands on the newsstands and as many as 10,000 a month by mail. I don't have the exact figures in my head. They are buried in the archives. The best selling cars and sets were always HO (Aurora of course) then 1/32 scale cars (1/32 set sales were poor) 1/24 cars was very slow and there were really no 1/24th sets that sold well at all for us.

[SCI Viewer] What was the most memorable non-North America destination for an AW order and/or what was the most unusual "order form" other than standard that you can recall (IE: back of a cocktail napkin, etc.)
[Oscar] We sold and shipped mail and phone orders all over the world to many people. Paul Newman bought some Nomex underwear from us at a Wakins Glen race and paid for it by check. One of our girls wanted to keep the check (for his autograph) and would pay the $90.00 plus to keep it but I wouldn't let her.

[SCI Viewer] [Not sure where the question is in all of this, but maybe you have a comment...?] I have a piece done on him in Sports Car Graphic in the early seventies that was supposed to be pseudo-documentary following his and his team's activities through a race weekend. It ended up being kind of like a
6-page long Polish joke with Oscar as both the instigator AND the butt. It raised a lot of ruckus in the following months "letters" section from highly offended people who just didn't get it--and this was fully 20 years before PC-ism.

[Oscar] The magazine got a letter from a lawyer representing some Polish Association who didn't like the article and I responded that I approved of it and they shut up. Unfortunately our USA is turning into a cadre of Liars and Lawyers. Jokes then were funny and minus four letter words. Today, many are vulgar and sick. What freedom of what speech? Four letter words don't have ethnic backgrounds.
[SCI Viewer] Then there's the "Pole" award... And Pete Lyons' (or was it Peter Egan's?) description of being "mooned" from Oscar's motorhome on the freeway..

[Oscar] Not true. I had a set of Vampires Plastic Teeth that I used sometimes for special occasions to "smile at people". If you "moon" people it's hard for them to tell who you are unless...

[SCI Viewer] I wonder if Oscar would come to a slot car show and reunion if it were offered??? The H.O. Crown Slot car Club Show and H.O.D.R.A. Grand Nationals would love to host him this August 24th in Butler, PA. At least, lets have a few photos of Oscar Koveleski then and now..... And a few Auto World outside and inside photo "snap shots" too!

[Oscar] I'll be at Nazareth Pa Indy Race that weekend. If all goes well we'll have a Team Andretti Kidracer program underway. Unless there's a bunch of kids we can help go forward into the automotive or racing future I'm not really good company. That's what Auto World was. Learn to do something yourself, and compete against the best. It was personal pride. Achievement. Not buying, collecting and keeping it stored safely in the original box and saying, "look what I have!"

[SCI Viewer] I just started reading the book "Cannonball!" written by Brock Yates and noticed Mr. Koveleski standing by a van on page 32. Could you ask him about the experience? It says he was part of the Polish Racing Team! Bet he has a story or 2 about the race!

[Oscar] Too many. The PRDA book is underway. The van carried 292 gallons of 130 octane fuel on board. That's 48 lbs. less than a ton of fuel. That's 1752 sticks of dynamite. It would run flat out at 116 MPH. It was a serious purpose built machine to be driven very very carefully every split second through ice, snow, rain...... Ask Chuck Yeager.

[SCI Viewer] I have been wondering about Auto World for a long time glad somebody got a nice detailed info in what happened. Oscar, were is that storage building with all them NOS cars & kits & when is the Sale? Some of use can only dream! Thank you.

[Oscar] How long will you wait?

[SCI Viewer] Will we see any authorized 1/32 Auto World slot cars in the near future? How about resurrecting Auto World as a hobby mail-order business??

[Oscar] Been there, done that. Don't know. Many of the Auto World Alumni is in the auto or racing business worldwide. You would recognize some of them. Not everyone continued building model cars. Some are designing and building real cars all over the world. I hear from them on occasion. Almost EVERY brand!

[SCI Viewer] I thought I had all the main 60s AW catalogs, but I see I'm missing the 13th edition, which would place it around 67-1/2... was there ever a 13th edition, or was this like the 13th floor in a hotel? [Ironic that this ended up being the 13th question...!]

[Oscar] I may have been out of town when that decision was made. My best guess there wasn't. Anybody out there have one?

That's all from the message board, here are a few more of my own...

[SCI] Do you have a favorite car from your racing days? What was it?

[Oscar] They were all special. I treated every one with equal respect. They were all winners at one time or another. I never had a car that didn't win races. My mechanic Jack Deren knew how to make them them work right.

[SCI] Could you describe how racing has changed from your racing days to today?

[Oscar] It the early days nobody did it for the money (although it was always welcome!) It was more of a challenging sport between drivers and crews. There was little press, no TV, and drivers were considered to be nuts.

[SCI] If you could do it all over again, would you get started in racing in today's modern era? What series would appeal to you the most?

[Oscar] I would like to be part of a 2 car team that would be made up of all young ( under age 24) Americans from different ethnic backgrounds to race in the Indy 500. When they get to be 25 they move on. A sort of Young America Racing Team. [Sounds Awesome!]

[SCI] Do you get royalties from the diecast, and now slot cars that are produced that you drove or have your name on them?

[Oscar] Yes. I don't request it but these mfgrs have been more than kind to me as the big market wants the top driver. They don't need me. [Yes, they do. More than you might think.]

[SCI] Can you go into a bit of detail about the Polish Racing Drivers Of America? How did you find each other? Was it a friendly group?

[Oscar] That's real long story that may be published next year. Founded in 1970 by Brad Niemcek, Tony Adamowitz and myself. It grew to over 6000 members worldwide. Members still hold onto their cards. A few years ago a PRDA embroidered patch went for $100.

[SCI] Did you have any enemies on the track? Anyone you just hated to come up against? If so, could you go into detail?

[Oscar] No. I was lucky to drive in races with a number of World Champions' Indy 500 Winners. I raced everyone I could. Many flew right by. I only got knocked into a few times by other drivers. Only one driver intentionally knocked me to get by but I still won. I nearly knocked him in Victory Circle but cooled off. 1970 Road Atlanta, SCCA National Champion ASR McLaren Chivy.

[SCI] A lot of model manufacturers are now producing kits that are pre-decorated, some darn close to pre-assembled. It seems that kids (or adults) no longer want to take the time to sit down and actually paint and build, let alone customize or motorize a kit. It seems that kids today need instant gratification, not having any attention span to actually build something they could be proud of. What are your comments on this, and do you see any solution to getting them back into being model builders? Is there hope for the youth of today (and tomorrow)?

[Oscar] In America, millions of people are busy fixing and restoring cars, homes, boats, computers, RC cars, planes, trains, building model planes, cars, etc. and yes there is lot's of "pre finished- easier to complete" stuff out there because it appeals more to the masses. The market pretty much dictates what will happen.

But remember, the longest running model car building racing program that millions of kids have participated in is the Pine Wood Derby and nobody has really taken it to the next level.

Oscar Koveleski

[SCI] An interesting thought to leave us with, Oscar. Thank you again for taking the time to answer our questions in detail, and so colorfully. Best of luck with your Kidracer project. The world (and not just the Auto World) is better in so many ways because of your contributions.