Oscar Koveleski, founder of the Auto World and Kidracer brands, died Monday at the age of 88.
In 1958, Koveleski — a race car driver and scale model enthusiast — launched Auto World as a mail-order store from the basement of a home in Scranton, Pennsylvania. The operation, which initially placed ads in the back of magazines, became a popular catalog business and pioneered the hobby and specialty retail space through its extensive offerings of slot-racing cars and track sets, plastic model kits, R/C cars, building supplies, and other items from brands including TYCO, Aurora, Scalextric, and more.
“At that time slot cars were a mainstream toy,” says slot car evangelist Dave Kennedy, former brand manager for Hornby Hobbies’ Scalextric/Airfix lines and former North American marketing manager at Carrera of America. “They became a staple toy in every mass-market store and catalog … everyone — and I mean everyone — that is in the business now follows in Oscar’s footsteps.”
The success of the mail-order business led to the opening of a brick and mortar location to compliment the catalog. Eventually, Koveleski would take to the track in an orange McLaren M8B Can-Am car emblazoned with Auto World slot car livery.
“Oscar Koveleski was a treasure,” says Bobby Rahal, president of the Road Racing Drivers Club. “His outspokenness and passionate demeanor in trying to convince you of the importance of his latest project were the essence of his personality. Never quitting, always promoting, in such a charismatic way that one just couldn’t say no. As a race car driver, he was one of the best in an era where competing against the likes of Mark Donohue, Bruce McLaren, and Denny Hulme was a challenge he was happy and willing to take to help promote his Auto World business and the Kidracer brand he created.”
In 1988, Koveleski launched the Kidracer line of miniature Formula 1 race cars for kids with an event held at Watkins Glen International raceway. The battery-powered line of cars evolved over the years, most recently being sold as the Kidracer Formula 5 and offered alongside the opportunity to host community races and events, or for interested parties to open Kidracer driving schools.
“It’s designed to be ‘race tough,’ [and to] look and drive like a real race car,” said Koveleski in 2010. “It’s 47 lbs. of real race car, with a 2-speed shifter, race quick steering, and it fits in the back seat of most cars. The Kidracer program teaches kids self-confidence and how to be responsible to each other.”
Following the closure of Auto World as a mail-order business in 1991, the name was resurrected by Round 2 Corp. — makers of Johnny Lightning die-cast and AMT models — in the mid-aughts. Auto World lives on as a brand of original die-cast vehicles, slot-cars, and tracksets sold at hobby stores and major retailers, including Walmart and Target. Coming full circle, Round 2 reinvented the Auto World Store as a digital retail destination where consumers can find automotive toys and collectibles from a variety of brands and licensees.