Event Program: 2021 Watkins Glen SpeedTour
Everybody Knew Oscar – 22 Wins at Watkins Glen
-by J.J. O’Malley, Rich Taylor, Bob Koveleski
Oscar Koveleski made you feel like you were the most important person in the world, and with his help, the two of you could do bigger and better things, magical things you’d never dare to dream about. Not tomorrow, but right now! Of course, sometimes they’d turn out to be crazy things. But by then, Oscar would be passionate about a different magical thing. He was endlessly passionate about things… sometimes that seemed like his full-time job.
Oscar’s real business was catalog sales. Originally devoted to model cars, his Auto World store based in Scranton, PA soon added slot cars, radio-controlled cars and motorsport accessories. Searching for a way to capture the attention of future racing fans, Oscar came up with the Kidracer, designed to give youngsters driving experience in safe and durable battery-powered cars. Oscar was soon staging magical races for kids at major race weekends including Indianapolis, Watkins Glen, Pocono and Long Beach.
He was always passionate about racing. His first race was in 1951 at Bone Stadium. He drove an MG-TC and starting last, won. In the following years, he mainly competed in SCCA races in the Northeast. In 1959, he bought the ex-Carroll Shelby Ferrari 857S Monza and to Luigi Chinetti’s horror, stuffed it with a Chevy V8. After three years of flogging the Red Beast, he sold it at a profit to Andy Warhol.
In 1965, he and Hal Keck shared a 427 Cobra to win the prestigious Glen 500. Oscar raced the same car in the very first 24-hour at Daytona in 1966, plus Daytona and Sebring in 1967. When he learned that the 1969 Can-Am series had a million dollar purse, he promptly bought a McLaren M6B. The next year, he bought Bruce McLaren’s 1969 Can-Am Championship car.
That orange M8B was painted with a slot car track circling the bodywork, which cleverly promoted Auto World. Driving the McLaren in the 1970 Can-Am, Oscar finished sixth at St. Jovite and fourth at Road Atlanta. He also absolutely dominated the Giants Despair Hill Climb in Wilkes-Barre, winning the event six times and setting a record that stood for eleven years.
In 1970, Oscar passionately launched his best-known crazy idea, a club called Polish Racing Drivers of America. Membership was limited… you had to be either a Polish racing driver, a non-Polish racing driver, a Polish non-racing driver or a non-Polish non-racing driver. There are still thousands of members proudly sporting a PRDA sticker.
Sharing the driving with Tony Adamowicz and Brad Niemcek, Oscar ran the first Cannonball Baker Sea to Shining Sea Memorial Trophy Dash from the notorious Red Ball Garage in Manhattan to the Portofino Inn in Redondo Beach. Oscar’s bigger and better crazy idea was to drive cross-country non- stop, so he loaded a Chevy van with five 55-gallon drums of gasoline and laid a plywood 4’x8′ on top of the drums as a makeshift bed for the off-duty driver.
Car and Driver contributor Brock Yates and legendary racer Dan Gurney crossed the continent in 35 hours and 54 minutes to win, sharing a Ferrari Daytona that could cruise at 170 mph and was probably the best sports car in the world in 1971. The Polish Racing Drivers of America arrived just fifty-three minutes later to take Second, averaging 80 mph in a rolling bomb that was dangerous even parked in the driveway. It was vintage Oscar, passionate, crazy and magical all at the same time.
Oscar Koveleski will be missed and surely never forgotten. A tribute race is being held this year during the Watkins Glen SpeedTour event on Sept. 10-12. Wear your PRDA T-shirt.