“You never forget your birthplace,” said Mario Andretti when talking about the town he once called home, Montona d’Istria, which is now known as Motovun (a post-war settlement that assigned it to Croatia). “To this day, I still dream about my town, it was that profound,” a beaming Andretti told me. Imagine, the town he called home was taken from its original country (Italy), first by violence and then by an international treaty! This began Andretti’s life, an unusual one for him and his brother and sister until they immigrated to America in 1955…
As part of an exclusive L’Idea Magazine interview, I traveled to the home of Mario Andretti and talked to him about growing up in Italy, coming to America, and building a new life in which he became a professional race car driver and an internationally known celebrity.
L’Idea Magazine: Mr. Andretti, tell me about your town, what memories you have of Montona.
Mario Andretti: It was a medieval town on a hill, very charming. To this day I dream about my town: it was that profound. It was an unusual life; war broke out when I was born, and things were very unsettled. My father Luigi was an orphan, so he was raised by a priest, a man we (Anna Maria, Aldo and I) called our uncle. We all lived in the same house and, although we were so young, we knew what everyone in the house was talking about – it was usually politics. By the time the war was over and Montona was taken as part of the post-war agreement, they had to place people in different camps in Italy, but the problem was they didn’t know where to place people. Even though we bounced around from the camps, we still went to school and I give my mom and dad credit because we lived as normal as we could, as far as going to school and never being hungry. Life didn’t look very promising since the country was rebuilding. My uncle from my mother’s side had been in America since 1909 and my mother and father kept in touch with him and he suggested we come over. Obviously, in order to do that we needed official visas to immigrate; there was no more Ellis Island where we could just go. We applied in 1952, and we almost forgot about this, because it took about three years to get them. We finally got the visas and we went to Genova to get physicals. We talked about it and my father said that, if we didn’t like it, after five years we will come back.
L’idea: Coming from Italy to the USA was a big change. What was life like for you and your brother, being the younger ones in the family?
Andretti: Well, we came here and my brother Aldo and I were already much into auto racing from our years in Italy; I really don’t know why (laughs), I really don’t. When we were in the camp in Lucca, there was a garage that was nearby. We befriended some people and we used to hang there and I started parking cars at 12 years old. When you’re exposed to it, you never know what can happen. You have your dreams and goals… There is no set pattern, you need to have your goals and your set dream and, for me, I never looked at “plan b.” Just going to the garage, it made me realize this is what I want. Initially, as a kid, I had a limited scope and when we moved here to America, it felt that all of our dreams went out the window.
L’idea: What was the feeling you had coming to America? What was the impression you, your brother, your sister and your parents had when you arrived?
Andretti: The only thing Aldo and I knew about America was Indianapolis, since it was racing. We arrived here in June and the racing season was underway; that, of course, Aldo and I knew. While at our Uncle Tony’s house, we saw lights a few miles down the road and we heard the roar of engines, so we knew right away it was racing… Aldo and I sprinted out the door and followed the noise and lights. We peeked through the boards and saw those stock cars; they weren’t that sophisticated. Aldo and I looked at each other and said “we can do that!” and boom, the dream is back and America is wonderful.
L’Idea: The dream was back. So, what did you and Aldo do?
Andretti: We looked at each other and we said “let’s build one!” so we did. The plan was to build the car and have it ready for when we were 21, because in those times you needed to be 21 in order to drive. The car was finished when we were both 19. We figured we could not wait two years, so we befriended a local editor that we met through our uncle. We spoke to him and asked him to forge our licenses and he did; there were no computers or nothing, so it happened. We then befriended a local promoter for the races and we told him what we wanted to do and he agreed, so we went into this right then and there.
L’Idea: Mr. Andretti, what did your parents think of this?
Andretti: They didn’t know. The reason we didn’t dare to tell them wasn’t my mother, because she was a daredevil. It was my dad. We didn’t tell because every time we spoke about racing, he looked at the tragic side of it, as far as the deaths that occurred in the sport. Anyway, the first race Aldo won the coin toss, so I was glad he went first. He won the race and we won our first $25 dollars.
L’Idea: I want to move past the racing and talk about the values you got from your parents. What traditions and values did you take from them in your life and what made you be the successful person you are?
Andretti: The traditions continued, of course, after we came to America. We lived at home until we were married, and I got married at age 21, my brother at age 20. Christmas dinners were the same as always in my family because it’s something that I’m proud of. My daughter loved her grandmother and she made sure she would have all the recipes and stuff like that. The most valuable thing for me is the appreciation for a lot of things that are taken for granted. I count my blessings every day, because I know what the alternative could be in other ways. Somebody upstairs was very good to me. I was able to go after my dream and still sit here and talk to you about it. I dodged a lot of bullets, as far as potential injuries. We used to lose a lot of guys per year; I lost some of my best friends in the sport. I raced about 960 times and I’m still standing here. I’ve had a few close ones, but I have been so lucky and I couldn’t have done that on my own. I have been married for 50 years. I couldn’t have done anything without my beautiful wife. She was my rock; there was stability there. They say you need to have a clear mind and be focused on what you need to do in the sport and I was able to do that because I knew my wife was there supporting me no matter what. She never hung on my arm with the cameras; she was there for me and no matter — win, lose or draw, I was always received with that same kiss and that same welcome.
When you look through the looking glass of life, you realize how thankful you are to be where you are. For Andretti, he thanked God every day for the fortune he received through the difficult times in Italy to the near death experiences here in the United States. Andretti now has the honor of being the Mayor for life in his hometown in which he visits on occasion. The important story here is that the man who came from an environment of war and violence would become the most successful race car driver in the entire world. He did it with no back-up plan in life. His dream was to go out there and do it by taking the risks that life presents to you. Mario Andretti, who now is retired, will never step away from the sport of racing. He told me that he will continue to be involved until they put him in the box and he is thankful for all that he achieved. He left me with a great word of advice, which of course has been said before: if you really love your work, you never work a day in your life. That certainly applies to me.