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Mario Andretti Credits Down-Home American Racing With His Motorsport Success

Mario Andretti at the 1978 Formula 1 Monaco Grand Prix - Photo: Bernard Cahier (Getty Images)
Mario Andretti at the 1978 Formula 1 Monaco Grand Prix - Photo: Bernard Cahier (Getty Images)

Mario Andretti was 15 years old when his family packed their bags and moved from Italy to Nazareth, Pennsylvania. A young Andretti and his twin brother Aldo had witnessed the glory of the Mille Miglia from the Abetone pass and had basked in the spectacle of Formula 1 at Monza. The brothers knew they wanted to race. But according to Mario Andretti himself, it was their big move to the United States that even made that dream a reality.

The Andretti twins were born in Montona, Istria in 1940. Back then, the Istrian land was part of Italy, but after World War II, Yugoslavian communist forces seized the region; before long, it was dangerous to do anything as simple as speak Italian, and hundreds of thousands of people were forced into exile. When the Andretti twins were eight, the family settled into a refugee camp near Tuscany for a few years, sharing small quarters with over 15 other families. When they were teenagers, they finally received the necessary visas to emigrate to the United States, where they ended up in a little town called Nazareth.

The Andrettis had witnessed the Mille Miglia and the Italian Grand Prix before they shipped off to the States, so in a chat with Andretti for my podcast Deadly Passions, Terrible Joys, I had to ask: How big was the culture shock when he realized that motorsport in Pennsylvania took place on short dirt oval tracks?

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“My twin brother Aldo and I looked at each other after we saw the [American dirt track] cars and said, ‘You know what? These aren’t that sophisticated. Maybe these are doable. Maybe we can start there,’” he said, laughing at the memory.