The Duchesses of Driving

After years of driving-instruction experience, sisters Maria Dominijanni and Isa Marinaro put their pedals to the metal and started their own driving school

When Maria Dominijanni (then Maria Marinaro) was just 17, her family, including her 12-year-old sister, Isa, immigrated to America from Italy and settled in the Bronx. Little did she know that the part-time job she soon found, in the office of a nearby driving school, would lead to a career.

“I couldn’t speak much English,” Maria recalls, “so I couldn’t answer the phones or deal with customers at the front counter. I stayed mostly in the background, helped the owners and did paperwork.”

Eventually, she moved to Westchester, and her office experience landed Maria a position managing a driving school. “By then I was married, and when I was expecting my first baby, I told the owner I needed to take maternity leave. He asked if I knew anyone reliable to fill in for me, and I suggested my sister.”

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Isa took the job and immediately loved it. “I liked this kind of business, so I got licensed to teach driving,” she says. A year or so later, Isa popped a life-changing question to her sister: Why not start their own driving school? In 1988, they opened the Formula One Driving School in Mamaroneck, the first driving school in the state owned and operated by women, according to Maria.

The early days were challenging, she recalls. “We’d hear sarcastic comments around town like, ‘Those two little girls, they’re going to close down before they even open,’ ” she says. “But that just gave us more motivation to move forward.”

They started with a staff of two — Maria behind the counter and Isa as the sole driving instructor. As the business grew, they hired staff and began to get contracts to run local drivers-ed classes, even offering driving instruction at private schools such as Horace Mann and the United Nations International School in New York City, among others.

The sisters settled in Dutchess County, and, in 2002, they opened their Hopewell Junction location, selling the Mamaroneck office in 2010. They stopped teaching in Manhattan and concentrated on offering drivers-ed courses for Valley high schools, Dutchess Community College, and other clients, as well as teaching individual teens and adults.

Maria’s son Daniel, who now works alongside the sisters, encouraged them to add commercial drivers license training, or CDL, to the school’s offerings; CDL is now a major part of their business.

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“In these struggling economic times, a lot of people have been laid off or are looking for extra work. More and more want to learn to drive trucks and others want to get licensed to drive school buses part-time,” Maria says.

The ranks of female students training for tractor-trailer licenses are growing, says Isa, who was also a motorcycle-license instructor a until a knee injury forced her to give it up.

The school now has 15 part- and full-time employees and boasts a fleet of four tractor-trailers, plus one straight truck, two buses, and seven cars.

Adaptive vehicles are also available to train people who’ve suffered strokes or have other physical impairments. Some cars feature hand controls for the gas and brake pedal for those who can’t use their feet. Many of the school’s alumni keep in touch after graduation. “Some become truck drivers who travel cross-country,” Isa says. “They post photos on our Facebook page showing us where they’re traveling. And when they’re back in town, they like to stop by and say hello. We’re like one big family that’s always on the road.”

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