Challenge Accepted! Learning the Thrill of Driving Fiat at Skip Barber Racing School

Fiat 124

Two cars. A whole day. And one heck of a first time on the track.

By Lauren Conlon. Karl Abarth (pronounced Ahh-barth) was a man with one mission: Go Faster Than Yesterday, Win More. He embodied the spirit of the Fiat Abarth, pushing the limits of every second, every edge, every achievement.

As we headed to New Jersey Motorsports Park with Fiat, excitement was in the air. Most in our group were excited that we would be learning from the best: Skip Barber Racing School trainers were ready to give us one-on-one hands-on training in a fleet of Fiat 500 Abarths and Fiat 124 Spiders. 

For me, having never driven on a racetrack before I was nervous. But I was excited at the same time.

There was so much planned for the day: learning about each of the vehicles we would drive, being able to test drive each of them in different road conditions and, of course, taking them for several spins around the track. However, I wasn’t worried about going too fast; believe me, when it comes to safety, you are in good hands with me. I was more worried about keeping up! 

Further reading: How I went from spectator to girl racer!  

Skip Barber Racing School With Fiat

Our instructor Terry instilled confidence in even the most novice in our group. Photo: Lauren Conlon

The Track Isn’t All About Speed; Knowing Where to Go Slow is a Key Concept.

We learned this on the autocross course. We started our day with a classroom session with our instructor Terry Earwood. He taught us how squeezing on the gas can change the dynamic of the vehicle and the relationship between tire grip, radius, and speed, and how many Gs, or how much g force, it takes to slide and what is affecting your center of gravity, such as tires and shock absorbers. Terry outlined the track and the day’s exercises for us. From learning to control the cars on the skid pad and following the Autocross, we had our morning set out for us.

We had done a practice round with Terry teaching us the in and outs of the track, where to hug each turn, speeding up and then slowing down. We learned in this segment how to control the car. We also learned the difference between the Abarth 500 and the Spider 124. Both the Fiat 500Abarth and the Fiat Spider 124 Abarth were great rides for sports performance demonstrations. While I can see the Fiat 500 being popular for city drivers who need to fit into tight parking spaces, it was a surprise that it was so responsive on the track.

Further Reading: Ready to learn to drive a stick shift? This is what you need to know! 

Skip Barber Racing School With Fiat

The course work for Skip Barber’s one day racing school. Photo: Lauren Conlon

But don’t think that you are making performance sacrifices when it comes to size.  You are getting just as much power as larger vehicles. Did you know that the Fiat 500 is the most affordable car with a turbo engine in America? It is even more powerful and affordable than a Mini Cooper. Even more thrilling to know is that Fiat was the first brand to standardize turbo performance cross their entire line–something that is standard for most auto makers now.

The Abarth adds sporty touches of red brake calipers, a leather-wrapped steering wheel for a secure grip, a turbo boost gauge, black trim lights; it is dressed for the speedway.  This might just be my next car!

Skip Barber Racing School With Fiat

From learning to control the cars on the skid pad and following the course on the Autocross we had our morning set out for us. Photo: Lauren Conlon

A Track That Mimics Weather Conditions Adds Up to Really Learning to Handle Car

We tend to drive our vehicles in all types of weather.  The most common for me is rain and snow. Knowing how to take control of your car when slick roads come into play is very important.  Learning how to handle this is the one time you take all the lessons of drivers ed and throw it out the window. Well, just a little bit.

We drove on a skid pad that had been doused with water; here we purposely wanted the car to spin out: Drive around in a tight circle (at what I thought was a high speed) then switch gears and spin out. While this was happening we tried to pay attention to what we had learned from our instructor – and when we did, all was ok.

What I remember most was this: Just release your foot from the gas, place it on the brake, and you and the car will be ok. It is an eerie feeling knowing the idea is to skid, however it’s better to learn now than be stuck in this situation and not know what to do.

Further Reading: Hello Fiat 124 Spider, you sweet devil. 

Skip Barber Racing School With Fiat

I have my game face on for lead follow. I don’t look nervous, do I. Photo: Lauren Conlon

Girls, Get Your Helmets On: It’s Time for Us to Challenge the Track!

With helmets on we were ready for the lead-follow part of the day.  A group would line up behind our professional driver and try to keep up, following his line around the track and keeping our speed up. The key is to keep looking to where you want to go. Looking beyond the next reference point helps you develop your sight markings for turns. Going TFTS, (Too Fast, Too Soon) compromises your learning curve and is not something you want to do.  It is better to go a bit slower to learn the course and excel correctly with each lap.

Skip Barber Racing School With Fiat

The Fiat Abarth’s scorpion logo greets you as you take the wheel. Photo: Lauren Conlon

Next, I decided to ride along with the pro driver in the lead follow lap. What a completely different experience, being up front in the pace car and everyone else following. This is where the driver is taking notice of how fast he can go and making sure every driver is following at a safe speed.  The more comfortable everyone is with turns, the faster he will go.  

If you wanted to go faster –for a real thrill – you could do a few hot laps with the rally driver in the Fiat 124 Spider Abarth Rally race car, a rally car with a 4 cylinder, 300 HP  6 speed transmission that is known for performance on the track. 

I thought it best to leave the driving to the professionals at this point. I’d checked off one more adventure off my bucket list and was exhausted and smiling. 

Skip Barber Racing School With Fiat

Cars line up in pit row; when the lead driver leaves the pit area, we follow along, tracking his moves and trying to keep up. Photo: Lauren Conlon

Disclosure: I was Fiat’s guest for this test drive; travel and accommodations were provided. All opinions are my own.

You Thought They Were Just Cute. We Went To Skip Barber Racing School And Learned To Drive The Fiat Abarth And The Fiat 124 Spider On The Track. #Drivingschool #Skipbarber #Fiat