CRESSON, Texas—It all begins on the skid pad, or as some journalist colleagues at a one-day Skip Barber Racing School session designed to show off the Fiat's souped-up Abarth cars came to know it, "The ring of Hell."
"Go ahead. Give it more gas," urged lead instructor Mike Stillwagon with his trademark Long Island accent, "You're doing fine."
It didn't feel like it. Though I had somehow avoided the "harrruvvvvt' squealing spin-outs of my counterparts on the opposite side of the circle, the relentless shove of centrifugal force on my aging body was leaving me short of breath and light-headed. The merry-go-round kept getting faster and faster, with no brass ring in sight.
Fortunately, I recalled a tip passed on in a morning driver's meeting by chief instructor Sebastien Sauriol, who has notched more than 200 starts on four continents in the last 30-some years. As it turns out, that dead pedal to the left of the clutch and brake serves a purpose.
"Push hard against it with your left foot and push your back into the seat," Sauriol advised in his clipped French-Canadien accent. "It will stabilize you and the car will start communicating with you."
Necessity, in this case, was the mother of compliance. It was either brace myself or roll down the window and throw up. I did it. It worked. Suddenly I could feel when the car was being pushed further outward (understeer), or the rear end was beginning to break loose (oversteer).
Just like that, I understood in actionable terms the biggest takeaway from Sauriol's morning chalk talk.
"You want your corrections to be minor," he said. "Just enough to bring the car back within its limits."
If a driver can feel the moment a car starts to break loose, he or she can apply CPR: Correct the condition by either letting off the gas in understeer or steering into the oversteer, Pause (this is big, allow a moment for the car to settle) and then Recover, straighten the wheel to avoid a "hook slide" caused by the "second reaction bounce."
Once again, my counterpart seemed to be having difficulty with the concept, but this day the racing gods smiled upon me. I suddenly grasped why performance driving begins on the skid pad. I could feel the back end starting to get loose, or the car start to lose response to my steering input.
The ability to feel and accurately respond to those two phenomenons, understeer and oversteer, is the key to learning a myriad of other skills one needs learn to go faster and faster around a race course. Suddenly, terms like weight transfer, contact patch and the functional relationship between grip, radius and speed became things that I might actually be able to work with, especially if I dealt with them with small, smooth movements.
Another auto writer bit the dust, but we were still going in circles, so Mike kept me after class in the ring of death. By this point, my discomfort was overshadowed by my excitement.
A small leak on the water truck had left a patch of water on the edge of the circle. Mike encouraged me to head toward it. I added throttle, which forced the car to go wider and wider, the next time around we were headed straight toward the slick spot.
The rear started to kick loose, but I slightly eased off the throttle, quickly snapped my wrists into the turn, let the car settle, and found a new and faster line.
That and the satisfying growl of the optional quad-tipped Monza exhaust was the only sound emanating from OUR Fiat 124 Spider.
"Nice job," Mike said beaming. "See you out on the track."
Right tool for the job
The experience was set up by Fiat Chrysler America to show off the Abarth editions of the 500 hatchback and 124 Spider convertible. It included a hotel room and extravagant dinner in nearby Granbury.
The main point was that these are fun and fast little cars that can be had for relatively little money. Both are powered by the same, turbocharged, 1.4-L four-cylinder engine. The 500 version cranks out 160 hp, and the 124—built in the same Mazda factory as the Miata—gets 164.
FCA added some goodies to the cars, but not enough to make them expensive. A 500 Abarth starts at a hair above $20,000. The 124 at less than $30,000. Both embody the Abarth trademark of the scorpion, small and wicked.
"It's about the attitude of the car," said Dan Fry, the engineer in charge of upgrading the 500 and transforming the Miata into a Fiat 124. "It's about how these vehicles make you feel.
"What we were trying to do here was create something that makes you feel special. Even if you're just driving it 15 minutes on your way home from work it puts a smile on your face. From the exhaust note to the punchy torque delivery, to the grippiness to the quick turn in. The whole experience is basically engineered to put a smile on your face, more so than anything else.
Both come with race-bolstered seats and performance suspensions. The 500 Abarth's front and rear shock absorbers feature KONI Frequency Selective Damping and stiff spring rates for maximum grip. That plus low ride height and low weight provide responsive handling and minimal body roll.
A 5-speed automatic transmission is standard on the 500 and a heavy-duty six-speed is optional. Following an instructor leader around Motorsport Ranch's 1.7-mile, 11-turn road course, we quickly learned that third and fourth gears were all we needed. I tried dropping into second through the short, 4-turn Rattlesnake section and reaching for 5th on long straightaways into and out of Big Bend, but neither maneuver made much difference.
Our group included several writers with racing experience, and during our 20 or so hot laps, we managed to get quicker and quicker, allowing our instructor to pick up his pace. We started off hitting 60-65 on the straightaways and finished reaching into the upper 80s.
One small thing I learned is that while we occasionally found the correct line through a curve, the professional in the lead never missed the line.
This, as Sauriol explained, is the essence of racing. It ain't how fast you go down a straightaway or into a curve, it's how fast you exit. The sooner one gets back into the throttle, the sooner one gets back into the engine's power curves. If Driver A can get to 90 before braking, and Driver B only reaches 88, Driver A will soon disappear.
"The effect is exponential," Sauriol said. "You think about doing this 200 or 300 times during a race, gaining one or two seconds each time, well, it's quite profound."
So I went to work on finding the right line. The mistake most people make, the one I had made all my life, was steering into the apex too soon. A later entry into a curve places one on a gentler curve into the exit point and track out, the line leading to the straightaway.
Radius equals speed, I learned. The wider the radius, the less turning force on the tire patch, the sooner one can get back into the throttle and onto track out.
The front-wheel-drive 500 Abarth was perfect for practicing those skills. With all the weight up front, it's not particularly well balanced, but the front traction will pull it through a curve and small dimensions make it feel like a go-cart.
No wonder U.S. News and World Report named it one of the "fastest cars for the money."
The sun was past its apex when I at last settled into the Fiat 124 Spider Abarth. I'm already on record saying I like with FCA did with this car, with its Italian-designed interior and a gull-winged front end that makes it easy to see where one is on the road.
Apparently, Fry and his engineering team made some right calls by adding more power and a limited-slip differential for better traction. Mazda this year did both. (The limited-slip diff was previously only available on Miata Club models.)
The foundation of both cars is perhaps best-in-class. It is exceptionally well-balanced. FCA added Bilstein sport suspension front and rear and front strut tower. It somehow wound up with a car that rides a little more smoothly than the Miata, but has all the grip one needs for club racing.
The balance afforded by rear-wheel drive made the 124 much quicker around the course. By the end of our hot laps, our group was eclipsing 100 on the straights.
Still, there was one small lesson I'd yet to learn: trail braking. This involves braking hard into the turn and then, just as one releases the braking force but before the nose of the car comes up, making the turn-in.
I was first in line behind the instructor when I finally got coordinated enough to do this.
Coming out of a tight turn called horseshoe, the track quickly moved a more gentle radius at Boot Hill and an even more gentle one at Tombstone. I realized the instructor was trail-braking into Boot Hill and keeping his foot in it through Tombstone.
I also realized this was common because there was a strip of hard dirt at the track out of Tombstone, so a lot of racers had been using that maneuver.
I went for it. The car was on edge coming out of Boot Hill, but a slight correction helped her find her balance. Coming out of Tombstone, I was right near the dirt edge "Use the full width of the track," Sauriol had said but wasn't sure I would hit it or not.
I glanced into the rearview mirror to see the rest of my group 70-80 yards behind and fading, and a thin wisp of Texas dust dancing into the wind.