by Ray Alexander
Auto Club Raceway, Fontana, CA
November 17, 2013
After seeing a Fiat 500 Abarth dusting off the rear bumper of a C5 Corvette during rookie qualification for the Silver State event in September, I was invited to drive one in a SRT-like track experience. The cost was $100, and Tommy Kendall would be there to set a lofty mark for a target.
I had watched Tommy’s program on the Speed Channel many times. He had two identical automobiles and was paired with another competitive driver; they had radio communications. Tommy did a lot of speaking and the only possible negative was being too eloquent about non-Mopar cars.
Upon arrival, I recognized one of the people in charge. He was at a previous SRT event at this track. At that event, he gave me a hot lap in a green with envy Viper. We spent a lot of time going sideways. He mentioned that he had been in NASCAR, but didn’t mention at what level.
I knew from past experience there would be a lot of driving in cone defined lanes. I don’t do well in that environment; maybe I should just get out there and knock down a bunch of them. Then I could be relatively sure there are no exploding cones.
Seriously, I don’t think I ever over-drove the car. At first I thought I was knocking down cones with the rear tires, but the pops were coming from the exhaust. Tommy laid down a lap of 28 seconds. One of the attendees did a lap missing 28 by a few thousandths. I was over 30 seconds. So if we were racing, Tommy would lap me in about 15 laps.
Austrian Karl Abarth started out by modifying and racing motorcycles; a bad accident left him with a weak leg, unable to get his license back. He attained a sidecar license instead, and developed a method to vary the camber of the sidecar wheel while moving which helped him to win many races. To get attention, he raced against the Orient Express train from Belgium to Paris on a small motorcycle with a sidecar. On the trip to Paris, he suffered electrical problems and arrived minutes after the train. On the return trip, he beat the train by 20 minutes. This was his launching pad.Karl’s first money-making products were exhaust systems, at one point used by Porsche. He then developed kits to transform ordinary cars into something out of the ordinary. Karl’s birth sign was Scorpio, the reason for the image of the Scorpion.After World War II, Karl aligned himself closely with Fiat because he knew their infrastructure would be restored before Germany could rebuild. He was far more interested in racing than making money, and Fiat eventually bought him out. The win ratio for Abarth-prepared cars was phenomenal.
Now to the infield track, here an instructor rode with you. In the construction of these tracks, there is lot of asphalt put down to enable many configurations. Cones are used to define the desired path of travel for the day’s activity. Yellow cones are used in braking zones. Cones lying down show the direction of turn and the edge of the turn. Going past the line of these cones would be scored as an off track excursion. Three standing cones in each corner guided you through the perfect racing arc.
I was told that the track was in the same configuration as when I had driven it in larger cars. From memory, the tricky part of the track was the south end. I came into that section pretty hot and suddenly it looked as if a giant had taken two handfuls of cones and thrown them onto the track. One cone looked like it was in the middle of the track, but that wasn’t where you ended up driving.
A description of this segment: you are coming to the end of the longest straight away on the course. There were 4 sets of braking cones before entering a square 90 degree turn to the right. I downshifted from 4th to 2nd going into the turn. A very short chute led to a 90 degree left. You are preparing to enter a long right turn with decreasing radius but, the car needs to be positioned farther left to be on the racing line. There were two more quick turns before you were able to build any speed.
Next we went to a head-to-head competition. Two cars were sent off in opposite directions over identical courses. Halfway through the course there was a stop box. A complete stop was mandatory and the grading was harsh. Sliding wheels are stopped, but that doesn’t qualify as a stop. At my stop I killed the engine and this is where I learned that the key must be turned off before the engine can be restarted. Oh, well.
When I started driving, it was cars and trucks with the Chevrolet Blue Flame six cylinder engines. I soon hated these stove-bolt engines. The first car that I purchased was a five year old 1951 Oldsmobile with the Rocket 88 engine. Now, I think it is safe to assume that I will not be happy unless I hear at least 8 cylinders. Still, it was a fun half-day.
I didn’t necessarily feel it but, the car had a lot of roll in rear. As for driver exertion, I don’t think it was any more work in getting a 4400 pound car through here. Even with the AC on this nasty little course had me sweating in either. I think the only time I am really comfortable is when I am racing my cars. When I cinch the shoulder straps, its no holds barred or is that no bars will hold me?
Once I was accustomed to the pedal placement, I had no problems. The pedals are pure performance, made of aluminum; in the environment of my formative years, my feet have slipped off many pedals. Take your pick, clutch, brake, or gas, all are disconcerting. Perhaps gas is the worst, when entering a maneuver requiring power and suddenly you have none.
The seats are well bolstered to hold driver and passengers in the event the driver does not see the suggested 30 mph curve sign and enters considerably faster.
The car emits a satisfying growl under acceleration. When decelerating I would like to have heard more back firing. With car manufacturers under scrutiny for fleet gas mileage we only get a couple.
When you begin to push the car it offers you no surprises, it goes where you want it to go. The power and handling changes from the base car are many; it is lower yet on bigger wheels. The suspension has different modes; we used only the most aggressive mode. While on track and exiting a set of turns, my instructor said, “I was worried about that one.” I wasn’t concerned in the least. If only I could have done the right arm pull down, “Yes.”
The profile of the vehicle causes me some concern about how it would fare in the extremely high winds that visit California mountains regularly.
I challenge you to drive one and not like it for what it is.
At SEMA, there was a Fiat Abarth on a trailer that looked ready to race; it was fitted with a full cage. The tires were Michelin, and I saw “Abarth” stamped on them. I needed to find out if Michelin made a special tire for Abarth or had someone gotten out of control with a rubber stamp? A check of the Abarths that we were driving revealed no stamp. Then I asked and was quickly directed to a Chrysler corporate person.
The answer was, “Yes, there is a race series in Europe named Abarth Trofeo Series. It is a series where all entries meet the specifications of the Assetto Corse. Michelin makes the tires for this series and they are serialized to the car. The car comes with Macpherson racing shocks that allow manual adjustment of ride height. Electric power steering with racing calibration is also featured. In any given Trofeo race all the cars are of the same marquee.” It sounds similar to our IROC series of days gone by.
Lamborghini has brought that series to the US. Could this be racing on a budget, not in a Lamborghini but in a Fiat Abarth? These races are also run in Australia.
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