When a driving opportunity arises, I’m always the first to say YES! Who wouldn’t want to get behind the wheel of a fabulous car for a fabulous driving experience? So I immediately opted in when invited to spend the day on the track with a few cars from the Fiat Abarth lineup and the Skip Barber Racing School.
And then I realized how much anxiety I have about driving fast.
Here’s the thing. Put me on a long straight stretch of highway and I’ll exceed the speed limit while gently pushing everyone out of my way. I’m confident on the road and I don’t mind getting to wherever I’m going in a hurry (usually because I’m always running late). But throw in a lot of other cars and some curvy roads or dark, wet conditions and I turn into the little old lady from Pasadena. I don’t have a need for speed and danger is not my middle name.
But I had committed to this driving event and I had decided to take a new approach. I was going to use this opportunity to understand the capabilities of a vehicle and overcome at least some of my fear. And I’m happy to say: mission accomplished.
We started the day at the New Jersey Motorsports Park with an introduction from the Fiat team and a few quick lessons from the Skip Barber instructors. Our lessons weren’t about seatbelts and mirror adjustments. They were about physics (notoriously my worst subject in school). Because when it comes to cars and they’re ability to stay on the road with you in control, it comes down to physics.
15GR = (MPH)²
That formula, to be exact. That’s the formula that says your grip and radius are affected by your speed, and vice versa. The grip relates to your tires and how much area they have on the ground at any given time. Your job as a driver is to manage the distribution of the weight of your vehicle on those tires.
It may sound complicated but it’s not. You have to think about which wheels manage acceleration and braking and which ones manage the steering. If you have a front wheel drive, you have to accelerate and steer with the front tires. That can cause understeering, which is when a car steers less than the amount intended by the driver. Conversely, a rear wheel drive can have the opposite problem results in oversteering.
So how do you control it? You listen to professional drivers, like I did, and you practice, like I did.
In order to ready us for track driving, the instructors from Skip Barber put us behind the wheel of two different Fiats to practice a couple of different scenarios that were useful for the track but also practical for real life driving.
Driving on the Skid Pad
You know what sounds fun but is actually terrifying? Driving in a tight circle on a wet roadway. A large truck came to wet down a course created around a tight circle of cones. My job, with an instructor sitting beside me, was to drive in a circle at a relatively high rate of speed. As I did this, and my adrenaline raced, the radius of the car increased as did the grip of the tires. But then something happened.
The instructor turned off the traction control, pulled up on the emergency brake, and caused me to go into a skid. Even though there was nothing for me to hit, it was unnerving because we spend all of our time ensuring we maintain control of our vehicles. We don’t want to lose control.
But doing that allowed me to react to a real life scenario. There are times when I might be driving a car that skids due to rain or snow or ice. And I learned how to keep my eyes in the direction I want to end up. And how to turn into that direction to correct the skid.
Did I spin out? Yep. I was also told I was “looking into the cow pasture.” Even taking your eyes off of your intended direction can change your outcome. And with practice, I was able to learn to correct the spin.
What I learned:
- You can go a lot faster than you think on a wet track without spinning
- The radius of a vehicle driving a tight circle will naturally increase with speed
- It’s critical to keep your eye where you want to end up
- Experiencing a skid or spin in a controlled environment makes you feel more prepared for a real life situation
Commanding the Autocross
Imagine a racetrack set up on a smaller scale, on a flat surface, and marked by cones.
Welcome to the autocross. Some people love it. I’m not usually crazy about it because it’s a short course with tight turns and no banking. And I wasn’t too crazy about jumping into the Fiat 500 Abarth which seemed like a little car with a high center of gravity. What if I made it flip?
I’m happy to report that I didn’t come close to flipping the car. The autocross did give me a chance to practice cornering on a smaller scale.
If you’ve never been on a track, one of the first things they teach you about is the apex of the turn. It’s basically a geometrical path that maximizes the amount of straight track you’ll drive on a turn.
By the time I mastered driving the Fiat 500 Abarth, I was more than ready to zip around in the Fiat 124 Spider Abarth, which is faster and has a lower center of gravity.
After mastering (relatively speaking) both driving exercises, it was time for a quick lunch and then off to the track.
What I learned:
- Always brake on the straightaway, not the turn
- Slow your vehicle upon entering the turn but accelerate out of the turn
- Keep your eyes on where you want to go
- Always be looking for the next turn
On the Track with Fiat Abarth
We geared up in our racing suit and helmet, all standard precautionary measures when driving on a track. And we took a test run around the track in a shuttle bus. Talk about a high center of gravity!
I watched the first team of drivers head out and I was still pretty nervous about hitting the track. But when my turn came, I jumped in ready for a few laps.
Here’s the thing. It was more than a few laps. It was a good 10 to 15 minutes of driving on the track. That meant I got my nerves out on the first few laps and actually started to feel confident. I was definitely NOT the fastest driver out there but I could feel the autocross practice kicking in.
When I hit a few tight turns, I started to panic but remembered not to hit my brakes on the curve. I also remembered that cars can handle a pretty significant radius at a pretty high rate of speed when using traction control.
Things got a little nerve wracking when it started to rain. But again, I thought back to the skid pad and knowing the capabilities of the Fiats on a wet, circular track made me more confident driving on the wet surface.
I finished my final lap, pulled the car into the pit, and took off all my gear. I accepted my “graduation” packet with pride and I left that day feeling more confident on the road than I ever have.
If you happen to love performance driving, check out the Fiat Abarth lineup for some of the most inexpensive high performance driving available. And learn from the professionals how to take safe advantage of the power behind the wheel.
And if you don’t love performance driving, you should still consider taking a one day course with driving professionals like Skip Barber. You’ll walk away as a graduate feeling more confident as you take on the dangers of daily driving.