As of now, most of my interesting automotive experiences have stemmed from putting around in interesting vintage automobiles, and track driving is something that’s completely alien to me. My friends at FIAT recently invited me to attend Skip Barber Racing School in the 2019 Abarth line-up, so I seized the opportunity to try new things and expand my automotive oeuvre. Coming to the track with zero experience, let alone not knowing how to heel-toe shift, I needed to pay attention and try to learn as much as possible from the pros at the school.
The day began with a classroom chalk-talk, lead by chief instructor Terry Earwood. Terry is a retired legendary drag and endurance racer who developed the curriculum for Skip Barber based on a course he taught the Georgia State Patrol. He laid down the basics of car control, finding the line through the turns and the all-important relationship between grip, radius and speed, all while laced with his own humorous abbreviations and anecdotes such as "HYWT" short for "Hey y’all watch this!" in a charming southern twang. Following Terry’s talk, and a brief introduction to the 2019 Abarth cars by FCA’s product development team in a hangar next door, we climbed into a van to the first exercise.
In an open lot, we approached a mini-circuit laid out in small and large traffic cones on one side and a skid-pad exercise on the other side. I climbed into a waiting Abarth 500 with a pro instructor in the front seat. I was instructed to enter the course, and by utilizing the larger cones that demarcating the apex, I was able to practice "finding the line" on the course. Here I practiced the mechanics of track driving on a smaller scale before applying them in a high-speed scenario. After a few runs in the 500 and a couple of knocked over cones, I switched to an Abarth 124 for the skid plate exercise.
In the open lot, a water truck pulled out and sprayed water all over the ground, creating a nice, slick surface for the skid plate. The goal of the exercise is to practice car recovery from a skid, a very dangerous scenario with real-life applications outside of track driving. In an Abarth 124 with an instructor riding shotgun, I was told to drive in a tight circle around the donut-shaped course, slowly increasing speed. As soon as enough speed is reached, the instructor pulls the e-brake, sending the car into a spin. As the car started to spin, it was my job to counter-steer and slow the car, which will, in part, correct the skid and allow me to continue driving. This was not easy. Spin after spin, I was caught in the wrong every time. First, I was not looking where I wanted the car to go. The second time I didn’t counter-steer enough. By the third time I was able to save the car, still almost unsure of what I had just done.
After lunch, we were fitted for racing suits and helmets, then took to the track, a circuit at the New Jersey Motorsports Park called "The Thunderbolt." With our racing suits and helmets on in the hot end-of-summer sun, I was directed into the cockpit of a waiting Abarth 124 on the starting line. This was my first time unaccompanied in a car, as well as my first taste of the track. Unceremoniously we were off, three journalists in 124s, following the pro instructor down the track. We started at an easy pace, and after picking up speed, I started to fall behind and needed to play catch-up to stay with the pack. Flooring it in the straights and trying to manage the turns, I was losing it. Turning in at an apex, I started to lose my sight of the track, breathing heavily, wondering if this was it. Was I going to spin? Was I going to put this brand-new 124 into the grass? Thankfully, I held it together through the lap with the rest of the pack fading in the distance. I was floundering and a little scared, so the instructors waved me into the pits.
It was there that my lack of experience began to show. The professional driver asked me if I was okay, grabbed a helmet and a radio unit and climbed into the passenger seat. He calmly said he was going to talk me through it, and I re-entered the course. This time around, I began to see everything I was doing wrong. It takes a lot of coordination between your mind, body and car for proper track driving. There are a few simple rules, such as only asking the car to do one thing at a time. For example, you can’t brake while turning. Managing a turn requires the car at the right apex entry point, scrubbing the brake before the turn, turning in and then gassing it on the way out. Braking plants and points the front end of the car, making the transition to exit quick and easy. Each turn requires different apex entry speeds, and practicing them shaves seconds and allows for improvement.
After a little bit of track time, I was completely exhausted. It was a humbling experience, and it made me appreciate and understand the true athleticism required to compete in auto racing. While I had only gotten a taste of motorsports, it was eye-opening and terrifying at times — and yet something I would attempt again if the opportunity arose. At Skip Barber Racing School, I was given a foundation to skills that I can build upon and, with practice, transform my fears into confidence and know-how.