Fiat 500 Abarth Track Experience
All automakers offer perks to help move the sheetmetal. Sometimes it's a financial incentive, other times it's a set of free floormats from the dealership. But the Fiat 500 Abarth comes with a perk that we can really get behind: the Abarth Track Experience, a chance to spend a day driving a new Abarth on a racetrack, with expert instruction at your side.
The idea of specialized track time for performance cars isn't new, but it's rare for a car with a sticker price around $25,000. But Fiat can do it because the Abarth Track Experience is an offshoot of the SRT Track Experience run by the same group of race drivers and instructors. Looping the sporty Abarth into the program wasn't terribly difficult, and John "Hammer" Palazzolo, who runs the track day festivities, even says that more Abarth owners participate than SRT owners.
I got to participate in a recent Abarth Track Experience at the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California along with 50 or so Abarth owners. I competed in the autocross, got some track time and then went back to a head-to-head autocross match. The program had an impressive turnout, and not just the numbers, but also the diversity of ages and backgrounds, and how far some of them had come. While many were local, some had driven up from San Diego, others from San Francisco, and still another from as far away as Texas.
The Fiat Abarth's low price and small size suggests it's a car for young people, and sure enough, there were guys like 22-year-old Greg Cole, from Long Beach, Calif., a former Ford Focus SVT owner for whom the Abarth's sporty personality was a perfect fit. But it wasn't just young hotshoes. Harold Lear is a 65-year-old retired sheriff and current real estate agent out of San Diego, who bought the Abarth after being impressed with his wife's Fiat 500 Lounge. Carl Angon, a 43 year old hotel owner from Rancho Bernardo, California, replaced a Ford Ranger with his Abarth. The "his-and-hers" team of Erin and Nicole Zulich own Power Sports Indoor boat & RV Storage in Corona, California, and bought their Abarths on the same day.
Novices, but not for long
Few participants I spoke to had ever driven a car on a racetrack before, but the Abarth Track Experience is designed so that novices and more experienced drivers can have a good time. All the activities are set up with a "safety first" philosophy, emphasizing having fun within your own limits, rather than trying to impress everyone. The idea is to showcase the capabilities of the car in a controlled environment, and with cars supplied by Fiat so you don't have to worry about chewing up your own tires. Sure, there's a competitive element to set the best autocross time -- with a winner's podium and everything -- but Hammer's encouraging banter praised top times and personal improvements with equal sincerity.
We divided into two groups, and ours headed off to the autocross. The short course wound through cones; hit one and you add 2 seconds to your time. Hammer could do it in a little more than 28 seconds, while most owners were somewhere closer to 30 seconds. Fiat supplied all the cars, in this case the 2015 Fiat Abarth with the new-for-2015 6-speed automatic transmission that comes with a manual shift function, a slight drop in horsepower and a bump in torque. Nothing's changed about the Abarth's fun, tossable handling, or its throaty exhaust, which punctuates aggressive upshifts with a loud "pop!" Judging by the smiles on the faces of the drivers and adrenaline-induced shivers, the automatics gave up nothing in terms of excitement.
From the autocross we headed to Auto Club Speedway's infield course, where we spent the rest of the morning learning the track at relatively modest speeds. The instructors were as patient as you'd expect, and iron stomached enough to withstand the lurching and swaying that inevitably accompanies new drivers on a racetrack. The low speeds were fine for most, and those with higher ambitions knew that we'd return to the bigger track later in the day.
After lunch, we headed back to the autocross area for a clever "head-to-head" competition that had us starting on opposite sides of the autocross loop. Instead of racing against the clock, whoever got back to their initial starting position first was the winner, minus any penalties for hitting cones. Like the autocross, it was a fun and informative exercise, and Hammer's banter had everyone cheering on the competitors in each race.
A real hot lap
Then it was back to the track for all-out driving, where we learned that at least one instructor had succumbed to the nausea-inducing inexperience of some of the owners. Nonetheless we pressed on, and with some expert instruction, everyone improved their confidence and lap times on the track. As a finale, we took the passenger seat as the instructors took us on a truly hot lap around the circuit, stretching the Abarth's abilities far beyond where it had been taken previously. I lost count of the times I heard "I didn't know my car could go that fast."
At the end of the day, awards were given, applause was clapped, and everyone went home with a new appreciation of the capability of their little cars. While the Abarth Track Experience isn't actually a school, it offers a meaningful introduction to on-track driving, and it's a bargain considering one-day racing courses can cost hundreds of dollars or more. If you own a Fiat 500 Abarth, or are considering purchasing one, it's the tastiest icing on the cake that we can imagine.
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