Focusing On Fundamentals With Skip Barber Racing and Fiat Abarth

“So, can anyone tell me what the five most expensive words in motorsport are?” asked Terry Earwood, chief instructor for Skip Barber Racing School.

I thought I had him.

Whether we’re talking about a Trans Am championship or a local track day, this discrepancy between ego and skill has been the impetus of much twisted metal over the years. It’s the school’s goal to help stem the tide and, with any luck, make their students faster drivers in the process.

“In a TA2 car, it usually equates to about $6,000 a word,” Terry quipped.

We found ourselves at Willow Springs International Raceway in Rosamond, California, on a crisp and clear October morning with a fleet of Abarth-tuned Fiat 500s and 124 Spiders at the ready, and a whole lot of performance driving ahead of us. In 2019, Fiat will be celebrating the 70th anniversary of the Abarth brand, the performance arm of the company, and they’re determined as ever to prove the track-worthiness of these diminutive machines.

Founded in 1949 by Carlo Abarth, an Austrian who moved to Italy to be closer to the center of automotive world in Europe, the Abarth brand started as aftermarket parts company and race team before becoming a more integral part of Fiat performance. Carlo's birthday was in November, which is denoted as the Scorpio in Astrology - hence the scorpion in the Abarth logo. Images: FCA

Before unleashing us on the Streets of Willow to undoubtedly set some lap records, we needed to get schooled, and Skip Barber’s one-day program is divided into several distinct phases that focus on nailing the fundamentals before turning one’s attention to shaving off tenths.

Terry discusses the finer points of weight transfer and grip before unleashing us out on the course.

Whether you’re a track newcomer or a seasoned racer, those core principles are still the foundation of clean (and thus, fast) performance driving. So we busted out the notepad and let Terry – a multi-discipline champion with a racing resume as long as your author’s arm – guide us through the process.

The Skid Pad

“As we squeeze on the throttle of any car with some degree of steering dialed in, at some point we will hit the limit of grip,” Earwood explained. “At that limit, it means that if you add any more steering the front end will slide, and if you add any throttle the front end will slide, as just about every street car out there is designed to understeer at the limit. They’re designed that way so that, as you’re leaving a corner and the front end walks out, you can just back off the power to collect the car again.”

In a nutshell, speed dictates the radius of a turn that a given vehicle can physically manage. That’s a pretty straightforward concept, and while understeer isn’t particularly sexy it makes for less drama, and thus easier corrections. But what happens when you find yourself in an oversteer situation?

“With a rear-wheel drive car like the 124, if you load all the weight of the car over the nose and you pop the gas, you can get the rear tires to step out,” he noted. “And if that happens, we have to fix that or the car is not going to end up where we want it.”

It took us a few loops to re-program our brains to not try to drift the cars — the goal here was to induce oversteer and immediately correct it so we could focus on our reactions and timing. Eventually, we proved our worth to the instructor in the passenger seat, who then allowed us to play around with holding those slides a bit longer. Images: FCA

The simple answer is to just counter-steer into the slide to bring the car back under control. But that’s not really all there is to it. “The goal here is to transition those rear tires from sliding across the surface to rolling again,” he said. “But if you’re not willing or able to recover the car at the end of that moment, you’re still at risk of losing control of the car.”

As Terry explained it, two major things happen as the car begins to calm down from an oversteer event. First, the load on the suspension changes as the weight transfers from one side of the car to the other. “The more the suspension is compressed on one side the more energy there is stored there,” Terry noted. “And the harder the rebound will be. So we’re trying to outrun the rebound, that second reaction. The moment you feel that rear end calm down again, you have to bring the wheel back straight to outrun it.”

The more the suspension is compressed on one side, the more energy there is stored there, and the harder the rebound will be. — Terry Earwood, Skip Barber Racing School

But there’s another factor that Terry cites as even more crucial to a successful recovery. “The minute the car starts to slide sideways without steering in it, guess where we’re all looking? The cow pasture that the car is sliding into. Because we’re curious! Every one of us is going to look where the car is going rather than where we need to go, and you have to correct that too.” Terry points out that shifting your focus there rather than continuing to direct the car where you want it to go can — in that split second — cause you to fall behind the car’s secondary motion, making recovery more difficult. “The hands and feet can only react to what the eyes are seeing.”

Autocross

After working on the skid pad — and forcing ourselves not to try to channel our inner Ken Block — we headed over to our next exercise.

Some might dismiss autocross as just a flimsy alternative to lapping a proper road course due to the lower speeds and the relative simplicity of the course layout. But fixating on those elements ignores the important virtues offered by this format of performance driving.

Finding the vehicles’ limits of grip and braking capability here directly translates to more confident driving out on the road course. Image: FCA

Perhaps most importantly, the lower speeds of an autocross course generally equate to lower risk, and that means you can more readily approach the limits. That’s not just beneficial in terms of the fun factor: It also provides you with a clear understanding of how the vehicle will react to various inputs in a given situation. The ability to replicate those circumstances in short succession allows you to clearly pinpoint issues and refine various techniques, which in turn pays dividends out on the racetrack.

The hands and feet can only react to what the eyes are seeing. — Terry Earwood, Skip Barber Instructor

Trail braking, for instance, is not something you want to practice when you’re approaching the end of the main straight on Big Willow at 150 mph. But here, the biggest consequence for getting it wrong is likely to be a displaced orange cone. “We designed this autocross course for you to have to trail brake at the far end – it’s got a 180-degree corner, and the moment you dip into the brake pedal, the car wants to go straight,” Terry pointed out. “But if you leave the brake lights on and let your eyes lead your right foot into the corner, they’ll tell you to leave a little trail brake on to help point the car.”

Lapping Streets of Willow

The main event involved four-car sessions alternating between the Fiat 500 Abarth and the Fiat 124 Spider Abarth with an instructor in a lead car to help establish pace and keep us on the right line. Streets of Willow is a 1.6-mile, 14-turn course that’s tight and technical, making it a perfect venue for small, lightweight vehicles like these Fiats.

The technicality of Streets of Willow keeps drivers busy all the time, emphasizing technique and cornering capability over sheer straight-line speed. Images: FCA

One of the biggest factors in a driver’s capability on a given racetrack is familiarity with the course layout, so we picked up the pace in increments, eventually reaching a point where we were ringing out these Abarth machines for all they’re worth to prevent the gap between the instructor’s car and our pack from widening.

“The way to find the perfect line — and live forever — is to come into a corner with a little less speed than you think you need to, and turn in a little later than you might want to,” Terry told us. “Happiness is over-slowing and turning-in late for the apex.”

At the end of the day, students were offered the opportunity to ride shotgun with Earwood in a rally-prepped Fiat 124. A 1.8-liter turbocharged mill is on hand here making about 300 hp, and it’s hooked to a six-speed, paddle-shifted sequential gearbox. The gutted race car weighs less than 2300 pounds wet, so it’s plenty quick. Image: FCA

At speed while surrounded by a gaggle of snarling Abarth powerplants, that’s a little easier said than done, but in the pursuit of maximum time on throttle and minimum steering angle — ostensibly the key to faster lap times — it simplifies the process of honing one’s technique. And as with the rest of Earwood’s instruction, it proved to be advice well worth heeding.

About the author

Bradley Iger

Lover of noisy cars, noisy music, and noisy bulldogs, Brad can often be found flogging something expensive along the twisting tarmac of the Angeles Forest.
Read My Articles

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