Abarth Track Day with Skip Barber Racing


When the team at Fiat asked if I would be interested in honing my driving skills in the Abarth 124 and 500 at the Cresson Motorsport Ranch, the answer was of course yes. I was going to need to be up in the Dallas region anyways for some other stories so I loaded up the press car I was driving and headed north. 

That night we had an amazing dinner at a local steakhouse, chatted with the Abarth development team and Fiat marketing staff and talked about the 124 Abarth race car that had taken part in the San Pedro Martir Hill Climb. But while steaks, wine, and amazing conversation are all fun, I was looking forward to pushing the 124 Abarth on the track, the week before I had been driving the 2019 Mazda MX5 RF so I was excited to see how the Mazda's Italian cousin would stack up.


Arriving at the track the 500s and 124s were lined up, the Fiat team even had a classic Fiat 500 to bring out just for fun, it is easy to forget how much smaller an original is until you see it side by side with the current Fiat 500. I was the first of the journalists to arrive, it was cool and overcast, but it at least the rain has missed us. As the other arrived we were directed to the track's clubhouse to sign waivers and eat breakfast burritos while we waited for our classroom time with the instructors from Skip Barber Racing.


The classroom session was short, basics on cornering, tires, car control, the room was a mix of seasoned automotive journalists and social media influencers, with me kinda walking the line between both camps. I have been to a number of driving schools and experiences, so I have sat through several of these classrooms talks. I really just wanted to get out on the track and see what these cars could do.


To get everyone familiar with the cars we each started out on a skid pad, then moved over to a short autocross course where we had an instructor giving us pointers. Once we got the green light to drive solo, it was time for helmets and full track for some lead-follow laps. First up was the 124 with the paddle-shifted automatic transmission which was surprisingly good for a car that starts at just over $30,000 when equipped with the optional 6-speed automatic. Followed by the 6-speed manual transmission Abarth 124, which since the sun had come out meant we could go topless. 


The 124 Abarth in the auto or manual was impressive, fun to drive, and handled much like the MX5 Cup, but the 124 does have that extra hint of style and callbacks to the classic 124 Spider, which triggered some fond memories of my own classic 124. The optional blackout hood they call "heritage stripes" (should be called Stradale Stripes or something else) harken back to the original 124 Abarth Stradale, a homologation special that was sold to the masses in 1972, the race version of the car won the European Rally Championship and rally fans flocked to Fiat dealers to buy the lightweight street-legal rally car. This new Abarth captures some of that spirit, but with air conditioning and a nice sound system.


The 500 Abarth was next, a car that I have some experience with and have been considering buying as a project car for the site. The 500 is a fun little fwd beast, with an exhaust note you don't expect and very predictable handling. While the 124 seemed faster the 500 is a lot of fun even at slower speeds. My only minor complaint about the 500 Abarth is the manual transmission shifter feels a little vague when you change gears, but other than that, it is still my favorite pocket rocket and a lot of fun for a car that starts at just over $20,000.


With laps done and no one ending up on their roof, it was time to get some track time (in the right seat) of the 124 Abarth Rally car, the 300hp, FIA spec rally car that has raced all over the US and Mexico representing the Abarth brand. With a professional racing driver at the wheel, we set off to blast around the track and after a few laps, it is easy to see why the 124 has been doing so well on the European rally circuit, winning the championship in 2018.

After getting shuttled back to the clubhouse, we receive our certificate of completion from Skip Barber Racing School a cool Abarth hat and some other assorted swag. While I came into this expecting to like the 124 Abarth, I left loving it, while just days before I had written about the MX5 RF and how great it was, the retro charm of the 124 won me over, while on paper the MX5 makes more horsepower, has a more modern gearbox, and is faster, there is something about a car that can put a stupid boyish grin on my face, and so far I have yet to slide behind the wheel of anything with an Abarth badge and not be grinning ear to ear.

For more on the Abarth range offered in the US visit Fiat.com and check out my YouTube video from the day.


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