This is a guest post from Carlos Roncajolo, one of our participants in the first ever Abarth Track Experience. We asked him to give us his favorite memories and an inside look at what it was like to compete at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway against professional drivers, other bloggers and some of the fans from our FIAT USA Facebook page.
To begin, this won’t be your typical blog post with overwhelming amounts of data and raw numbers being thrown out. This is just a car enthusiast speaking to other car enthusiasts without all the noise involved. I’m a 27 year old amateur driver who has raced cars all my life and this is my experience in plain English.
In April of 2012, I found myself invited by FIAT to be one of a handful of people heading out to the very first FIAT Abarth Track Experience. I had previously had the opportunity to get behind the wheel of the European version of the Abarth, and I couldn’t wait to get behind the wheel to see how the two stacked up against each other. Our destination was the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, just a short drive outside the strip. FIAT put us up at the Aria Hotel and the first night there we got to meet the rest of the group at a dinner event. There were some lucky Facebook fans who won this trip, as well as auto/lifestyle bloggers, and pro-drivers. We were placed in teams of four that would battle on the track for points that would determine a winner at the end of the day. I was part of Team Stingers, headed by professional driver Maryeve Dufault. Our team consisted of four drivers, including Dufault, a FIAT USA Facebook fan, a blogger, and me. The family atmosphere of the entire event made it feel very welcoming and every FIAT person I chatted with was bursting with excitement. You could tell they wanted us to get into the cars already. After all, this moment had been coming for a long time and they had been working extremely hard for it. The next day would prove to be a lot of fun.
It was time to get down to business.
Early in the morning, all the drivers boarded a bus and we were off to the track. As the bus entered the tunnel entrance to the infield, I knew this was sacred ground. Motorsports can be dangerous and FIAT made sure everyone was well versed in safety precautions and proper driving instructions. They nailed this part of the experience, which was a welcome relief. You simply can’t fool around on the track.
As someone who has had the chance to drive both versions, my opinion is that the FIAT 500 Abarth is actually a better offering than what Europeans have. Yes, you read that correctly.
With 170hp on-tap from the aggressive 1.4L MultiAir engine, the Abarth has more than enough power to deliver an impressive driving experience. This isn’t a point-and-shoot style car, but rather a momentum carrier. You have to know how to work the power and the 160lbs of torque (on Sport mode) together in order to carry a fast but balanced line through corners. The Abarth rewards the smooth style of driving that’s perfect for an everyday enthusiast, like me.
Our Abarth (I like the sound of that) rides on a smoother suspension setup than what I remember from the European model. This car delivered on every level of my expectations.
Our day consisted of two separate track sessions, an autocross competition, and a head-to-head segment.
The first track session was a recon-style exercise meant to get us acquainted with the car. As we left pit lane and made our way onto the track, I immediately noticed how nicely the pedals had been set up to allow for some heel-toe footwork. It’s often overlooked, so it was nice to see the performance pedals come with the package.
The exhaust deserves its own blog post, but I’ll do my best to let you in on what it sounds like. I was in love from the first time I heard it. The FIAT engineers really understand what we want to drive and what we want to hear. Out on the track, the exhaust snaps back at you and pops as you lift off the gas to shift. It always wants to scream for more. The interior of the car is laid out ergonomically and organized, so there is little confusion. I’m 6’2 and had plenty of room to play with. When the lateral G’s picked up the tempo, it was nice to feel the seats doing their job and keeping you in place.
Next up was the autocross course where each of the teams would fight for the best time. Team Stingers, Bad Boys, Cyclone, Velocity, and Adrenaline were all given four laps around the course to place the fastest time. The course was tight and didn’t warrant the need to pop into second gear, so long as you kept the engine revved high and the momentum going. My lap times ended up being the fastest of the day by a non-pro. Team Stingers was rolling hard and fast at the top of the time sheets!
The rest of the day was spent battling it out, head-to-head for the fastest lap times. We even got to ride with the professionals as they roared around the track. The pro drivers were great mentors and provided plenty of feedback as they rode along with us. It was reassuring for all of us amateurs to know that our pro drivers were there to help us out and get the best from the car. The entire FIAT Abarth Track Experience was exhilarating and thoughtfully laid out. We had plenty of track time and instruction as well. I couldn’t believe how well the cars held up after an entire day of pushing them as hard as we could. The fact that this program is offered to anyone who buys an Abarth is absolutely stellar. Everyone should take up this offer!
Team Stingers drove hard but we were no match for Team Bad Boys speed, who took over the podium at the end of the day. I did claim the top spot on the podium when the autocross winners were announced and it felt like I had won the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Okay, maybe not THAT race, but it felt great either way.
Personally, I feel more attached to this vehicle than ever, and can’t wait to see it out on the roads. Luckily, if I ever want to take a trip down memory lane, we were provided with thumb drives that captured our time on the track from all angles. I have video footage from each module that I participated in, and can brag to my friends on demand.