By: Ryan Jurnecka
After owning my 2012 Fiat 500 Sport now for four years, there’s little I don’t know about my car. What I didn’t know, however, was what it was like to drive it on a track. This all changed recently when I participated in the newly founded Sports Car Club of America Track Night in America.
Track Night in America invites anybody with a vehicle in good condition to take their car and go play on a track, no matter what their experience level may be. The environment is strictly casual, with an emphasis placed on safety. This doesn’t mean they won’t have an exhilarating experience out there on the track. Quite the contrary, it means they can actually just relax and enjoy themselves.
The program is, in fact, a series of events held at 20 different locations across the country, with each event hosting a night (from 3 - 9 p.m.) once per month for three to four months. I participated in Southern California’s chosen location which happened to be the Streets of Willow at Willow Springs International Raceway in Rosamond, California. It’s a tight, twisty course with fantastic elevation changes set in desolate, yet beautiful surroundings.
For first-timers to a track, or even that particular track, there’s a novice group they may join that’ll offer drivers meetings, instruction and paced laps. It is certainly geared for those starting out at the shallow end of the pool. However, it’s also a good option for drivers who want to get comfortable with a car that they’ve never experienced at speed. An intermediate group is for more track-experienced participants, but still emphasizes on a comfortable speed. Lastly, there’s an advanced group that lets drivers stretch their legs further.
I had only driven this track once before as part of one of those “drive a supercar on a track” experiences, however I felt comfortable enough to take part in the intermediate group. But even in intermediate, I never felt intimidated out there on the track with every car lapping me (there’s only so much a 101-horsepower engine can do). I found the experience supremely rewarding while also providing me a chance to become more accustomed to my car at speed.
Prior to the event, I had my car fitted with a set of AZENIS RT615K tires in lieu of the stock tires. I couldn’t believe what a difference it made. My experience in driving my car at speed had been restricted to mostly backroads which provided nice, tight corners to give me a feel of the handling and performance characteristics of my little Fiat, but I always felt like I was torturing the tires. They’d screech at any aggressive cornering, creating a rather guilty experience while simultaneously suffering from massive understeer – of course the front wheel drive doesn’t help.
On the Falkens, even driving to and from the track was enjoyable. I was warned by the folks who installed my tires that I might experience significantly more road noise, and that the 10mm wider tires could rub if I was forced to make a U-turn. I’m happy to report none of those statements proved true in my case.
On track, the AZENIS RT615Ks provided me with an incredible amount of grip, both on the Streets’ long, high-speed corners, as well as the track’s 180-degree corners. Never did I hear the shrill squeak of traction lost as my body inside the car moved more than my car. Gone was the understeer, too, which further heightened my experience on the track. As a result, I got to know my peppy Cinquecento so much more and felt confidence in its performance, allowing me to get into a nice, consistent pace throughout all three 20-minute sessions. It even became a sort of fan-favorite with several attendees as they admired the way it moved and looked on the track. It was a completely guiltless blast.
So if you’re looking for something to do while playing hooky from work, Track Night of America should definitely be at the top of your list. The events have a low price point of $150 for participation on-track, and that’s just a base point (don’t hesitate to ask them about student discounts in addition to other price incentives they offer to take a chunk out). The only safety equipment required is a helmet that applies to the most current Snell, FIA or SFI standards. Family and friends who just want to hang out and watch the event can come free of charge, and barbequing is encouraged.
As Jim Llewellyn of SCCA says, “It’s cheaper than deep-sea fishing, and I should know - I’ve done that.”
Can’t argue with that logic.
Ryan Jurnecka is the motorsports editor at European Car Magazine. He’s a big fan of Italian cars and loves to say 'Cinqocento' out loud. You can follow him on Twitter @ryanjurnecka.