Building a FIAT Drift Car - the Pursuit of Lunacy
By Micheal "Ballin' " Beck
The morning of my inaugural drift event, I didn’t even want to get in the truck to drive to the track. All I could think about was the colossal idiot I was going to look like trying to drift an old FIAT. Why hadn’t I just kept my mouth shut on the podcast? If I hadn’t blabbed to the world I could back out of this and pretend like it never happened, maintaining some shred of dignity........but I didn’t do that. I had not only gabbed about it on my own podcast, I had done it on at least one, if not two others. So I was sort of committed. Podcast problems.
The two-hour drive to Raceway Park of the Midlands was remarkably short. So short in fact, when we arrived I looked for excuses not to open the trailer. “I have to use the restroom on the other side of the park.” “Is this trailer tire low, we should probably address this first.” But it was no use delaying the inevitable: I had to get the car out the trailer to be teched and swap tires.
Our trailer has large side doors which the salesman would like you to believe allow the driver’s door of the racecar to swing open past the threshold of the trailer, allowing you to enter or exit the car more easily. That’s a lie. Well, I suppose it’s not a lie if you own a lifted Jeep or an BMW Isetta. Basically the door isn’t low enough for the car door to open fully so you to stumble very ungracefully out the side of the trailer and face plant on the ground. Also, they do a marginable job of showing off the trailer’s contents. By merely opening the side door I could see people standing in the paddock, peering inside with a puzzled look. It’s going to be a long day. I pulled the car out and parked it on the other side of the trailer and changed to the 175 General Tires I had bought on Craigslist earlier in the week. I think I was feeling a bit ambitious while prepping the car thinking the puny Twin Cam would spin the dry-rotted Toyo RA1s at full chat. With the car sitting in the paddock looking about as out of place as Richard Branson at a soup kitchen, I was surprised when someone approached me and called the 43-year-old 124 “dope”.
“This is dope!”
“What’s dope?” “This is dope?”
“Yeah dude this FIAT is dope.”
“Wait… you know this is a FIAT?”
“Yeah, I think this is sick dude, I can’t believe you’re going to skid this. Good luck today man, have fun”
Apparently I had grossly underestimated the drifting community’s penchant for style. To give further credit, the attendees of the O Drift Collective event actually knew what a FIAT was, which is more credit than I can give to many other racing associations’ attendees. “What FIAT is this?” was the most common question I got, followed by “are you going to slide this? Dude, that is sick.” My fears turned out to be completely irrational.
The driver’s meeting was quite quick. Basically they just showed us the sections of the track we were allowed to drift in the morning and in the afternoon. Due to what I assume to be insurance reasons, we were only allowed to drift two sections of the track at a given time, with the sections changing after a break for lunch. The sections consisted of two or three corners with cones to mark the start and finish. You drift the first section and then you taxi to the next. Really the whole drivers’ meeting was quite refreshing: here is where you drift, here is where you don’t, don’t run over anyone and you’ll be fine. Good enough.
I was oddly calm as I approached the first section. I had been out on the track before with a gentleman named Luke who had been on our show earlier in the year. I kind of got the gist of how these things were supposed to work and the speeds at which you have to enter corners. If you’re considering trying drifting for the first time, I think the most important step you can take to prepare yourself is go to an event WITHOUT your car and get some ride-alongs. You’d be surprised the speeds at which you have to take some corners. As I’m preparing to start my section, I look back and see a white WRX behind me. “Is that a camera car?” I say to the starter. “No he pulled the front axles out apparently, he’s here to drift.” Yet another example of the endless style and joie de vivre of drifters.
“I guess we’re seeing how long of a burnout everyone can do. So hit it when you’re ready.” Hit it I did. I was able to get the FIAT to do a burnout through first gear and into part of second with the skinny 175 section tires. After that short lived distraction, I quickly realized my first corner was approaching. I don’t have a 5/10ths switch. I don’t do sighting laps, as dangerous and childish as that may be. So I was hammering towards the first corner as quickly as the little Twin Cam would allow, knowing based on my laps with Luke that I’d probably make it through the corner without understeering off.
Something I quickly realized after a couple laps of the track was I was on the wrong line. Even autocrossers or occasional track day enthusiasts will have a general idea of where the fast line is in the corner. If you are anywhere near that line, you’re in the wrong spot. I wasn’t staying wide enough entering a corner and my drift initiation consisted of turning slightly sharper than I normally would on a grip line and mashing the throttle. The car will do a slight skid in this case, but it’s not the correct way to set up a proper drift, I learned.
Around lunch time, Luke joined me on the track for a little instruction. Luke opened up my line and fixed my initiation. The key to starting a good skid, especially in a low powered car, is to do what you’ve probably heard of as a “Scandinavian flick”, or quickly turning away from the corner and immediately flicking the car the other way and applying throttle. This “flick” upsets the chassis and makes the car oversteer much more easily. Once I got a feel for the correct initiation, we started working on transitions. A transition is starting a drift in one direction, getting the car to grip, and then initiating a drift in the other direction in two (or more) subsequent turns, such as a chicane. This is extremely difficult. The Fiat, despite its skinny tires and 205 Toyo RA-1s on the front, kept wanting to grip in the rear and push the car off the track when I tried to transition from the first drift to the second. In a car with more power, this would be less of an issue. Luke taught me a handy technique called clutch kicking (which is exactly what it sounds like) can send abrupt power to the rear wheels and mitigate some of the tendency for the rear tires to bite. It’s quite good fun, but, again, my seven years of grip racing experience was hard to overcome: hovering my foot over the clutch in preparation to kick it was a hard habit to begin to form.
I wish I could say after a day on the track that I had a breakthrough moment and was able to effortlessly shred the Generals to bits, white smoke billowing, enveloping myself and the standing crowd in a haze symbolizing my driving prowess. But I was only able to do a few half-decent skids, nothing overly flashy, but quite satisfying. The FIAT had done it, despite all odds against it and my own reservations. While we were waiting in one of the staging lanes, Luke told me the car felt quite a bit like a KA 240SX, which I took as high praise. It was just after 3pm when I put the car back in the trailer, despite having 2 hours of track time still available. The car had been thrashed at its absolute limit for the past 5 hours and I decided not to push my luck any longer. It performed flawlessly.
Though I had an absolutely fantastic time, I think the inaugural FIAT drifting event will be the car’s last. I may decide to attend one more event in October, but I feel the car deserves to be converted back to a grip car and the RX7 can take the reigns as the Ten Tenths Drift Missile.
Michael Beck lives in a world of automotive lunacy. In 2009 when he decided to start autocrossing, he passed on buying a Miata or a CRX and bought an old FIAT 124 with a stuck engine. After somehow successfully turning the old FIAT into a car nearly as fast as a Miata, he decided to build a track day car. Naturally, he bought an old RX7 out of someone’s backyard and through some shady craigslist dealings, acquired a nearly-free LT1 from a police car. Michael is co-host of Ten Tenths Podcast.