Car manufacturers spend a whole lot of money, time, and energy refining vehicles to make them better handling, faster moving, and stronger.

So Fiat hosted a Skip Barber One-Day Racing School at New Jersey Motorsports Park in Millville to show off the new 2019 500 Abarth and 124 Spider Abarth models.

But, in the end, performance comes down to where the rubber meets the road.

"Everything is sitting on about four softballs," Terry Earwood, chief instructor for Skip Barber, said at the beginning of class, pointing out just how small a surface makes up the contact point between vehicle and road.

While the cars delighted journalists on the skid pad, autocross, and track, test opportunities are not limited to journalists: A similar course is available for run-of-the-mill drivers.

Not interested in racing or spending just under $2,000 for the basic class? Here are some  takeaways from the day's events.

First, some algebra: I'm sure all readers already knew that 15gr = mph². (Perhaps Earwood figured he'd weed out the less brave or the mathematically impaired right from the start. Still, if he's teaching Danica Patrick, Jeff Gordon, and almost half this year's crop of Indy racers, you follow along.)

Translating Earwood's equation, 15 times grip times radius equals speed squared. Simplified, if you want to go faster around a turn, increase the grip of the tires and/or the radius of the turn.

Further simplified, if you're going too fast into a turn, the car will try to make the turn bigger, whether you want to or not. Screeeech.

Hands-on training: After about 45 minutes in the classroom, it was out to the track.

Skidpad drivers took the 124 Spiders onto a wet circle, shifted into second, and spun circles to the point that the car began losing its grip. Then came the real hands-on test — let it spin wide, or try to recover.

I managed to keep the skid controlled several times and skid in a circle for longer than I expected, screeching to a halt a few times, and only fishtailed a time or two — which Earwood had told us means you caught the skid but didn't believe it worked.

"Put your eyes where you want to wind up," Earwood said to me, repeating the classroom lessons while seated next to me.

Afterward came the autocross, a smaller cone-marked, closed-loop track with speeds of about 45 mph max, but putting into practice the lessons of the classroom.

In a Fiat 124 Spider Abarth, Mr. Driver’s Seat Scott Sturgis navigates the skid pad at the N.J. Motorsports Park in Millville.
ELIZABETH ROBERTSON
In a Fiat 124 Spider Abarth, Mr. Driver’s Seat Scott Sturgis navigates the skid pad at the N.J. Motorsports Park in Millville.

Up to speed? In the afternoon's track events, we really had the opportunity to put the 500 and 124 Spider models to the test. Mr. Driver's Seat's need for speed was not quenched on this particular outing, as the pace car only let us reach about 70 mph — slower than drivers might go on the Expressway.

"We have to have everyone be able to operate at a similar pace," said Dan DeMonte, chief marketing officer for Barber. "Each group has to operate at a similar and safe pace."

With more time to practice for most courses, DeMonte said, the group certainly would have moved faster on the track.

Mr. Driver’s Seat Scott Sturgis drives a Fiat 500 Abarth through the autocross course at the N.J. Motorsports Park in Millville.
ELIZABETH ROBERTSON
Mr. Driver’s Seat Scott Sturgis drives a Fiat 500 Abarth through the autocross course at the N.J. Motorsports Park in Millville.

Bit of slip: A heavy rain during our track time put the 124 Spider just about at its limits, as I felt the tires starting to slip in the Thunderbolt raceway's tight turns as the wipers pulsed in front of me.

Lessons about slowing before the turns came back. Still, I found myself taking the turns a little too fast, then braking in the turns — bad move. I just wanted to race, darn it, and wasn't going to slow down.

But then the lesson becomes light on the pedal — sudden moves can be irreversible.

I did keep the radius lessons in my mind, following the cones from the far side of the track, through the inside lane on the curve and then back to the far side. All the journalists came back unscathed.

Putting them into action: The real key for most of us would not be about racing better, but about facing everyday driving better.

I thought more clearly about the winding roads I travel almost every day and slowing down before the turns. I patted myself on the back knowing it's something I do as a habit, much better on familiar roads than I did on the track. And plenty of Noah's Ark-level days this summer and fall have made the lessons even more important.

So, it's a bunch of money, but a One-Day Driving School definitely would be a worthwhile investment for the average driver — something available at New Jersey Motorsports and four other courses Skip Barber is affiliated with, or through private programs occasionally arranged on other tracks.

And maybe, just maybe you'll also get to hear music to your ears: the much-lauded Earwood tell you, "Nice work on the skidpad," as you receive your diploma.

Coming soon: A closer look at the 2019 500 Abarth and 124 Spider Abarth.