Santa Fe Springs in Southern California sounds romantic. In reality, the place is an industrial area southeast of Los Angeles. But that doesn't mean something romantic isn't going on.
Tuning house Road Race Motorsports has begun an affair that melds two cultures, a kind of Romeo and Juliet story—only with an upbeat ending. On one side is the Fiat 500, the adorable little Italian subcompact that seems tailor-made for darting down tight Roman roads. On the other is the American passion for customization, for making something capable of victory on a track.
The result is distinctly Italian-American, which is hardly surprising, because the godfather of Road Race Motorsports is also Italian-American: Rob Tallini. "We're the first company in North America to develop and make performance parts for the 500," says Tallini, a man who has spent 30 years racing many machines on many surfaces against other cars and the clock. Parked just outside is a fully prepped Mitsubishi Evo that looks ready to tackle the Monte Carlo Rally at a moment's notice. Inside the shop is a 911 GT3. RRM has worked with several manufacturers to create special projects.
The car we're most interested in right now is the Fiat 500 Abarth. Once at the RRM shop, it's a somewhat open-ended list of modifications, but Tallini is collating and refining a package he calls M1. It definitely has to be wide-bodied and reach an acceptable level of power and chassis tuning. The M stands for macchina, which is Italian for machine. In these pictures are two of the first four M1 builds, the black car receiving a touch more attention than the white one. These parts are all designed to fit the American-spec 500, since the Euro version has slightly different dimensions.
Take a 500 Abarth into Tallini and the first question he'll ask is, "What do you want to do with it?" When that question is answered, it will dictate how the car is fettled. But Tallini has his own template: a setup suitable for tarmac rallying. He says it's "the one that will give you the most satisfaction and make you most likely to drive it."
Once the commitment is made, there's no going back. Sections of the fenders are cut away to make room for the wider wheel/tire combination, topped off by carbon-fiber flares. RRM receives "raw" alloy wheels and finishes them according to the customer's wishes. The anodized red versions photograph well, but in the shop is a black, chromed set that looks super-cool in real life.
On virtually every RRM vehicle are Toyo Proxes tires. Tallini has used them extensively in his racing career and finds them consistent in their ability to provide grip and resist wear.
There's actually a lot of carbon fiber on an M1, from side mirror caps to the aerodynamic kit to the vented hood. They all come from the shop's own molds and are the shop's own designs. Tallini feels that carbon fiber is one of his operation's strong suits. Note how the side skirts expand after the doors, making them less likely to be trodden on, and for easier entry and exit.
RRM doesn't bother trying to remove the original Abarth rear wing; it's too destructive. Instead, a specially designed carbon-fiber piece slips onto it.
Move down to the carbon-fiber rear diffuser and there's a Formula One-style third brake light set into it, as well as the tailpipes of RRM's own stainless steel exhaust system.
Behind the front lip is a duct that feeds air to the front brakes—enough to keep them cool and able to fight fade during track day torturing. The uprated braking system has been developed in conjunction with anchor aficionados StopTech. Pad compound is Tallini's recipe.
Just by looking at this brake ducting, we appreciate the twin goals of lightness and coolness that pervade the build. Lightness obviously helps with agility and balance. A tiny Antigravity lithium battery, only a fraction of the weight of regular lead/acid batteries, is one small step toward shedding the pounds.
Saving weight throughout means being able to pinpoint where the heavy stuff can go, like subframe braces and the hexagonal rear antiroll bar. The merits or otherwise of a six-sided antiroll bar can be argued this way and that, but Tallini says a customer of his saw lap times improve substantially once an RRM "Big Red" antiroll bar had been fitted. "He said it transformed the car," Tallini says. "That kind of response charges our batteries."
Keeping things cool helps the turbocharged engine make optimum power. RRM retains the stock engine internals and blower but uses a new in-house ECU, plus military-grade heatshields for the downpipe and turbo. The NACA duct and vent in the carbon-fiber hood contribute to keeping intake temperatures just 3 to 5 degrees higher than exterior temperatures. For good measure, RRM also offers the option of water/methanol cooling.
It's always a positive sign when even the invisible custom-made stuff looks good. RRM's lightweight pulley is a wonderful piece of machined aluminum. Tallini could have gone for a smaller pulley, but found that a fullsize unit works best.
The factory turbocharger has been boosted up to 22 psi, considered by RRM to be its "sweet spot," having gone as high as 30 psi in testing, but deciding to back it off in the interests of reliability and civility. "There are no trade-offs at this point," Tallini says. "No need for bigger injectors that drink more fuel. And we've not given up any driveability."
Tallini claims engine output is 250 hp at 5,500 rpm and 260 lb-ft of torque at 3,800 rpm, measured at the crank. The flatness of the torque curve between 3,000 and 5,000 rpm gives some idea of how sweetly driveable this engine is.
No transmission mods on these particular cars, but RRM does offer a limited-slip differential and its own carbon/Kevlar clutch components.
In any car worth the trouble, there's always a bit of German engineering. Here, it's the Bilstein suspension, tuned in conjunction with RRM to provide compliance as well as grip on the track or the street. Ride height at the front is lowered by 1.5 inches from stock, 1.75 inches at the rear. It's virtually the same equipment and setup used in the fleet of 500s driven by the Italian police. There's no adjustability, but "it's all done perfectly," Tallini says. That's because Bilstein and RRM worked on this together for a whole year, using only RRM's cars throughout the process.
Whether by luck or design, Fiat located the gear lever high up, so when you sit in the Racetech sports seat and grab the RRM aluminum shift knob (that's designed and machined to fit neatly in your hand), you can fantasize for a second that you're using a sequential 'box.
Another way to lose weight is to ditch the rear seats. Some customers do, some don't. An M1 Abarth could be just the thing for the guys to pile into during a track weekend evening when the local rib joint is calling. Or there's the option of fitting a sparse construction that Tallini calls a "sports" 'cage.
It takes a donor car (a current 2014 500 Abarth starts at $22,195) plus somewhere between $30,000 to $40,000 for a serial-numbered M1. Or it's possible to even get north of that amount, depending on how tricked out a customer would like the car to be. See how the white example has some smart leather upholstery with contrasting stitching. RRM also offers a complete roof transplant, taking off the metal one and replacing it with carbon fiber.
It's taken around two years to bring together this collection of parts and then refine them. Tallini and his team are rightly proud of their M1 package and clearly loving the work involved. But inveterate racers never rest on their laurels. In Tallini's case, here comes that Romeo name again. He's looking forward to the Alfa Romeo 4C and what Road Race Motorsports can do for that car—which could really be an affair to remember.
Tech Spec2012 Fiat 500 Abarth
Owner Road Race Motorsports
Location Santa Fe Springs, California
1.4-liter four-cylinder, turbocharged, hard anodized engine cover, lightweight pulley, Ultimate ECM, air intake, exhaust system, water/methanol injection kit, downpipe with micro cat and heatshield sleeve, turbo blanket, solid engine mounts, Antigravity battery, Zeitronix wideband air/fuel ratio meter
Stock five-speed manual
RRM/Stoptech calipers, rotors, pads, stainless steel braided lines
Bilstein B14-PSS coilovers, bushing kit, RRM Big Red rear antiroll bar, chassis bracing
Wheels & Tires
16x9 forged alloy wheels f&r, 225/40 Toyo Proxes R888 tires, black lug bolts
RRM carbon-fiber spoiler extension, carbon-fiber hood with vent and duct, carbon-fiber Forza front lip with carbon-fiber add-on, carbon-fiber flares, carbon-fiber side skirts, carbon-fiber front and rear bezels, carbon-fiber mirror covers, carbon-fiber trunk latch, carbon-fiber rear diffuser, carbon-fiber brake cooling ducts, grille insert, stripe kit
Rollcage, harnesses, aluminum shift knob, Alcantara instrument cowling cover, Racetech front bucket seats
Toyo tires, Bilstein, plus all our partners who have helped us (RRM) achieve the highest-performing Fiats on the continent