I may have bought my 1998 Firebird Formula in 2004, but the obsession over this particular car started long before that. When I was 12-years old, I couldn’t stop talking about the newly redesigned 4th-generation F-Body with the LS1 engine for 1998 — they were just the most incredible cars I’ve ever seen. To my dad, a top fuel driver, they were nothing, but that didn’t even phase me. A 1998 Formula was what I wanted, and when it came time to buy my first car, I wasn’t going to settle or compromise for something else, it was going to be that car.
My car was out there waiting on me, and I found her after quite a bit of searching. She was listed as having 100k more miles than she really did, which put the purchase right within my extremely limited budget. I was shocked when the dealer told me about the mistake, and how I was getting a car with only 25k miles on the clock for the price I was paying. See, from the start, my car has been something else!
Once I got her home, the plan wasn’t to modify her or go crazy, I just wanted to enjoy my newly acquired dream car. After some persuasion from friends, we took her to the track where she ran a 13.2 in the 1/4-mile. F-Body/LS1 people know what this means already: she was a factory freak! 13.2 might not be blistering by today’s stock car standards, but when your car is supposed to run 13.8, but is running quite a bit faster for no reason at all, it’s a pretty good feeling [road tests of these cars have pegged their 1/4-mile performance all over the place; though the fastest on record is a 12.8 with a ’98 Z28 6-speed from GM High-Tech –Ed.].
After going to the track, the bug bit me, I was ready to see how far I could take my factory freak by just fine-tuning little things here and there. It was while I was looking for free mods and ideas on LS1Tech.com that I found out about a bolt-on list of the ’50 fastest bolt-on only LS1 cars.’ At the time, the only swapped car on the list was a pre-98 4th-gen Trans Am, and I believe this car was running in the 10s, so I wasn’t gunning for #1, but I wanted top 10, maybe top 5, so I went all in.
Before I go any further, I have to acknowledge a discrepancy between what I’m saying here, and what I talked about in the video. I was tripped up on my words due to nerves, and got turned around with the times. I feel terrible for not giving the car the credit she’s due, but it did not take an exhaust to run 13.2, it ran 12.95 from the catback swap. So moving on…
Weight reduction and free mods actually took it pretty far before seriously modifying anything. The first round of bolt-ons included an LS6 intake, long-tube headers, cold air intake, K&N filter, and redoing the exhaust into a custom true-dual setup. The suspension got a few upgrades to get it off the line more efficiently, and life was good. I did end up on the list, but I walked right back off as soon as people started swapping LS engines into everything from first generation Camaros, to Miatas.
The bolt-on micro record got a little boring after a while, so I jumped right into getting a cam. A high lift COMP Cams camshaft would be one of my favorite modifications I’ve ever done to the car. It was so rowdy and barely had any manners, I loved it! My next modification was not so much fun; I let people talk me into the idea that I absolutely needed a high stall torque converter if the car was going to realize its full potential with the cam.
From the start, I hated the higher stall converter, it changed the car’s driving characteristics, and turned it into a finicky and unpredictable machine on the street. A set of heads would join the setup soon after.
I raced on this configuration for a while, but when the 4L60E bit the dust, I was actually pretty happy about it. The automatic tearing up gave me a little break and allowed me to rethink some things. A Tremec T56 6-speed manual would replace the stock transmission, and I loved it.
The LS7 clutch would eventually be replaced by a far superior DYAD clutch from Centerforce, and the rearend breaking would force an upgrade of the differential shortly thereafter. A transmission rebuild and major suspension overhaul would also take place during the clutch and rearend work, and this was all over the winter of 2016/spring 2017, up until about a week before this video was made. It was really important to me to make a lot of things ‘right’ again that I damaged or removed during the race to get on the bolt-on list.
I also wanted my Formula to feel like it had a modern suspension, so I put in the money and time to do it right; doing things right the first time was a lesson I had to learn the wrong way, over and over again. Part of this would include changing the old lowering springs and shocks to BMR springs and Koni shocks, and changing the torque arm and panhard rod to UMI’s versions. At this point, everything currently on it has been built/installed at-home, in the garage, except the Spartan tune.
I’m the type of person who will talk all day about the mechanics of the engine, or geometry of the suspension, and end up forgetting that the car is actually had a lot done other than just that. The number one thing I get asked about is the hood, so in case you’re wondering, it’s a VFN Smoothie-Q hood. The 6LE Designs front and side splitters also earn the car quite a bit of attention when she’s out and about.
I think as a Formula, the splitters and hood have really helped to bring a level of balance, as well as aggressiveness to the look of the car. I avoided getting a Trans Am because I wasn’t wild about the bumper cover, ground effects, and spoiler all together. No offense, they are my second favorite F-Body, but Formulas have a sexy coolness about them, and the recent upgrades accentuate the car’s features.
The rest of my story with the car could fill a book. One of these days, I’ll share the reason why the car is actually on engine #2, but let’s just say that it was a huge contributing factor to the reason I’d rather keep all of the work in-house (literally). It has been with me since before I was even an adult, and I’m 31-years old now with 12 of the past years being spent working in the automotive aftermarket industry, so I’ve picked up quite a few things along the way.
The next step is to get a ton more time in doing autocross and road racing, but I’ll probably never go as hard on the track as I did in my earlier years. I was once willing to crash this car or tear it up for the sake of pushing it to the limit, and maybe a little over, now, not so much. This car is basically a member of my family, and as cheesy as it is, my heart does flutter every time I sit down for a drive.