So you’re 19 years old, a year out of high school, you have a good job and a good head on your shoulders—what do you do now? If you’re Joe Rizzo from Inwood, New York, a life-long Firebird fan, you tell your parents, “If I can find a red WS6 with black interior and a six-speed, I’m buyin’ it.”

From his earliest days, Joe was enamored with the Firebird. It all started the first time he saw the TV series Knight Rider. He was hooked, and knew one day he would have his own Bird (even if it couldn’t talk back).

Pontiacs made up the stable of vehicles that Joe honed his skills on through his high-school years. A red ’89 T/A WS6 305 TPI automatic car sparks the fondest memories, along with a ’98 Grand Prix SE and ’90 black Formula 305 TPI with an automatic, all daily drivers.

Father Joe’s influence cannot be overlooked, as he would expose his young son to the excitement and technical know-how of wrenching and racing. Dad’s weapon of choice back in the day was a ’67 RS/SS Camaro convertible, which he set up for street-strip. Technical proficiency seems to run in the family, as Joe inherited his father’s skills and then some. As we will learn, young Joe would tackle much of the buildup himself in the confines of his driveway.

In September 2002, after scouring the Internet and calling countless dealers, he hit paydirt: a red ’02 six-speed WS6 with luscious ebony leather at Jim Salerno Pontiac/Buick/GMC in Randolph, New Jersey. Rushing to the dealer, Joe beat out another prospective buyer to get what the salesman claims was the very last red WS6 available in the tri-state area. As it was the actual final month of F-body production, this story seems plausible.

For much of its first year, Joe’s fresh-from-the-nest Bird saw cruising duties with a stock setup. Soon the modest addition of an airlid and aftercat exhaust introduced the red Raptor to its home away from home—the dragstrip. Whether on Long Island or in New Jersey, Joe was more than impressed with the performance of his mildly modified stick-shift T/A. Mid 12-second runs seemed the norm once Joe perfected his launch technique.

Being a real Trans Am fanatic, he would seek out and find others afflicted with the incurable condition. Thus he became a member of the Long Island F-Body Association, or LIFBA for short. Meeting other F-body owners and seeing what mods they had done to their rides made quite an impression on him. Joe’s inclination for modification was set and there was no looking back. He states that he “never wanted to be second best,” and that attitude transferred over into his T/A.

Joe admits that he got a little carried away at first, adding racing heads and a cam without really taking into consideration driveability and such, but he learned valuable lessons. Needless to say, after blowing the original LS1 to pieces and years later crippling a 12-bolt Moser rearend, Joe learned the importance of balance and began to address the car as a whole. His goal was an unbreakable street/strip car to rival all takers and rule the roadways.

First, the original LS1 was replaced by a 347ci short-block and built to handle a 300hp nitrous hit if required. Coated Diamond pistons with 2cc valve reliefs and Lunati Pro Billet 6.125-inch rods are attached to the stock and nitrided crankshaft. Further strengthening the bottom end is a set of ARP main studs. The new block and work were provided by East Side Performance out of Connecticut.

Although he has no formal training as a mechanic, Joe gives new meaning to the old adage, “If you want something done right, do it yourself.” Over the next few years and by his own hands, he would build his T/A to a level that he admits he could not have foreseen early on.