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.

Joe chose a Futral F-13 hydraulic roller camshaft (ground by CamMotion) with an intake/exhaust duration of 230/232 degrees, 0.595/0.585 lift, and a 112- degree LSA that he says combines great power with very streetable characteristics. The bumpstick raises a set of Trick Flow pushrods via LS7 lifters to the stock 1:7:1 rockers, with upgraded CompCams trunions to open the 2.04/1.57 valves in the TrickFlow as-cast 220cc heads. They were milled by Vengeance Racing to achieve an 11:1 compression ratio and feature 0.650-lift springs and titanium retainers.

This beast sucks air through a Fast Toys airlid, with a K&N filter and an SLP smooth bellows, into an 85mm truck MAF with the screen removed. The air continues through a 92mm Nick Williams TB and reaches the heads via a 90mm LSX composite intake manifold.

The upgraded fuel system consists of a Custom Racetronix fuel pump kit, with a Walbro Gerotor pump powered by a hot wire kit connecting the battery directly to the pump. Injectors are 30-lb/hr Ford SVO pieces to provide increased fuel input, all operating just fine on Sunoco 93 gas. Rounding out engine-related mods are an SLP double-roller timing set, an ASP underdrive pulley, and a ported SLP oil pump.

A larger LQ9 truck coil, GM 8.5mm wires, and a set of NGK plugs handle lighting of this Bird’s fire. There is a custom single-stage, direct-port nitrous system set up for a 200 shot, and the stock ECM was retained and tuned by Eastside Performance.

The red Phoenix exhales through a set of 1.875-inch American Racing Headers long-tubes through a stainless stell ORY-pipe into a Magnaflow aftercat exhaust.

Exploiting the worked LS1’s potential is a bulletproof drivetrain that takes direction from Joe’s hand through a Hurst Pro Billet shifter with Lou’s short-stick, down the Rockland Standard Gear-built Viper-spec T56 six-speed behind a Monster Stage 3 clutch. The power continues through the PST 3.5-inch aluminum driveshaft with 1350 U-joints (protected by a driveshaft loop) to the massive Midwest Chassis modular 9-inch Ford rear with Wavetrac posi, finally turning the Strange 35-spline axles via a set of 4:11 Richmond Pro gears.

Bringing it all to the ground, this bad-ass Bird sits on HAL type-R shocks on all four corners, with 325-pound springs in front and stockers in back. The remainder consists of all Midwest Chassis chromoly rear suspension, featuring double-adjustable LCAs with rod ends, and a single-adjustable Panhard rod with poly bushings on the body and a rod end on the rear. A long torque arm provides further rigidity with a fabricated trans crossmember. Spohn tubular subframe connectors stiffen the body.

Joe’s Ram Air Bird has gone through quite a transformation over the years, and as with all labors of love, nothing is really ever finished—but Joe is satisfied for now. More track time is a priority when possible, and a new tune to really dial in this Warbird for battle is next on his list.

If you ever find yourself on a Long Island roadway and you come across Joe, don’t be fooled by his pleasant demeanor—it’s his menacing red T/A that’ll do all the talking.

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