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“My dad always called me a lead foot,” says Cathleen Zitt of Scottsdale, Arizona. “I like the speed.”
She says that father had a big influence on her automotive interests during her formative years. “He was a mechanic for a local Pontiac dealership in our hometown of Naperville, Illinois, and when I was a kid I would go to the dealership with him on the weekends just to ogle the cars there. When I turned sixteen I got a 1973 Tempest, and I really liked that car because the front end had kind of Firebird look to it. I drove that for a couple of years, and then one day this ’76 Firebird Esprit was traded in to the dealership. It was my dream car, so I had to have it. I bought it in the spring of ’78, and it was my first major purchase as a teenager. I just love the lines of it.”
The Firebird soon became Zitt’s summer car while she put other vehicles through the rigors of mid-west winters. “I worked for a rental car agency just after I got out of high school,” she says. “So I had access to other cars, and of course my choice for winter driving was another Pontiac – a Grand Prix.”
Over the years Zitt kept up on the Firebird’s maintenance and continued to drive it whenever weather permitted. It remained a mostly-stock 350ci 2BBL car for decades, but recent encouragement from her daughter inspired her to take it to the next level. “My daughter and my son-in-law both drag race LS-powered cars, and they got me interested in racing. I would go with them to the track just to spectate, but eventually they convinced me to give it a try. I was hesitant at first, but they knew that I like to go fast.”
As the owner of Top Gear Motorsports, a GM performance shop in Mesa, Arizona, Zitt’s son-in-law also had no shortage of go-fast hardware on hand that could elevate the performance of her second-gen Firebird. “Sean had this 5.3-liter LS at the shop,” she recalls. “And he was like, ‘it’s just sitting there – we could do this.’ So that kind of pushed me to take the plunge.”
The team decided to give the LS a bit more grunt before dropping it into the engine bay of the Firebird, outfitting the mill with an LS6 camshaft and intake, an LS2 timing chain, a Melling oil pump, a Holley LS-swap oil pan, and a few other odds and ends. The original transmission was also swapped out in favor of a stronger and more modern 4L60E automatic with a shift kit, while the 10-bolt rear end was rebuilt with a Truetrac limited-slip differential and a 3.42 gear set. The engine combination is good for 334 horsepower and 349 pound-feet of torque at the rear wheels, and that means that the Firebird now boasts roughly double the oomph of the original 350ci 2BBL.
“I love driving the car, so I wanted to make sure it would still be easy to hop in and go whenever I wanted to,” she says. “But I after I started drag racing, I decided I wanted to get into the mid-13 second ET range. We’re not quite there yet, but it’s close.”
In the time since the swap was completed, Zitt has clocked plenty of seat time and regularly sends it down the drag strip at Tucson Dragway or Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park. “It’s pretty loud now with the exhaust,” she says with a laugh. “So it gets a lot of attention when I’m out driving it around. Lots of the looks and thumbs up are from younger folks, and they’re always asking me about it. I’ve just always tried to take care of my things, whether or not they’re top of the line, and they tend to last.”
LS Fest West 2021 marked the third time Zitt and the Firebird had made the trek out to Vegas for the show. While she loves the overall atmosphere of the event, she says that the racing has always been a big part of the draw. “The first year I went, I didn’t really know how to do anything, but I managed to make it into the quarter-finals and even got some money. It was a blast, and that’s why I keep going – I go to have fun. Each year you learn a few things, and it’s always been a great experience.”
Her personal best quarter mile ET currently stands at 13.75 seconds, so she’s now within striking range of the mid-13-second goal that she originally set. “Competition is good for you, but I’m mostly competing against myself. I didn’t start racing until later in life, and early on my reaction times weren’t that great. I’ve gotten much, much better, though, and my car is very consistent. We’ve been talking about the next steps that we might take with the car.”
She tells us that near-term plans potentially include upgrading the factory brake system and swapping out the rear end gear set for something more aggressive, but nothing’s currently set in stone. “The kids have been firing off all of these different ideas at me – you could do this, and this, and this. But I still drive it every day, so I’m not sure what direction we’ll go with it. What I can say is that I’m going to keep racing it at our local tracks and driving it around whenever I can.”