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Justin Cavazos fell in love with all things automotive at an early age. Growing up in Corpus Christi, Texas, Cavazos was introduced car culture through his uncle’s interest in the low riders, and he dove into the import scene not long after. “Back then my brother was going to night meets and I used to ride along with him,” he recalls. “And I remember this one time when someone showed up with a V8 Mustang and just whupped on all the Civics with it. That’s when I realized that I really liked muscle cars.”
That led Cavazos down a path of progressively more potent F-Body builds over the ensuing years. “My first car was a fourth gen V6 Camaro – it was all I could afford at 16, and it was enough to get me around.” But once Cavazos had saved up some cash, he sold that Camaro for another fourth gen with a little more oomph: A ’95 Camaro Z28 with stroked LT1 power and a 150 shot of nitrous. “Back then that car felt absolutely insane to me, I’d never driven something that fast before,” he says. “But that was also around the time that the LS1 Camaros started showing up.”
He soon discovered first-hand how much potential could be unlocked in the LS platform with just a few bolt-ons and some spray. Cavazos realized that was the path forward for him, so in 2013 he moved on from the Z28 and got himself a ‘99 Pontiac Trans Am WS6. With a stock bottom end, ported 317 heads, a 200 shot of nitrous, and some other go-fast hardware, the car made a healthy 680 horsepower on the dyno. “For what it was, it was crazy,” he says. “I loved that car.”
After a few years of smoke-filled fun, some life changes would put hot rodding on the back burner, but only for a brief moment. “We had our first kid, and the priorities just started to change,” he explains. “So the Trans Am got sold when we bought a house.” But once he started working at Texas Speed and Performance in 2016, the need for another potent machine soon returned. “After a while we got to a point where things had settled down a little, and I told my wife that I wanted another Trans Am,” he tells us. “But this time around I wanted to build it from the ground up to be a race car.” Cavazos began the hunt for another car after he got her blessing, and a tip from a friend in Houston led him to a 2000 Pontiac Firebird Formula.
The seller had planned to put together the car for X275 racing but had abandoned the project early on in the build, and that made the car an ideal candidate for what he had in mind. Working with his buddy Jason Flores of Straightline Performance, Cavazos stripped the Formula down to a bare shell so they could attack the project with a clean slate. “The idea was to build this thing once and build it right,” he says. “I wanted to make sure we wouldn’t be saying to ourselves, ‘Oh, we should’ve done this and we should’ve done that’ later on. So we came up with a game plan to build the car specifically for no prep – something that would hook anywhere we went with it.”
They began by ditching factory rear suspension for a ladder bar setup and a 9-inch rear end from Burkhart Chassis and installed an 8.5-certified roll cage. “I considered doing a 25.5 funny car cage, but I didn’t want to scare people away,” he says with a laugh. “I wanted to keep it simple so people would see the 8.5 cage and a bit of suspension work and assume that it’s not that fast. Then we could start whuppin’ some butts.” From there he sourced a factory roof from a junkyard Firebird to replace the Formula’s T-top and swapped out the factory front clip, doors, and rear hatch for aftermarket pieces from VFN Fiberglass.
The years-long build process was due in part to Cavazos’ insistence that they not cut any corners along the way. “We would work on it when we could, adding parts here and there and then saving money for the next phase of the build. I wanted everything to be the best that it could be.” And judging by his win in the Small Tire class at this year’s LS Fest Texas – the Firebird's first event since the build was completed – his patience appears to have paid off.
These days the Pontiac gets its motivation from a re-sleeved and methanol-fed 5.3-liter LS block from Texas Speed and Performance that’s outfitted with one of their forged crankshafts and a set of TSP’s I-beam rods, along with Wiseco pistons, PRC 260 heads, and TSP’s LS3-style Titan intake. Forced induction is served up by a single 92/110 turbocharger from DS Racing. “We’re also using a Holley Dominator ECU to run pretty much all of our controls,” he notes. “I initially considered using the Terminator, but I wanted to run M1 fuel. That meant bigger injectors, and the Dominator was the best option to handle them. I also liked the fact that it had more inputs and outputs so we’ll be able to pull in more data when we do some upgrades down the road.” Running 31 pounds of boost, Cavazos estimates that the combination is good for about 1,200 horsepower at the wheels. The combination is matched up with a two-speed Powerglide from Exner Racing Transmission and a two-piece converter from Circle D Specialties.
After his strong showing at LS Fest Texas and taking the win in the big tire class at a WFO no-prep event at Little River Dragway earlier this summer (as well as making it to the finals in the small tire class at that same event), Cavazos went on to lay down a personal best of 5.01 at 143 mph in the eighth mile at this year’s LS Fest East. But success definitely wasn’t a sure thing leading up to the Bowling Green event.
“We had recently been to another race in Edinburg where we had some issues with the car, and I ended up wiping out an engine bearing,” he says. “So we took the car back to Texas Speed, took the motor out, tore it down, re-machined it and put new bearings in, and put it all back together.” The team had the car up and running again with little time to spare before they needed to hit the road for LS Fest. “We had one day to test the car, so I had no idea what to expect going into that. I was on a slick, and I’d never been on a prepped track – I just didn’t know what I was getting myself into.”
But Cavazos felt like he had a handle on the situation after a shakedown pass. “We ended up throwing a lot of power at it for the second round, and each pass that we made after that was a personal best. We started with a 5.41, and it just kept getting faster and faster from there.” Although a few mid-to-low four-second cars prevented Cavazos from being in the running for a podium in the class, the event proved just how far the build has progressed.
“5.0 was the initial goal, and we achieved that there,” he says. “The next one is the mid-fours. I’m planning to switch over to a VS Racing 102/110, and I think that’ll help us get there. Of course that’s not going be cheap, so I’ll need save for a little while before I can afford it. But after we get that, I think the car is going to be hard to beat.”