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Following his older brother's footsteps, Rodrigo Rivera began helping his father out with automotive projects long before he could drive. “My dad’s worked as a mechanic for as far back as I can remember,” says the Fort Worth, Texas-based diesel technician. “I started pitching in when I was about 11 or 12, and that kind of sent me on the path of wrenching on stuff whenever I could.”
As a sophomore in high school, Rivera decided to get one of the family’s project cars – an ’88 Ford Thunderbird Turbo Coupe – back on the road, and the knowledge he gained along the way led to a succession of builds that eventually put a Fox-body Mustang in his garage. “I got the T-Bird up and running, daily drove it, blew a head gasket, fixed that – I just kind of learned as I went. In my senior year of high school, I started doing side work, and someone traded me a wrecked ’90 Mustang GT for a job I did. It was pretty rough and it didn’t have an engine, but I knew I could bring the car back into shape.”
Rivera sourced a pushrod 5.0 from a local salvage yard and got the bodywork sorted out. After swapping in a hotter cam, adding some choice bolt-on upgrades, and installing a nitrous kit, he had a stout runner with enough performance to keep things interesting. But there was a different sort of V8-powered machine that he truly lusted after.
“I had always wanted a truck,” he says. “There’s a big truck scene here in Texas, and the idea of outrunning a performance car with a pickup was really attractive to me.”
So, in 2012, he got his hands on this 1998 GMC Sierra. Rivera says that while the C1500 needed a bit of TLC when he took delivery, it was generally in pretty solid shape, and he daily drove the truck largely as it was for the next four years. The years eventually caught up with the GMC’s 5.7-liter Vortec mill, though, so he parked the truck for a time while he considered his options.
“The 350 was pretty tired at that point and it was starting to give out, so the natural move was to go LS,” he says. “The first one was a 5.3-liter with some bolt-ons, and it was hooked to a 4L60 transmission. But I just never had good luck with that combination – especially when I took it to the track.” Those issues led Rivera to swap out the 4L60 for a TH400, and he added a nitrous system for good measure. But within a year he was ready for more.
“I figured it was time to go turbo at that point, and the truck went through a lot of different stages after that,” he says with a laugh. “I ditched the 5.3 for a 6.0-liter LS, and about three weeks later it threw a rod through the block. And after that, it was a 4.8-liter LS with an eBay turbo kit.”
As you might imagine, that combo didn’t last very long, either. “I took it out to an event in San Antonio called the LS1 Truck Shootout and the motor seized up – I think I launched it too hard and it was starved for oil. After that, I kind of let the project sit for a while because I knew I needed to take a different approach.”
In 2019, he decided it was time to put together a combination that prioritized durability rather than numbers. And because it’s the same setup that continues to motivate Rivera’s C1500 today, it’s clear that it was built to stand up to some abuse.
Under the hood is a 6.0-liter LS with forged pistons and rods, a custom grind camshaft, GM 243 cylinder heads, LS7 lifters, a trunnion upgrade kit, a Holley Hi-Ram intake manifold, and an 80mm billet S480 turbo from VS Racing. Running roughly 17 pounds of boost, the latest combo made just over 800 horsepower at the wheels on the dyno.
“I’m also using a Holley HP ECU to control everything now,” he points out. “It’s just so much easier to work with than the stock engine management system. Along with the data logging, it’s nice to have all of these different functions integrated into one system rather than running a bunch of different controllers with the stock ECU for things like boost, and anything else that you might want to add onto it.”
The truck’s road-hugging stance comes from drop spindles and lower springs at the front end, while the rear suspension has been outfitted with a CalTracs traction bar flip kit to help put the power down. Color-matched trim, a two-inch cowl hood, and some Hoosier drag rubber complete the truck’s purposeful look.
Rivera says that the approach with the latest version of the build ultimately came from learning the hard way. “At this point I basically want it to be a fast cruiser – something I can bring to events and have some fun without worrying about it all the time. I think that as you get older, you start to realize that getting it back on the road again gets a little bit harder each time you blow it up.” But that doesn’t mean that Rivera has given up on sending it. “I still take it to events, I’m just a little bit smarter about it these days.”
We actually spotted his truck at LS Fest Texas 2022 event just as he was getting the HP system up and running, and he wisely chose to hold off on competition until everything was sorted out. Now that it is, he’s got some performance targets in sight.
“I have some other upgrades in mind, like tossing out the stock 10-bolt rear end for a 9-inch with 3.90 gears, but I want to see how it does at the track before I dive back into it, he says. “The goal is to break into the 9s in the quarter and low 6s in the eighth mile. If I can get there, I’ll be happy with it. And maybe I’ll leave it alone for a while!”