Progression. You find it everywhere in racing, from how quickly the cars accelerate down the track, to the way heads-up racers work on getting quicker elapsed times each year. You also find progression in the build process of a car — what begins as a pile of tubes and wire becomes a beautiful final product.
Andy Essay took progression to a whole new level with his 2001 Pontiac Firebird, starting with an off-the-showroom street car and transforming it into full-on, boosted brute that lays down low 4-second passes at the track. For Andy, and like so many other diehard drag racers, the affection for anything loud started very young. “I’ve loved cars since I was a young kid … they’ve always fascinated me. Anytime I would be riding my bicycle as a kid and I would hear a car with a loud exhaust I would stop and watch it,” he recalls. As time passed, Andy’s need for speed grew bigger and the addiction to racing took hold.
As a child, Andy raced dirt bikes, snowmobiles, motorcycles, and pretty much anything that he could ride that had an engine. When he came of age, he stepped into the world of door cars and hasn’t looked back.
“When I was 17 I bought my first car, a 1979 Trans Am 400 four-speed. After that, I purchased a 1983 anniversary edition Trans Am, and then picked up an all-black 1985 Trans Am, followed by two 1987 GTA editions.” So, it’s pretty clear Andy has always had lots of love for the iconic Pontiac musclecar.
Soon, work and life required Andy to put his obsession with the Trans Am on the backburner, and he was relegated to driving a truck for family and work needs, but a ‘bird would be back in his garage soon. With word of Trans Am production coming to an end in 2002, Andy made the decision to grab one before they were gone, heading to Haggerty Pontiac in Villa Park, Illinois to grab a brand new F-body off the lot.
With that, he was back in his happy place — he had a Pontiac, life was good, and he was just going to drive it as-is. “I told myself I wouldn’t modify the car, just keep it stock since it was the last year it had been made,” Andy says. But, we’ve all heard this story before and know how it ends.
The modifications started off slowly at first, then escalated quickly, Andy explains. “I started off with just an air intake lid. Then the rear end was upgraded and replaced at 800 miles. After that came the heads and cam package with a hit of nitrous oxide. Eventually, the car became a street-driven, twin turbo monster that made over a 1,000 horsepower at the rear wheels.”
Soon, Andy and his twin turbo F-body had a serious reputation on the streets of Chicago as a real player, but he felt it was time to move things to the track. “For safety reasons, we started racing at the track — the car was just too quick for the street anymore. First, we started running at the RSD Real Street Drags, but then we wanted to get more serious. In full street trim, driven to the track, it went 8.23s in the 1/4-mile,” Andy says.
After some more work to the car, Andy went on to become one of the quickest LSX racers in the country. He and his team became championship contenders in the Chevrolet Performance LS Series, finishing second in the points chase twice and winning the Holley LS Fest crown two times. Not a bad result for what started out as a showroom-stock street car and progressed into a full-on track monster with just 8,700 miles on the clock.
Even with all of his success on the streets and at the track, Andy has had some setbacks with his Trans Am. “In 2012, we had an unfortunate crash at Milan, Michigan during grudge race at the Ultimate Outlaws event,” says Andy. The car skipped off the wall, but the damage looked worse than it was, so that gave Andy the opportunity to make some needed changes. He took the car to Jeff Seick to make sure it was still straight as an arrow, and then to Midwest Chassis to get a new, removable one-piece front end. Then, it was returned to Seick to get the deep black paint work laid down again.
After that round of upgrades, Andy still wasn’t happy, so he took the car back to Midwest Chassis to go on a diet, through the addition of some carbon fiber components. Some safety upgrades were also added, so that his F-body could take maximum advantage of the power it was capable of putting down.
Under the sleek black hood of the boosted bird is a Late Model Engines-built, LSX-based engine with 430 cubic-inches on tap, that has a 4.135/4.00-inch bore and stroke combination. Inside the block resides a custom Speed Inc. crankshaft, Wisco pistons and GRP connecting rods. LME also did some custom work to the block, including a solid deck, with half inch studs, a double O-ring system, a special oiling system, and bushed lifter bores.
The top end of Andy’s motor features even more LME eye candy, with a set of LS7 6-bolt heads that the shop thoroughly worked over to help move all the boosted air they can. The heads feature titanium intake and exhaust valves from Inconell, with Jesel shaft mount 1.8 ratio rocker arms and PAC springs. A custom solid camshaft from Comp Cams rounds out the rest of the top end on the mill.
Andy made a maximum effort to help move all of the fuel and force-fed air into the powerplant, using some serious parts. The intake of choice is a custom sheet metal unit from Beck Racing Intakes and is matched with a Nick Williams 92 mm throttle body. A custom belt drive fuel pump setup along with some 220 lb/hr injectors and a Magnafuel regulator keep the LSX engine fed with plenty of high octane race fuel.
Jim Moran from Speed Inc., and Patrick Barnhill from PTP Racing, help with the tuning duties on the car and use a BigStuff3 setup to send commands to all the critical engine systems. Providing spark to the engine is an AEM coil-on-plug setup with MSD wires and a set of NGK plugs.
Horsepower is fed via a fabricated twin turbo kit by Speed Inc. that makes colossal amounts of boost in a hurry. Speed Inc. also built a pair of 1-7/8-inch headers to help move the exhaust gasses through the 4-inch hot side piping and 2.5-inch cold side steel. Tial got the call to take care of the wastegate and blowoff valve needs for the system, along with a Precision intercooler to keep the air from the twin snails nice and chilled. At the heart of the system is a pair of 76 mm turbos from Force Inductions that were built specific to this combination, and make a whopping 38 pounds of boost — enough to rocket Andy’s ride to a best pass of 4.39-seconds at over 181 mph to the 1/8–mile.
ProFormance Transmissions built Andy a custom Turbo 400-based unit that’s backed by a 3-inch steel driveshaft. Joe at ProTorque hooked Andy up with one of its finest torque converters to help lay all that boosted power to the ground. A Cheeta shifter inside the driver’s compartment allows Andy to click off the gear changes on each 4-second pass at the track.
Midwest Chassis has been a key partner for Andy over the years in helping his Firebird progress from street car. The backbone of the car is a 25.3-spec chassis that was built in-house at Midwest by Eric Vicary. Up front, Andy uses a Midwest Chassis tubular K-member along with upper and lower A-arms. In the rear is a custom fabricated 9-inch rearend from Midwest that features Strange axles and gears. Rounding out the suspension is a full set of Strange shocks and springs, along with Midwest Chassis lower control arms in the rear, and a custom wishbone torque arm setup.
Andy’s Firebird rolls on a set of Weld Racing wheels that are wrapped in Moroso tires up front and Mickey Thompson drag radials in the rear. Bringing the car to a stop is a full set of weight-saving Strange brakes at each corner.
Inside the car, Andy is kept safe by a set of Stroud racing belts and full fire system. A RacePak dash helps him keep an eye on the vital readings on each pass down track, and is accompanied by the trick Racewire Solutions switch panel that keeps all the wiring nice and neat inside the car. An AMS 1000 is also within arm’s reach to let Andy manage the boost.
Not many people have taken a street car and turned it into such a high level race car like Andy with his beloved Firebird. The amount of detail and beauty in this car is unmatched, and shows his dedication to the evolution of this car. If the past is any indicator of the future, Andy’s next progression with his car will involve even more power being put down, bigger speeds, and quicker elapsed times. That’s a guarantee.