Cars With Character: LSR-Swapped 1993 Pontiac Firehawk T/A Sleeper

First purchased new in June of the year it was created, this 1993 Pontiac Firehawk T/A has seen a lot of action over the past 30 years or so. Amazingly, the digits on the odometer have remained relatively light for this ultra-rare bird, with just 60,000 miles to its name as of this moment.

Unfortunately, only a fraction of those numbers belong to the naturally aspirated Vengeance Racing engine that’s been stuffed inside. A conundrum that we hear is about to be changed drastically this season.

Owned outright from day one by a gent who goes by Ilario C., this GM gem’s first trip was from the dealership parking lot where it was sent to none other than Street Legal Performance (SLP). There it underwent Firehawk conversion #195 of 201. A particularly rare variant of Firehawk from that era that turned out to be only one of two T/A models to be crafted that year. If you find that fascinating, just wait until you hear what else this intriguing tale contains…

Getting It Right Early On

Born and raised in South Africa, Ilario was surrounded by small displacement sedans and hatchbacks from day one. A place where any automobile powered by something as puny as a 2.0-liter DOHC 4-cylinder engine was considered “fast,” and muscle cars were little more than a blur on the movie screen.

With a father that loved virtually all forms of motorsport, including participating in amateur rally racing during his younger years in Kenya, Ilario seemed predestined to harbor an interest in fast automobiles. But his father’s 1983 Porsche 930 Turbo truly stood out as the defining automobile that would ignite the young man’s performance interests.

It was a car with equal amounts of risk and reward. A noisy little runt of German engineering that preferred to build boost at a snail’s pace one moment, only to unload and hit you with a gut-punch of power the next. To this day, memories of his father driving the ever-loving piss out of that Porsche on the way down to F1 events still hang heavy on Ilario’s mind as he recalls the man who first got the pistons pumping.

The Firehawk T/A remains one of the rarest modified GM vehicles of all time, especially regarding the 1993 model year.

Welcome to America… Buckle Up and Hold On

Upon immigrating to the USA in his late teens, Ilario’s eyes were opened to a world of American machinery that only a good friend with a 1989 Formula 350 can provide. While riding shotgun, Ilario’s buddy blew the doors off one Mustang GT after another before outrunning a new (at the time) Mercedes 500SL. Ilario encountered an emotion he had not experienced in a long time: automotive adrenaline.

Frank was the one responsible for introducing Ilario to F-bodies. A connection that would last a lifetime and rekindle a young man’s passion for performance automobiles. Ilario knew that it was time to make a purchase with the recently redesigned 4th-gen GM cars sporting Gen-II LT1s slated to be released the following year. It was time to drive cars with character.

Over the years, this Firehawk has seen a number of race-oriented upgrades made to its body and soul, with the most recent by Vengeance Racing being the most significant.

Firehawk Fun for Days

Owning an F-body with a metric mess-ton of SLP Firehawk upgrades proved more fun than a barrel of monkeys. So much so that it eventually led Ilario to make an appearance at the drag strip along with various road courses. While the straight-line stuff was alright, Ilario’s early exposure to rally driving and F1 racing was instantly metabolized by the sights and sounds of American muscle cars carving corners.

Having always dreamed of learning how to handle a performance car and truly push himself and the vehicle to its limits on the track, Ilario began to sink deeper into the folds of road course racing, his trusty Firehawk T/A forever by his side.

What began as more of a curiosity quickly evolved into intermediate-level track sessions, with HPDE events in 2004 also being on the roster. Running in intermediate and advanced groups (depending upon the organization and the track), Ilario began to test his mettle at places like Road Atlanta and Atlanta Motorsports Park as often as possible.

Before long, this evolved into weekend trips across state lines to Barber Motorsports Park and Talladega Grand Prix Raceway in Alabama, with international trips to Monza in Italy and Killarney International Raceway in South Africa following that.

As for the stories associated with this Firehawk from that period, Ilario says that there are entirely too many to count, with quite a few close calls thrown in for good measure. However, if he had to select a few favorites, they would likely revolve around outpacing Porsches, Corvettes, and dedicated track machines on various road courses in his sleepy-looking muscle car.

A fully built, naturally aspirated LSR motor from Late Model Engines (LME) out of Texas gives this Firehawk the virility it has desperately needed these past 30 years.

V8 Vengeance Reimagined

But as with all track machines, it was just a matter of time until Ilario’s Firehawk T/A required a heart transplant and a slew of additional upgrades to make it more competitive. Being that he is based in Georgia, Vengeance Racing was tapped to spearhead the latest evolution of this fine feathered Firehawk, and what a job they did, too.

Over 11 months, 30 years of saving and planning turned into an unassuming, jet-black masterpiece — with Ilario’s infatuation with high-output naturally aspirated engines at the forefront. It was a somewhat stock-looking sleeper, intended to kick ass on the open highway and handle weekend road course action at the blip of the throttle. A street-legal GT3 version of a 4th gen Firebird, with an all-out 468 cubic-inch tall-deck LSR engine, a sequential gearbox, and a completely independent rear suspension underneath.

As opposed to the initial round of race mods made in preparation for the Firehawk’s first run in NASA’s “American Iron Extreme” class in the late 2000s, this latest overhaul is a different bird entirely. Working from the ground up, the team at Vengeance Racing performed all of the upgrades you would expect to find on a track car of this caliber. Vengeance tech Kevin Kirby installed double adjustable coil overs front and rear, upgraded sway bars, and custom subframe connectors.

Most notably, Kirby installed the Heidts Independent Rear Suspension on Illario’s Firehawk. The IRS kit completely changes the car’s handling capabilities with tubular upper and lower control arms, coil overs, Brembo brakes, and a 9-inch differential. Kirby and the Vengeance Racing team also installed a Samsonas sequential 6-speed behind the monster 468 cubic-inch LSR engine.

The Heidts IRS installs easier than one would think and is a quality kit from every aspect. Having an IRS unit in this 4th Gen will add tremendous value on the road course. — Kevin Kirby

Being fully aware that this was to be a dedicated track car above all else, Ron over at Vengeance Racing decided to tackle the vehicle’s tendency to oversteer while the engine was off being built by Late Model Engines (LME). The high-speed-lift characteristics these cars are known for in the straights were also a serious concern, so throttle and steering inputs had to be adjusted accordingly.

Now, with 50 percent more power than before, and the aforementioned sequential transmission and IRS on board, Ilario’s Firehawk T/A prepares to spread its wings and sharpen its talons in anticipation. Many of the vehicle’s familiar characteristics are still there but in a highly augmented form.

[This Firehawk is a] wild ride that will probably need real aero modifications for downforce and traction control to avoid excessive wheel spin. It’s going to be a steep learning curve! — Ilario C.

By this point, Ilario has a firm grasp of what sort of time, money, and dedication is required to be competitive in motorsports, which explains why he opted for HPDE events.