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1987 Firebird Formula - Trial Formula

Just bolt it right on. Yeah, that's the ticket...

Chris Endres Aug 1, 2002

Step By Step

Lest you skipped the text and just looked at the photos, this is no limp-wristed poseur. Tory Hess' bad blown Formula is knocking on the nine-second door.

Despite what the brochures may say, this ain't no bolt-on. The big T-trim head unit is held in place by a Don Barnett-fabricated mounting plate. Check out the custom Mondo blow-off valve installation and owner-built inlet tube. Surf over to for more exclusive information on these one-off components.

Those of you who attended our Bristol blowout back in 2000 no doubt remember Hess' Formula as the Editor's choice. Tory also took home top honors in the third-generation power-adder class and third place overall. For our summer photo shoot, Tory drove his Firebird over 100 miles in bumper-to-bumper traffic-and did it all on pump gas!

Rhodes Custom Auto is responsible for the certified 10-point cage. An Autometer tach, air-fuel meter, boost and oil pressure gauges help Hess keep tabs on the goings-on underhood. And of course, what modern musclecar would be complete without a laptop (running DFI of course) on the passenger's seat?

A Bill Mitchell Motown block is topped with AFR 210 heads, and a TPIS Mini-Ram intake manifold. Artificial aspiration is courtesy of a big Vortech T-trim supercharger pumping out 15 psi of boost.

In lieu of dealing with the crack-prone OEM rear spoiler, Hess contacted Next Generation for one of their fiberglass stock-appearing units. Once prepped and painted by Rhodes Custom Auto, it looks good as new. Actually, it looks better, as the fiberglass is not covered in hairline cracks as the originals all are.

If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. Necessity is the mother of invention. Patience is a virtue. Stuff runs down hill. Cliches? Of course. But do they hold even a modicum of truth? Anyone that has bolted on anything more complicated than a K&N knows what we're talking about. Manufacturing tolerances, car to car variances and poor product design can try even the most virtuous of speed junkies. It is no secret that modifying a high-performance car can be a rewarding experience. And when it comes to bolt-on speed parts, adding a supercharger is perhaps the most rewarding of all.

Tory Hess has spend the past eleven years modifying and perfecting his black Formula. Since the car was just a few years old, it was no surprise that it was completely stock, though it didn't stay that way for long. After baselining the car (to the tune of 14.70 at 94 mph) Hess started right in on the bolt-ons. "I installed a K&N filter, replaced the catalytic converter with a test pipe and installed a Flowmaster muffler. After one or two mods, I'd go back to the track the next weekend to see what I gained. These mods got the car down to 14.50."

"About a month later, I bought a SuperRam intake," the Newark, Delaware resident told us. "If I knew then what I know now, I never would have put that on the car. The SuperRam is really designed to work with an engine that has a more aggressive cam and better flowing cylinder heads. At the time, that intake cost me well over $1000. But hey, I was young and it looked cool, so I thought it must be the ticket," he laughs. Though hindsight is indeed 20/20, the new intake was still good for a couple of tenths and got Hess some 14.30 timeslips.

Next on the modification list was the addition of a Hypertech chip. This netted another two tenths and a 14.10 ET, but Hess wasn't finished. He also added a throttle body air foil, an underdrive crank pulley, installed a shift kit and a new set of plug wires. With the stock torque converter, 3.27 gears in the 9-bolt rear and still on radials, the black Poncho improved to 14.00.

"I heard of some guys gaining a tenth or two by disconnecting their alternators," explained Hess, "so I thought I would give it a try. Darned if the car didn't pick up another two tenths and run consistent 13.80s. I ended up installing a switch that allowed me to shut the alternator off from inside the car. So it seemed to work well for me."

"Then I went through a phase where I tried every chip I could get my hands on. I must have gone through 3 or 4 different chips, but they all slowed the car down to 14.0 or 14.1. It took me a long time to get the car back to 13.80s, and by the time I did, I found out that the chip might not be the best thing for the car. I had a friend that was running a 5-speed 305 IROC, and he was running a good bit quicker than me, on a stock chip. What he had done was advance the timing and increased the fuel pressure. I figured I had nothing to lose, so I put the stock chip back in, turned the timing up to 12* and upped the fuel pressure to 51 psi." The Firebird responded big time, ripping off a 13.60 at 100 mph. What was perhaps most impressive about this is what the car didn't have. It was still on radial tires, stock manifolds, stock converter, and an unopened rearend.

Are you TPI guys paying attention? If Hess can run mid-thirteens with just these few bolt-ons, you can too! Fast forward a few years. A fresh 355 with Corvette 1.94 heads netted him bottom 13s on horsepower and a best of 11.70 on the jug. Keep in mind that this car was Hess' sole transportation, getting him to and from work and school. The combination was reliable as an anvil.

After a disappointing season with a short-lived naturally-aspirated 406, Hess began laying the groundwork for a new powerplant. It too would displace 406 cubic inches, but this time breathing would be assisted by way of a Vortech T-trim supercharger. "I had ridden in a friend's 306 S-trim powered Mustang. This was a low 10-second street car," he told us, "and I just couldn't believe the power! I thought 'this is it' and that supercharging must be the way to go. I was shooting for 10.50 with a supercharged car."

Hess found a fresh 400 4-bolt block and had it bored .030-inches while he ordered components. A Cola-forged crank and Eagle ESP 5.7-inch rods were teamed with 9:1 Wiseco forged pistons. "I did a lot of research on the Internet before making a decision on the cylinder heads. I ended up ordering a pair of AFR 210 heads, fully assembled. I did no port work on them and installed them straight out of the box." A Comp camshaft (230*/244* with .510/.540 lift and 114* LSA) was selected and matched with a set of Comp Pro Magnum rockers. The SuperRam was replaced by a MiniRam intake and a 58mm BBK throttle body was added. Hooker Super-Comp long-tube headers and Mufflex exhaust were re-used from the ill-fated n/a motor. Hess installed a Weldon 2025 fuel pump and -10 fuel line, insuring that he need never worry about his fuel system again. Lastly, he bought and installed a Moser 9-inch, filled with 3.70 gears, 35-spline axles and a spool.

When the time came to order the supercharger, Hess took the route less traveled. "My buddy Don Barnett had already bought and installed the kit on his own car, so he gave me a lot of advice. Don recommended that I skip the kit and buy the components I needed piecemeal. They send you a lot of hoses and clamps and fiddley-diddley stuff that isn't necessarily the highest quality. All those parts are things you can find at the hardware store and save yourself some dough. Or, you can do it right the first time and get high-quality aftermarket equivalents." Hess wound up ordering the T-trim head unit, mounting brackets and discharge tube. "I saved a lot of money over buying a complete kit." Hess never used a serpentine belt drive on the big Vortech. Instead, he ordered a custom cog belt drive system from ASP.

"I knew the 700R4 was going to be on borrowed time with the new combination. I had already broken three of them, so I knew it was just a matter of time." Turns out he was right on the money, as the four-speed slushbox gave up the ghost the second time Hess had the car on the street. A call to ATI set him up with a manual Turbo 400 and a 10-inch converter. Durability issues? Not likely with this stuff.

While the drivetrain was under the knife, the car was at Rhodes Custom Auto undergoing installation of the 10-point roll cage. While there, they also added a Next Generation stock appearing rear spoiler before wet sanding and buffing the nine-year-old paint. How's it look? Like no other nine-year-old paint job we've ever seen!

Hess then installed a DFI box to control the new bullet and took the car to Second Street Speed for a good base tune. At just 12 psi, the car made a very stout 578 rwhp. "It took me almost two years to get the car together. I was just amazed at how well it all came together.

"I took it to the track the next week where it ran a 10.18 at 138 with a 1.60 right off the trailer." Was he still happy? Not exactly. "The converter was way too tight, and caused a bog off the line." Another call to ATI secured him an 8-inch converter. The bog was gone, but now the car was spinning the tires on every pass. I knew I had a suspension problem, but couldn't find the cause." In spite of the 28X12.5 ET Streets, the car just refused to hook.

A move to a smaller blower pulley put the car within a hair's breadth of the nines: 10.001 at 140 mph. "I was happy, but at the same time disappointed that I didn't get my nine-second pass. It never hooked well enough to run the number. It also seemed to run out of steam at about 6200 rpm." It was not long after that the engine started using antifreeze. Tearing it down revealed a two-inch crack in the No. 1 cylinder bore. "Since the 400 blocks are pretty thin-walled, I thought this was going to be a recurring problem at my power level." It was time to make a change.

That change came in the form of a Bill Mitchell Hardcore Racing Products Motown block. (see "Motown Magic," Aug. 2001). Hess also changed over to a solid roller that will allow the mill to reliably rev to 7000 rpm. The new cam did the trick, as the car made 613 rwhp with a very conservative 11.5:1 air-fuel ration, 24* of total timing and 13 psi of boost. "The new cam is much more aggressive and actually lessened the boost. But I'm still really happy with it because it made quite a bit more power."

While the engine was out, some suspension upgrades were also performed. "I talked to Madman (aka Brian Jeffries) about my traction problem. Anybody that has seen his car leave (on the rear bumper) knows that this guy has his suspension figured out. Right over the phone he told me the problem was the torque arm. The front of the arm was not high enough, and it was worse still on my car because it is lowered." Based on that conversation, Hess modified the front mount Spohn torque arm by welding two plates to the front mount, which raises the front end of the torque arm about three inches. What this effectively does is preload the rear suspension. Effective is the word, too, as the car's short time improved drastically to a 1.47 on the first pass.

Even with the new best short time, all was not well. The cam change was enough to flash the converter to 6000 rpm, well past where Hess wanted it. "With the converter tightened back to 5500 rpm, the car started spinning the tires again and lost 5 mph in the eighth. It's so frustrating because the car has the certified cage. I've had my physical, and made four of six license passes. I can't finish the licensing process because the car won't run in the nines."

It's been a long haul for Hess and his Formula, but he's not finished yet. "It gets really frustrating when you think you're doing things the right way only to find out the car went the other way." Besides getting the traction situation sorted out, plans call for a boost increase from 15 to 20 psi with a new pulley combination.

"Because the car is not aftercooled, I will be very cautious with the higher boost. I will pull the timing back to 22* and work forward from there. I've also got my eye on a Vortech XX-trim head unit. I think that may be a necessity. It would require a lot of fabrication to get it in there, but it's nothing I haven't done before," he laughs. Indeed, Tory, indeed.

We know all you third-gen guys are interested in how Tory fabricated and installed his Vortech blower kit. Get the inside story on all Tory's tricks on-line at


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