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I figured I would start this thread to go ahead and document my new project, a 1997 Firebird Formula.

Some background:
My first car was a 1977 Pontiac Firebird. That car is really what was responsible for me becoming the enthusiast I am today. Originally, it was powered by and Oldsmobile 350, and a Turbo 350. I drove the wheels off that car for years, and planned on swapping in a Olds 455 with a TH400. With Covid, I ended up having some spare time, and a little extra cash, so I started gathering all the parts I needed to finally get my car back up and running with the new motor. Sadly, a fire started in the storage yard I had the car at. The back half was pretty messed up by the fire, and I made the choice to let it go. The car wasn't great when I got it, and with the new damage, it was beyond what I would be able to afford to repair.

That night, my wife did some looking around, and she found a potential project for me. I didn't think it was possible at first, but she found one, and I thought we couldn't afford it. I don't know how, but she got the cash together that night. It was a 1997 Formula, and while parts were kind of rough, it ran, drove, and had a good title. I go see the car, and it looks REALLY good. The interior looked almost new. Fired up nice and easy. Some leaks, but I REALLY wanted my car back. The owner was a younger guy, and we took a test drive. The chassis really left an impression on me. This car felt like it could corner well, and the LT1 felt really healthy. I didnt drive it long or hard, but I fell in love. My wife managed to talk him down a bit, and we signed the paper work, and I was thrilled. Never thought I would have a 4th gen, let alone for under $3000. Took the tops off, and drove it home. That is when I noticed some issues.

The acceleration was fantastic. Car responded great, motor pulled hard. The exhaust sounded great too! I was really enjoying myself, and then I noticed that the transmission didnt seem to want to shift at WOT. In fact, I hit the limiter on the 2-3 shift getting back to the highway. I was worried, but just focused on getting the car home. Also during this drive, I got familiar with the temp gauge on this car. Had me quite worried by the time I got home. I started doing my research, and that first night, I changed the oil, and did a thermostat. I found out that these cars tend to run warm, and I kind of relaxed. On my third drive, the first one where I was going to take my new car out and really enjoy it, the transmission lost 3-4. I was frustrated, but I do not give up easily.

Had to take care of a few things, so I had been limping the car around my town in second gear. Car had been doing fine, and I made sure to keep the trips short. Sadly, I started getting a misfire, and the SES light comes on. I use a little scanner I have, and it gives me 3 codes. 2 for the Mass Air Flow, and P1371. Joy. I clear the code to get home, and then I pull the intake tubing, and inspect my igntion system and try to diagnose this. Turns out, my intake tubing had some serious cracking and splitting. I ended up botching that back together with some duct tape. As for the P1371 code, it never came back. The engine still misfires, but it comes and goes.

Right now, the car is on a lift with my dad. We pulled the transmission last Monday, and Tuesday I had traded it in for a rebuilt unit from a reputable builder. Was a bit of a drive, but this guy was clearly a step above the closer options. While we were under the car, we saw how covered the engine and transmission was. Really is a mess right. So, my plan is to liquidate some of the stuff I still have from my first project, and use the funds to re do the front of my new motor. I am planning on replacing everything from the timing chain forward. All the gaskets,water pump, Opti, you name it. I am also going to rebuild the ignition system while I am at it. With everything replaced and sealed up, I should wind up with a rather reliable vehicle that will get me to and from what ever job I grab.

Long term, I am planning on doing a LS3/TR-6060 from a wrecked Camaro, and eventually some suspension work. I love cars that handle well and are responsive. From what I can feel, this Formula is going to be exactly what I want. Well, thank you guys for reading. I am going to post some pictures and updates of the other stuff I have found so far. If you have any questions, hit me up, and I will be happy to answer them for you.
 

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If you replace the opti only buy a GM, Delco, or Delphi opti. The rest are junk. The recommended optis are all rebuilt as new ones are not available any more.

I also recommend you buying a $70 PC based oscilloscope, and learning how to use it. You can buy them on Ebay, Amazon, etc.

The scope is the only 100% way of testing the 5 volt square wave low & high resolution signal that opti sends out. Scope also good for testing the 50 hertz fuel enable signal.

Get the 96 factory service manual at the following link. It has chapter & verse on your car. Your 97 will share 99% of info with 96. www.mediafire.com/?40mfgeoe4ctti

Here's a site full of good lt1 info. www.shbox.com
 

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Discussion Starter #3
Thanks again, Coco! I remember those links from my intro post, and I got to tell you, I think I see shoebox's site more than I see Google anymore. This forum has led me to the information I have needed to keep this car on the road, and I am really grateful.

I am planning on picking up a scope soon. I am assuming it is my Opti based on what I have been seeing. I did make the mistake on buying a less than recommended Optispark on ebay already. Saw a good price, and a misleading description made it look like a way better deal than it was. My hope is that I can get a couple months out of it, just because I already have it in hand. I am already planning on saving the cash to have my current unit, assuming it is the original, rebuilt.

Anyways, I wanted to update this with a couple pictures. One thing I did find when I was under my Formula was that the transmission had already been replaced once. I also noticed that the suspension has some wear, but it isnt sagged out. My biggest concern is my leaking wheel seal on my driver's rear. That is gonna need some love soon too. Hopefully, this weekend, I will have the new transmission and the aux cooler I picked up installed.
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Discussion Starter #4
Figured I would take a bit of time to post another update today, as stuff has happened!

I ended up selling my fire damaged 77 today. It was pretty emotional, but I take a lot of comfort in knowing that it is going to get a 1976 up and running. As soon as I got home, I went and finished up an order at RockAuto. $750 after taxes and shipping, but I think at this point, everything I need to address right away is either in my hands, or on the way to them. I cannot wait to get this car sealed up and back on the road again. I think I have spent almost $1800 in parts over the last two weeks, but honestly, I am not upset at all. My wife bought the car for me as an anniversary present, but has not had to help pay for any of the repairs. Everything I have spent on my 97 Formula was a gift from my 77. The sale of my engine, the car, and everything else I have moved has let me get the different parts I need for the new purchase.

I am going to try and get some more pictures of all the things we end up replacing in the coming days and weeks. Like I said in a previous post, I am going to be doing almost everything from the timing chain forward. I also have new brakes for all 4 corners, new rear wheel bearings, wheel seals, and wheel bearings, and I also plan on doing the intake gaskets, along with the valve covers. Going to be a busy couple weeks, but my reward will be a like new Formula, that I intend to get very close to.

Thanks for reading folks.

Edited for stupid grammar mistakes
 

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If you plan on doing rear axle bearings yourself, you will need a bearing puller to remove & install the bearings. Harbor freight has the tool set. If memory serves me correctly, it's around $30.
 

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Discussion Starter #6
Coco, you are always a fountain of useful information! Thankfully, I am lucky enough to have access to that tool, so that will not be an issue.

As for today's update, I am one happy person! My dad, a friend, and I got that transmission stabbed in. It took us a while, but it wasnt too bad at all. The car shifts and drives beautifully, and not just because of the transmission. My fears of the Opti may have been unfounded. It turns out the source of my misfire was an unplugged wire on my passenger side. I tried to check plug wires from the top, but apparently I cannot quite reach down far enough. With that plugged in, my car REALLY woke up. I am so excited to put some miles on her, but I have a few things to take care of still.

I originally blamed my Opti for my misfire because when I went to inspect it, the entire front cover of this engine is just covered in grease. Earlier today, I could barely make out the plug wires on the Opti side. Just so much grunge and grime. So, with what I learned about my Ebay Optispark, and what I am currently seeing with the wire hooked back up, I have decided to not replace the Opti at this time. I am going to send the one I ordered back, and request a refund. The next thing I am doing is getting an Oscilloscope.

For anyone who is new and comes across this post, save yourself some time and headache.
JUST LISTEN TO COCOBOLO95. BUY AN OSCILLOSCOPE.

I am still planning on resealing and redoing the front of the engine. With some new seals, and some preventive maintenance, this car feels like it can go another 180k miles, so because all those parts and seals are on the way, I am going to just put it on. Then, try and save some cash to get Sub-frame connectors and some suspension parts, along with some tires to really help it stick to the road.

When I have some updates, I will let you guys know, provided I am not busy driving the wheels of this bird!
 

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Thanks for the vote of confidence. Good job with the transmission. And glad that problem turned out to be just a plug wire.

When you get your scope, if you don't know how to work it, the hardest part for a beginner is to get the signal so you can actually see it. So when you get it, play with the time & voltage controls until you can get a centered wave form on the scope.

Also the scope has many uses as it will do many electrical outputs. I don't know if the youtube channel is still free, but ScannerDanner had many scope lessons on there.
 

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Discussion Starter #8 (Edited)
A couple minor updates today.

Yesterday, I took my car out to run a few errands, and just generally try and get used to how it is. I used to think that the LT1 was a bit of a weak little brother before I purchased my car. The only experience I had with one was a wounded, abused 6 speed Formula my friend had a few years ago. The timing chain was really stretched, and the clutch was just no good, so driving it was kind of a dud. Then, on my test drive for my Formula, it had great low end, but I didn't really open it up. Then, the transmission lost gears, so I didn't really punch it when I did need to drive a short distance. Man, was I in for a shock.

I took my car to exit to get on the freeway near my house, that formed a quick little loop. Things felt pretty good on the side roads, and by the time I got to the on ramp, the car was warmed up and ready. So I come down this sweeping on ramp, and the freeway is nice and empty ahead and behind me, so coming off the ramp, I punched it. Holy COW!!!!!!! I have had some experience with some pretty snappy cars before. A couple Rx7s, an SRT4 powered PT Cruiser, several sports/muscle cars from all over spectrum. I mean, nothing over 400, but a few north of 300. Even with my 2.73 axle, that car got up and MOVED. I kept in it, and right at redline, the transmission into 3rd and was just freight training away into the triple digits. I went ahead and let out of it, and just cruised it home at the speed limit after I hit 3rd.

The next day, I went ahead and installed an aluminum intake elbow. Wasn't looking to buy performance parts, but I found it cheap on ebay, and my old one was shredded. Turns out, my $50 elbow was about $20 less than the Dorman Reproductions, so that is the direction I took.

Installation was pretty straight forward, although I did have to modify a coupler to accept the Opti vent, but it is tight, and secure. Car fired up and ran with no problem, just waiting to take it for a test drive later. All the parts I ordered will come in at the end of the week, so I am hoping to get the timing chain and everything else done either this weekend, or maybe the next.

Also, I picked up a Hantec 1008C Oscilloscope to help me diagnose any future Opti issues, as well as other things that may come up.

At this point, I am head over heels in love with my car. This is the type of feeling I was trying to build with my 1977, and I am thrilled with my purchase, even with the bumps in the road. My only issue at this point, is that I am kind of scared. Once it cleared 75, it just kept pulling up top. I am not used to this level of performance and eagerness to be pushed. The high speed run did expose some weaknesses. I am thinking that new struts and springs are going to be raised up in importance to me. During the acceleration, I started to feel that the nose was starting to get a bit light, and less predictable than I would like. Just more for me to have fun with, and continue progressing it to my goal.

As always, I will try to update later on, if I remember to take some more pictures, or if I get some more work done. Thanks all for reading.

Edited to include mention of Oscilloscope purchase.
 

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Does your car have the front air dam at the bottom? It not only forces air into radiator at speed, but also helps to anchor the front end to the road.

Also hope you were nice to the rebuilt trans. At least long enough to give the new parts time to get working together in harmony.

Quick story, know a guy with a z28 6 speed. He changed the clutch assembly and the first thing he did was a couple of burn outs when he finished the job.

Week later he was back putting another new clutch assembly in car.
 

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Discussion Starter #10
I need to take another look at my air dam. I know I had something bolted below the radiator, but compared to the picture I saw of one, I think that mine is likely damaged and needs repair or replacement.

I wasn't too terrible to it. I drove it nicely for about 50 miles, all in small bits. Let it warm up, go for a drive, check fluid, allow to cool, and then repeat. The WOT run I was talking about above was the first I had done. I did look up the break in others have recommended, and from what I saw, I don't think I have done anything to make the transmission upset with me.

I actually avoid celebration burnouts now. After doing a rear end swap and exhaust on my 77, I noticed the lug wrench my friend was using to tighten up the lugs was cracking when he applied pressure. I made a mental note to double check it, but with the rush of finishing up, and that sound of the new exhaust drove that thought from my mind. Went to a safe little patch, did a couple burnouts, was happy, and left. 4 miles later, my driver side rear wheel passed me as I came out of a corner by my house. I beat myself up for that mistake for months. Now, I try to wait until the car has proven it is ready for some rough love before I start to beat on things.
 

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Had my driver side rear tire & wheel pass me once. First thing I thought was " gee that wheel looks just like mine". Then the suspension hit the ground.
 

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Thank you once again for your insight, Coco!

I haven't been feeling great today, but I figured I could at least crawl under the nose of my formula, and see how that air dam was.Or in this case, wasn't. It looks like the lower half of the dam was broken of, and what I saw while doing the transmission was essentially just the area of the dam that bolts to the vehicle.Your thought on mine being missing was dead on. I am going to do search of some junkyards, and see if I can snag a new one for a good price.

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Still planning on suspension in the near future, but I have a sneaky feeling that the air dam is going to be a bit cheaper, and a bit more useful in the near term.
 

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Been a couple weeks, so I figured I would throw a little update in.

The car has been pretty good to drive. Fast, responsive. Excellent chassis. I am loving it. Except the trans fluid leak. First couple times, I didnt notice anything on the ground, but checked anyway out of a paranoia. Turns out, I was right, and I was a pint or so low. Topped off, and started keeping an eye on it. The trans leaks were only showing up when the transmission was cold, and they took forever. The last couple days, I would let it get up to temp, make sure fluids were to the proper level, and do some running and errands. Never left a spot anywhere I went. Nothing to indicate that leak. Came home, parked it, placed some cardboard under it to find NEW leaks, and checked it every couple hours. Still nothing. I think I did 4 or 5 checks over 8 hours, and nothing hit that cardboard, other than some engine oil I am already aware of.

Woke up the last couple mornings, and found the cardboard covered in fluid. I think I had 3/4s of a pint on the cardboard. So, this evening, I went ahead and got the car up on a lift. A little bit of searching, and I found that my cooler lines are dripping oh so slightly at the transmission connection. Over time, I am guessing that built up, and then came down to the ground after several hours. Not a huge worry. My dad and I weren't super interested in getting that done today, but it has been added to my near plans.

With everything else I have to do and clean up on this engine and trans, we have decided that we are going to pull them out from the bottom so we can have a bit more room to get all the seals and gaskets taken care of, as well as de-grease this thing for what very well may be the first time, ever. I may even see if I can get some time to throw on a quick coat of paint. Man, it is really hard not to justify trying to get the cash to do a mail in tune at the same time, but I am not quite sure I can swing that.

If you do end up reading this Coco, I would like to ask your help. I was browsing the forum earlier, and another member had some questions on removing the engine. You mentioned in that thread that you had access to an article that goes into what I am about to do in depth. Would it be possible for you to post that? I am going to need all the help I can on this one, because it looks like I may be flying mostly solo. Usually, I have my dad to help me out. His experience goes a long way for me to get to have these types of cars and projects. Turns out, he hurt himself tonight, so I am not sure how much help I will be able to count on. (Don't worry. Nothing life threatening, but certainly painful enough he will reconsider that action in the future)

I do have access to a lift, tools, and a bit of knowledge and skill, but the key to pulling most things off successfully is preparation, so I that is my current focus.

Well, as always, thanks to those of you who take the time out of your day to read this. I really appreciate it.
 

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I'll need your email address to send you the pdf file on how to remove lt1 engine from bottom. Since you'll be using a lift, you won't have to build the wood hold up stand in article. File is 16mb, too big to upload to forum.

Since your car is 23 years old, your going to find that many seals are dried out. For your trans, find a bottle of Lucas trans fix. The stuff works well at revitalizing dried out trans seals. Don't use any other brand of trans leak stop, as they don't work as well as the Lucas does.

I'm here on the forum, most every day to help. Sorry to hear about your father's injury. Even if he can't physically help you, I'm sure he can help with advice also.

Use the 96 service manual. It is crammed with knowledge. If you haven't downloaded it, link is in my 1st post.

And don't forget the shoebox site. He has many how to do's. Link again in my 1st post.
 

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Discussion Starter #15
Thanks as always, Coco. I will PM you with that info. I really appreciate the shortcuts to the information that you provide.

I would hope my transmission doesn't need the Lucas trans fix yet. The car may be 23 years old, but that trans was a rebuilt unit I picked up and installed a couple weeks ago. It only has about 200 miles. The seals I am worried about are on the engine. I know that I don't need to pull the motor for what I want to do, but I want to do it this way to get familiar with the process, so I know what to expect when I eventually go LS Powered.

As for my dad, his injury was painful, but not too bad. He ended up dislocating his shoulder. Apparently there was a bet about cartwheels. Pretty sure beer was involved. Thank you for your concern.

I have the service manual saved to both my computer, and my phone. And Shoebox is also on my favorites bar, again, on my phone and computer. Just can't wait to get all this taken care of, and to be able to just drive my car for a while, without worry.

Again, thank you all for reading, and for the input. I really appreciate the help!
 

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Sorry. Been a busy month. Ran into a setback with being able to enjoy my car.

I took my car to a friends shop to snug up my trans lines. Things have been pretty crazy, so I didn't have time to get it on a lift myself, so I figured having him take care of it was just going to be easier. I drop it off, and after about 30 minutes, he calls me. It turns out, when my dad and I installed the transmission, it looks like we screwed up. Somehow, when tightening the cooler lines for the transmission, we went ahead and over tightened it. So much so, that it looks like I not only cracked the brass insert for the threads, but the aluminum case too!

I am kind of frustrated. Seems like every time I touch something, there is a major complication. Oh well, part of the game. Right now, I am focused on earning some extra cash, and calling a local transmission shop, and seeing what my options are. Cost is going to be the big limiting factor I have here, but I am hoping that if they can repair the case without emptying it, that would be awesome. If not, and I am into a rebuild essentially, I am going to look at adding a shift kit and maybe a stall converter, again, depending on funds.

I was in the local U-Pull-It earlier in the week, and I did come across a 2001 Camaro that was pretty new. Toyed with the idea of robbing the T-5 transmission and associated equipment, but if I am going to go through all the effort, I am going to hold off and wait for a T-56. On the upside, I did manage to find an air dam that was in really nice shape, so I took a few minutes to snag that.

So for right now, I am just not driving the car, and it is driving me a bit nuts. Just going to take some time, make some money, and get her back on the road. I spent too much time NOT driving my 77 to let my Formula get to the same state of neglect.

As always, thanks for taking the time out to read. I will try and see if there is something I can do in the coming weeks to keep giving you guys updates.
 

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Stay away from the stock T-5. It won't handle the torque of a lt1 engine. You'd destroy it in no time.

If case of 4l60e is cracked, all the components inside would have to be removed before welding could take place. An epoxy & glass cloth patch, might hold for a while. But it wouldn't be a permanent fix.

Where you live, you might be able to find a transmission expert who works from his own house. His charges for rebuilding a trans would be much less than a shop. Especially if you can remove trans and take it to him.

Here's a salvage yard search engine. You should be able to find a 4l60e in your home city, or not too far away.
www.car-part.com

You've never said where you live, but if you live in central Florida, I have a transmission guy who lives a couple of miles from me. He's honest, good at what he does, and costs less than shops charge.
 

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Discussion Starter #18
As always, Coco, I really appreciate your input and advice!

I was already suspicious of the T-5. If memory serves, they were not known for being the most robust behind a 5 liter in the Third Gens, so I didn't figure they would be ideal for my use. As for my 4L60E, I was already expecting to have to get a new case. My luck usually ends up on the worst case side of things, so not unexpected. I am in Colorado Springs, and I have a recommendation for a transmission shop locally. One of my friends with a shop uses him mainly for his race cars, and wont trust anyone else.

As for car-part.com, that is my bread and butter. Last half of high school and right afterwards, I worked part time for my dad in his shop. I wasn't (still am not) great at actually turning the wrenches, but I am excellent at research and acquiring the knowledge and parts I need. My main job was to hunt to down parts that were either hard to find, or too expensive locally, and I still do that for my friends and family.

The other path I am thinking of using is snagging a parts car from an insurance or crash auction. I have had very good luck saving a ton of money by buying an entire car, and stripping of the parts I need. My dad had one customer who really needed a super specific VW TDI engine that was only used on one model, for like 3 years. The junkyards all wanted 3 thousand or so for it on car-part. We ended up getting it out of an auction in Idaho, and driving out to grab it. Even after what he paid for the car, and our transport fees, I still think he ended up saving a thousand or more.

Who knows, maybe I will find a deal on salvage or junk 5th gen, and get started on my LS dream sooner than I anticipated. Chance favors the prepared mind, after all.
 

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Another day, and some more work completed.

With my transmission case presumably cracked, I haven't been driving it. Just trying not to hurt anything else before I get it in to have everything pulled apart. But today, I just couldn't take it. I beat my self up over not driving my 77, and if I can't drive my Formula, I can at least make her a bit better. I have a bunch of parts sitting in an office, and lots of it can be installed in my driveway, so today, I started with an easier one.

I went ahead and replaced my air dam with the one I removed from a 2001 Camaro in my local pick your part yard a couple weeks ago. I spent more time getting the right size sockets for the two different size bolts I had than I did actually removing the old unit, and getting the new air dam on there. I did notice that while the main mounting holes lined up, the 2001 Camaro air dam had some extra mounting holes on the sides, where it would connect to the quarter panels. I did not see any way to get those connected with my current bodywork. I am guessing that is one of the differences in how the 98+ cars are vs my 97.

Overall, I am really happy with the new air dam. My old one was so messed up and worn, it really wasn't doing anything for airflow, or downforce. Depending on how the next few days look, I will likely go ahead and knock out my ICM, heatsink, and ignition coil. Just keep doing things to improve the car while I can, and keep me motivated to get back to driving it, and driving it hard!

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There are some pictures of the before and after. I imagine that my radiator will thank me for the extra airflow! Anyways, thanks for taking the time out to read, and keep up with my project. Really appreciate all the advice and info I keep getting!
 

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No upgrades or repairs to report this time. Just been working a ton, and feeling guilty about not driving it as much, so today, I decided that I just had to get out, and get a little time behind the wheel. I went and let my Firebird idle and warm up for 15-20 minutes. Ran through the gears, checked the fluid, and made sure that everything was topped off and good. Then, I cleaned the windshield, windows and mirrors, and took a short drive.

I have a little loop that gives me a small, low speed back road with minimal traffic, and that leads to an interchange where I can either go to into the city, or I can head North or South on the freeway. The total loop is around 6 miles. I took it nice and easy for most of the back roads. No more than 30 percent throttle, and just cruised it. Eventually, I came to the interchange, and went South to get back to my home. On the freeway, I did open her up a bit. I merged behind a Semi Tractor, moved to the passing lane, and went wide open. Got some distance from the Semi, and moved back into the right lane, and cruised at 75. Things were cool, quiet, and pretty smooth. I did run up on another car going a bit slower than 70, and used it as an excuse to jam on it again. Got past the slower car, moved over again, and got off on my exit.

I am also very happy to report that the new air dam is doing the job, and doing it well. I noticed that my car only got up to about 200 degrees during the driving, as well as it was WAY more stable at speed. I just keep getting more and more impressed with the 4th gen platform, and particularly the LT engine. I know the LS motors have more aftermarket support and potential, but this small block really moves. I initially wanted to step up to an LS3 if I can find a wrecked 5th Gen Camaro, but I am getting really tempted to keep playing with the LT1. My friend happens to own a machine shop, and he told me that he has a 383 LT laying around, and is looking to get rid of some things. After what I have seen and experienced with a stock LT1, I got to imagine that the extra cubes with cam, some port work, and a solid tune would make this car a blast!

Anyways, I still have a ton of work to do to this car, but not driving it was making me nuts. As I get more stuff done, I will post another update! Thanks for taking the time to read.
 
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