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Birds of a Feather—How a pair of Pontiacs forged a friendship on and off the track

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Written by Derek Putnam

Photography by Kevin DiOssi

Many of us look back fondly on high school and remember time spent with friends, hobbies and sports, as well as figuring out a career path. Some acquire a first car that makes an impact powerful enough that it stays with the owner for a lifetime. In 1997, the American sports car scene was gaining power, with the all-new LS1 engine platform debuting in the Chevrolet Corvette. While the Chevrolet Camaro and Pontiac Firebird would still employ the LT1 engines for another year before their change to the LS engine, horsepower was enough to clock high-13-second passes in bone-stock condition.

For Justin May and Shawn McAlees, their high school Firebirds would instead come from the third-generation, built from 1982 to 1992, which sported a little less performance. And despite both men purchasing a red Firebird in the same year, the mutual interest didn’t spark a friendship. “We grew up within a few miles of each other,” Justin explained. “But we didn’t hang out, and I’m not really sure why we weren’t doing things together in high school.”

McAlees agrees their taste in cars didn’t bring them together at first. “We knew each other, and our houses were just a few streets apart,” Shawn added. “We may not have done much together in high school, but it didn’t take long before our paths crossed after graduation.”

Triple Threat

Originally equipped with the base six-cylinder engine rated at 135 horsepower, Shawn McAlees’ 1988 Firebird only looked the part of a sports car when he first acquired it. “It wasn’t in great shape appearance wise either,” said Shawn. So he employed his father to help him repaint the car, and the results are still gleaming 22 years later.

Although it might have been lacking in performance, it reliably served daily driver duties for three years before McAlees got the itch for more horsepower. Nearly doubling the original engine’s displacement, Shawn swapped in a Tuned Port-based 355-cube small-block backed by a 700R4 overdrive automatic in 2000. Providing assistance on the swap was Justin May, and it wouldn’t be the last time he was a helping hand on the buildup of McAlees’ Firebird.

Once a six-cylinder car, Shawn McAlees Firebird is now motivated by a 400-cube short block based on a Dart block.

Now with more power under his right foot, McAlees continued drive it daily, but drag racing and autocross duties were also added to the list. “It was a mild build.” he admits of the engine, “but it got the car into the mid-13-second range at the drag strip.” It was only one year later McAlees picked up a new daily driver, moving the Firebird into the role of a weekend toy. The car was driven for five years without changes, but in 2006 an opportunity to pick up some power presented itself.

“I wanted to go a little faster, and Justin was swapping his car over to LS power,” McAlees said. The LS swap meant Justin’s 406-cube small-block was without a home, and McAlees snapped it up. This provided enough power to push the 3,680-pound car to a best elapsed time of 11.30 naturally aspirated, and a 10.25 ET when he engaged the 150-horsepower shot of nitrous.

Despite his performance aspirations, McAlees wants to keep his Firebird as stealthy as possible, which is evidenced by the nearly stock interior.

The extra power wasn’t just used for spirited street driving or drag strip passes, as McAlees also enjoy the turns in his ‘Bird. “Autocrossing is a little different than drag racing,” he said. “I enjoy doing it; it’s part of the reason the car doesn’t have skinny front wheels, and it doesn’t have a high numerical rear gear. I actually thought about competing in the Optima series. But a lot of changes would be necessary to be competitive, so I decided to do more street driving and drag racing with the car instead.” That includes participating in the NMCA Gear Vendors True Street class, where he just missed picking up the 11-second title at Norwalk, Ohio in 2015.

McAlees has made small changes since then to improve the performance and fun factor of the Firebird. But in 2017, the 406 engine decided to wave the white flag. “A coolant leak between the cylinders was discovered,” he said. “At that point it was decided we should build a better and faster engine.” A Dart block provided the base for a 400-cube short block, and it was filled with a Callies rotating assembly. The top end from McAlees’ 406 engine was freshened and bolted back in place. The tuning side of things was also changed, as Justin employed a 24x LS1 computer out of a 2002 Camaro, along with a coil-on-plug system for “more control and a much more consistent timing curve.”

 Despite the Firebird being a lot faster than when he started with it, Shawn has stayed true to its roots and not cut it up or make it a single-purpose car. “I wanted to be able to not only use it, but enjoy using it,” he said. A big part of that was realized because of his friendship with May. “We started talking after high school was complete for both of us,” McAlees said. “Every once in a while, we’d talk about projects we both got involved in.” That led to a friendship and a car that he will hang onto for a long time. “I’ve been with my wife for 12 years, and when we got married two years ago, we made sure to include the car,” McAlees admitted. “It’s been a great ride so far, and I’m looking forward to a great 2019 season.”

The Details

Owner/Driver

Owner: Shawn McAlees

Driver: Shawn McAlees

Hometown: Maumee, Ohio

Occupation: Software QA Analyst

Class: Gear Vendors True Street

Crew: Heather McAlees (Wife)

Powertrain

Engine: Gen 1 Small Block Chevrolet, 11.5 Compression

Engine builder: Scott Gressman, Gressman Powersports

Displacement: 400 ci

Block: Dart Little M

Bore: 4.125

Stroke: 3.75

Crank: Callies Comp Star

Rods: Callies Comp Star H beam, 6-inch

Pistons: JE custom

Cylinder heads: AFR 23-degree, 195cc

Valvetrain: Manton pushrod, Harland Sharp Diamond series rockers, Crane hydraulic-roller Ti-bar lifters, and PAC Springs

Camshaft: Indiana Muscle Car custom grind hydraulic roller by COMP Cams

EFI system: EFI Connection 24X, Tuned with HP Tuners by Justin May at IMC and owner

Power-adder: Nitrous Outlet Single Nozzle System, 175-horsepower shot, Promax controller

Fuel: VP MS109

Spark plug: NGK

Headers and exhaust: Stainless Works 1.75-inch long-tube headers, 3-inch Y-pipe to 3.5-inch single full-length exhaust, 3.5-inch Stainless Works muffler, 3.5-inch tip

Transmission: Turbo 400, JW Performance Ultra-Bell

Transmission Builder: RPM Transmissions

Shifter: B&M Pro Ratchet

Torque converter: Yank billet, 9.5-inch, 3,400-rpm stall

Rearend: Moser Engineering 9-inch, Moser Engineering 35-spline axles, back-braced

Driveshaft: Strange Engineering 3-inch chrome-moly

Differential: Moser Engineering 9-inch aluminum center section w/ 3.50 gear ratio and steel spool

Oil Pan: Canton Road Race with windage tray, crank scraper and trap doors, 6-quart capacity

Intake: LT1 converted to SBC, ported with remote thermostat

Throttle body: TPIS monoblade

Injectors: Fuel Injector Connection 42 lb/hr

Chassis

Body and/or chassis builder: 1988 Pontiac Firebird, painted in 1997 by my late father and I (Dennis McAlees),

Suspension (Front): BMR A-Arms, K-Member and steering brace, Stock 36mm WS6 sway bar, QA1 18-way double-adjustable front struts, stock V6 springs

Suspension (Rear): BMR Panhard bar (adjustable), BMR Panhard rod relocation kit, BMR Xtreme anti-roll bar, BMR lower control arms, BMR Xtreme torque arm, QA1 18-way single Adjustable shocks with 150 in-lb springs, Wolfe adjustable upper spring mount

Brakes (Front): 1999 GM F-body disc

Brakes (Rear): 1999 GM F-body disc

Wheels (front): Weld S77, 17×8-inch

Wheels (Rear): Weld S77, 17×10-inch

Tires (Front): Mickey Thompson Street Comp 245/45-17

Tires (Rear): Mickey Thompson ET Street SS 305/45R-17

Body modifications: None

Fiberglass/Carbon body components: N/A all-steel

Cooling: Meziere pump, Champion Radiator, Custom shroud and hold down by Don at Scott Rods, Toledo, Ohio), SPAL 15-inch fan

Safety equipment: Bell Racing Vortex Helmets, G-FORCE Racing 3.2/5 jacket, front and rear driveshaft safety loops

Vehicle weight: 3,680 pounds with driver

Quickest ET: 9.594

Best 60-foot: 1.343

Fastest mph: 139.9 mph

Sponsors: Indiana Muscle Car

 

Engineering a Beast

Getting good grades in school can pay off in several ways. For Justin May, it resulted in a 1991 Firebird. “My mom suggested she would pay for half a car if I got a 4.0 GPA in my Junior and Senior year of high school,” Justin said. “I wasn’t looking for a third-generation Firebird, but this was a good one.”

It served daily driver duties into his college years at University of Toledo, and Justin’s engineering studies would provide the spark to making this ‘Bird spread its wings. “A few engineering students were gearheads, and we were always in competition to have the fastest car,” said May. So he started saving money and gathering parts. “At one time, my closet at college had almost an entire engine worth of parts before I started the build,” he admitted. He assembled a 406-cube small-block with good parts designed to take a shot of nitrous, so Justin soon had a 10.50 time slip in his hands, all while banging the gears of a manual transmission. This engine also sharpened May’s EFI tuning skills, something that would come into play later in life.

A 427 cubic-inch engine based on a LSX block and boosted by an F-1C 94 ProCharger propels Justin May’s Firebird to 8-second ETs.

After Justin graduated from the University of Toledo, he moved to Indiana in 2004 to work for Zimmer Biomet, a medical company that makes prosthetic knees. He also picked up close to 30 patents for his work, but his love for cars stayed alive as well. “I was building and tuning cars on the side for years,” May said. The Firebird was a part of that passion for him, and in 2006, a search for a new daily driver led to another change for the Firebird. “I was looking for a new daily driver, and test drove a 2001 Camaro,” he added.

The LS platform made such an impression, Justin wanted more than just one. “I wanted a ProCharger and a LS engine in the Firebird,” he said, and a 408 cubic-inch engine topped with 225cc AFR heads and an F-1R ProCharger was put together, with a unique twist. “ProCharger didn’t have a bracket system for a LS engine in a third-generation chassis,” May recalled. So he put his engineering skills to work, and created his own. It was completed in time for the 2010 Chevrolet Performance Series Challenge at Saint Louis, where he picked up the 10-second class win in NMCA Gear Vendors True Street.

Aside from the racing seats and roll cage, May’s interior isn’t too far removed from his high school days.

Although Justin would go on to pick up additional True Street class wins in the next three years at the NMCA’s World Finals at Indianapolis Raceway Park, he wanted more. “It was a good engine, but it just wasn’t quite a quick as I wanted to go,” he said. So a 427 cubic-inch engine based on a LSX block got the call, along with a new F-1C 94 ProCharger, to push the Firebird to a best of an 8.24 at 174 miles an hour. In addition to changing combinations, May decided to switch gears (literally) and open a shop of his own, Indiana Muscle Car, in 2015. “There was definitely risk involved, in both my supercharger bracket design and switching careers,” Justin admitted. “But if you look at the market, more big name companies are now making parts for third-generation Camaro and Firebird platforms. I’ve worked on some nicely done third-gen cars, some that have been with the owners since high school. Ironic, isn’t it?”

His new job also meant new things for the Firebird. “My car is our shop mule,” May said. “So I switched to a turbocharger in 2016 to test and develop a kit.” He selected a 94mm Precision turbo for the job, and after some time to refine the combination, Justin captured the 2017 NMCA True Street crown in Norwalk on the strength of an 8.23 average.

“I’ve always wanted to be a True Street champion,” May said, who despite the quick times, wants to keep the Firebird as stealthy as possible. “I’ve spent a lot of time to make everything appear stock and clean, including a flat hood and nearly stock interior.”

So what does the future hold for May and his ultra-quick Pontiac? “I’m aiming for a 7-second pass in True Street competition, and learn how to use all the power this engine makes,” he said. And just like his friend Shawn McAlees, May plans for more time behind the wheel of his storied Firebird in 2019. “It doesn’t seem like 22 years have passed,” he said. “We got blamed for the other’s mischief in high school, but Shawn and I share a deep connection with our first cars, and that love of third gens brought us together.”

The Details                                                 

Owner: Justin May

Driver: Justin May

Hometown: Leesburg, Indiana

Occupation: CEO, Indiana Muscle Car

Class: Gear Vendors True Street

Crew: Nicole Meredith, Masyn Derf

Powertrain

Engine: LSX, 9.8 compression

Engine builder: Andrew Kittrell, Performance Technology, Wakarusa, Indiana

Displacement: 427 ci

Block: LSX

Bore: 4.125

Stroke: 4.00

Crank: Callies Dragonslayer

Rods: Oliver

Pistons: JE custom

Cylinder heads: TFS 245cc cathedral

Valvetrain: Lunati Ti-bar lifters, Yella Terra rockers

Camshaft: IMC custom-grind hydraulic-roller by Cam Motion

EFI system: Holley Dominator tuned by Indiana Muscle Car

Power-adder: Precision 94mm T6 turbocharger, Chiseled air-to-water intercooler

Fuel: VP MS109

Spark plugs: Brisk

Headers and exhaust: Indiana Muscle Car stainless turbo system, forward facing Holley cast-iron manifolds

Transmission: Turbo 400 based on Reid case

Transmission Builder: RPM Transmissions

Shifter: B&M Pro Ratchet

Torque converter: Yank billet, 10.5-inch, 3,400-rpm stall

Rearend: Madman and Company Racing fabricated 9-inch, Moser Engineering 40-spline axles

Driveshaft: 3-inch chrome-moly

Differential: Moser Engineering 9-inch aluminum center section w/ 3.25 gear ratio and spool

Oil pan: Moroso steel baffled pan

Intake: Holley Sniper Race EFI

Throttle body:  92mm Nick Williams

Injectors: Fuel Injector Connection 170 lb/hr

Chassis

Body and/or chassis builder: 1991 Pontiac Firebird, Advanced Chassis SFI 25.3 cage, Elite Fabrication parachute mount, mini tubs, and wing

Suspension (Front): BMR K-member, Strange Engineering double-adjustable struts, Racecraft lower control arms

Suspension (Rear): Madman and Company Racing torque arm, Madman and Company Racing-valved Afco shocks

Brakes (Front): Strange Engineering disc

Brakes (Rear): Strange Engineering disc

Wheels (front): Weld V-series, 17×5-inch

Wheels (Rear): RC Components, 15×12-inch

Tires (Front): M&H, 185/55-17

Tires (Rear): Mickey Thompson 275 Pro

Body modifications: None

Fiberglass/Carbon body components: Fiberglass flat hood painted by Scott Klepinger, Modern Muscle Car Factory

Safety equipment: HJC helmet, G-Force jacket and pants, G-Force gloves, G-Force shoes, RJS five-point belts, Stroud window net

Vehicle weight: 3,610 pounds with driver

Quickest ET: 8.03

Best 60-foot: 1.22

Fastest mph: 180 mph

Sponsors: Indiana Muscle Car

 


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