Former drug car now running for the law
The 1981 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am has something of a checkered past. Although the car rolled off the line with the iconic “Smokey and the Bandit” black paint and gold hood plumage, we don’t know whether it ever ran interference for a truckload of beer headed to Atlanta from Texarkana.
What we do know is that sometime in the 1990s, the car fell in with a bad crowd and was seized during a Galveston Police Department drug operation. It sat in a parking lot for awhile and deteriorated.
About that time, Lt. Tommy Hansen of the Galveston County Sheriff’s Office learned about a program called Beat the Heat, which uses drag racing cars as educational and public-relations tools to combat drug and alcohol abuse and street racing.
Hansen convinced former Sheriff Joe Max Taylor to let him form a chapter of Beat the Heat, all of which is funded exclusively through private gifts and donations.
Among the first donations Hansen arranged was of the Firebird.
“It was in pretty bad shape,” he said. “And it was a typical ‘80s car — not enough power to get out of its own way.”
None of that’s true anymore.
The car has gone through several iterations since Hansen took it over. It ran for a time with mostly stock suspension and body — done in the green and white of the Galveston County Sheriff’s Office — and propelled by an engine built around an old marine block.
Today, the car is outfitted with custom-built running gear and most of the original sheet metal had been replaced with fiberglass. With that and some chopping, the car is about 600 pounds lighter than it was.
As with all drag cars, the star of this show is the engine, which has a story of its own. About 15 years ago, Hansen met a GM executive in charge of the company’s performance parts division who offered to help with the car.
“I told him my engine was dying a slow death and asked if he could get me a new set of aluminum heads,” Hansen said.
Time passed and Hansen pretty much forgot about the conversation until one day he got an email asking where he wanted his custom-built, high-performance crate engine delivered.
Since shortly after that, the car has been powered by 502 cubic-inch GM Performance Parts engine naturally aspirated through a Holley Dominator carburetor rated at 1,100 cubic feet per minute.
With a few modifications by Hansen and his crew of volunteers, the engine produces about 670 horsepower, Hansen said.
All that muscle is channeled into a GM Turbo-Hydramatic 400 transmission outfitted with a high-performance torque converter and GM 12-bolt rear end with 4:10 gears.
The car spends a lot of time at parades and events meant to break down the walls between law enforcement officers and the public, which is its primary job.
It is, however, a real race car, able to cover a quarter-mile in a highly respectable 10 seconds flat at about 135 mph.
The crew takes the car to races a half a dozen or so times a year with Hansen behind the wheel.
“I’ve tried to get some of the other guys to drive it,” Hansen said. “They all say the same thing — ‘I don’t want to be the one who wrecks it.’”
While drag racing is a hoot, Hansen said he gets the most fun and satisfaction from the car’s stationary role.
“When we’re out there with no badges and no guns, the biggest gangster in town might come up just to see the car and talk about it,” he said.
“It really does break down the walls. We have people who came to see the car when they were kids bringing their own kids and grandkids.
“It’s a great way to reach people.”