ESSEX PARTS SERVICES AT A GLANCE
- Located in Cramerton, North Carolina, with 20 employees
- A distributor of high-performance brakes for track use
- Exclusive North American distributor for AP Racing race components and Ferodo racing pads
The BRAKE Report continues to take a look at companies in the industry through a series of profiles covering manufacturers, suppliers, and other companies in the brake ecosystem.
For our fifth profile, we talked to Mike O’Neil, Technical Director for Essex, about his company’s role in motorsports and high-performance braking.
“We’re a value-added distributor. We have lots of technical expertise,” O’Neil says. “Not many people that distribute brake parts have a dyno on the facility that a team can also rent and use.”
Essex is especially proud of its role as a major supplier of brake systems to NASCAR teams. NASCAR is widely considered to be the top racing series in the United States. In fact, the company relocated in 2004 from Atlanta to just outside Charlotte, North Carolina to be closer to the many race teams that operate near NASCAR’s Charlotte headquarters.
In 2018, Joey Logano won the NASCAR Cup Championship using the AP Racing Radi-CAL caliper, imported and serviced by Essex.
Essex started in 1981 as an importer of British racecars and their parts, a niche reflected in the Essex logo, which features the flags of the United States and Britain.
In 1984, Essex established a relationship with AP Racing, a company based in Coventry in the UK. Today, Essex is the exclusive North American distributor for AP Racing’s racing components. “In addition to supplying their products,” O’Neil explains, “we provide technical support to our customers at the track and work with AP Racing in the development of new products to meet our market’s specific needs. Long-term success for both companies and our customers requires technical support going both directions. AP Racing has an engineer working full time out of the Essex facility, adding to the synergy.”
Essex also develops its own products that complement the AP Racing line. These products allow AP Racing components to be used in a wider range of car-brake combinations.
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Essex is also the exclusive North American importer and distributor of Ferodo racing pads and the exclusive distributor of Ohlins dampers for Indycar and professional sportscar racing. O’Neil says, “Generally, Essex takes on product lines that benefit from a high level of technical support.”
Racing brakes aren’t cheap — a top-of-the-line racing brake system for NASCAR can cost upwards of $26,000. Essex offers the type of extensive, hands-on service you would expect at this sort of price point. It’s the service that makes Essex tick. The company is home to technicians and engineers who travel often to races.
The company attends events at “the tracks that are most demanding on brakes. It’s easy to do when you have a significant part of the field,” O’Neil says. For NASCAR specifically, the company has representatives at Daytona, which is the first race of the year; Martinsville, a course that requires drivers to be on the brakes 40 percent of the time; and road courses, as well as other races.
According to O’Neil, NASCAR places the biggest demand on the brake system of any racing series. The combination of a heavy car, high speeds, long races, and iron discs that must fit within a 15” wheel creates a huge challenge. “There is much heat to handle in a small package. Yet, the brake systems have been developed to the point that the drivers can race all-out for the full duration of the race … at least with respect to the brake system. It was not like that before Essex and AP Racing entered the business,” says O’Neil.
On race days, company representatives can often listen to the driver on the radio. “That’s a no-news-is-good-news scenario,” O’Neil says. In rare cases someone from Essex will seek out a crew member if there’s a particular problem, but typically the objective during race day is to be available in case a crew member needs to consult.
It’s not surprising that many of the employees at Essex have a passion for racing. O’Neil races motorcycles, while product manager Brian Hoppe was an accomplished late-model racer. Others regularly participate in track days. But O’Neil hesitates to say they are fans. “Are we starry eyed and looking for autographs? No. Do we have great respect for what the teams do and take satisfaction in being a part of it? Absolutely.”
Priorities are different in racing than they are in the street market. When I go to the SAE Brake Colloquium, one of the top priorities is pad squeal. We don’t care about that. Copper in street pads is a big concern coming up. We don’t have those restrictions. In terms of price point — they’re looking at pulling 2 or 3 cents out of something, whereas a race team will pay $30, $40, maybe thousands of dollars more if there’s a measurable performance gain. — Mike O’Neil
Outside the Oval
Essex offers a range of services and products. One area of focus is helping customers prepare for track days and another is managing some brake-system preparation and certified rebuilding for race teams. “We have developed patented processes and a special machine for bedding/burnishing discs and pads, allowing us to supply such components ready to race,” O’Neil says. “Our rebuilding services for racing calipers, master cylinders, computer-controlled clutch actuators, and carbon/carbon clutches have greatly expanded, including demanding test procedures, documentation, and life tracking. “
O’Neil says that at Essex, no two days are the same. In addition to NASCAR, the company works with Indycar, various sportscar series, and individual customers. “There is something new or different that comes up nearly every day. We must adapt and quickly determine the best solutions to these challenges.”
As O’Neil points out, Essex is still a company with competitors. He sees his responsibility as more quickly coming up with solutions that are more effective than those of other companies.
One challenge is managing cost at the very small production scale at which Essex sometimes works.
O’Neil explains: “Just like with any other market, the products offered by Essex must be cost effective. At the highest end of the market, volume might be only a few pieces, but, the budgets available are bigger, allowing more exotic materials and more expensive manufacturing processes. In the lower racing series, the budgets are generally smaller, but there may be a larger market, allowing manufacturing processes better suited for such volumes. That can lower costs significantly. But let’s be clear, 500 of anything is a very large quantity to us!”
Despite the occasional challenges, O’Neil is quick to acknowledge that in many ways working at Essex is an engineer’s dream. “It is almost like sponsorship for a driver. Someone is paying me to do what I love to do. In return, I give back my best effort. It is challenging. It can be unpredictable. It requires an understanding in many different areas, and not just technical. It can be very demanding. But, that demand is something that comes from within us much more than from others.”
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