Brown Sugar: Tim Essick’s Immaculate Homebuilt Hot Rod Is Setting Records

Brown sugar is typically used for baking cakes, cookies, and other delicious treats, but in the case of Tim Essick, Brown Sugar is the 2018 Outlaw 10.5 Mustang he uses to bake the competition. In the six short months since its debut on the track, Essick has gone on to claim the quickest-ever elapsed time in the class on a true slick tire, which is an impressive feat. The most extraordinary thing about this car, though, is the fact that it was built from front to back in Essick’s three-car garage shop outside his house in Maryland. There wasn’t a big check stroked to <insert high-dollar chassis shop name here> or a second mortgage taken out to pay for an engine at <insert big-dollar engine shop name here>… no, in fact, it’s exactly the opposite.

During the build process for this car, which took nearly two years, Essick relied on his own talents and those of a small group of supremely adept teammates—Dan Whetstine, Tim Savoy (seen above) and Jason Norris—who all pitched in to help him turn Brown Sugar from a factory-delivered body-in-white bare steel shell into the stunning machine seen here. Essick and his merry band work together to campaign his car against some of the most accomplished drag racers in the world, and if preliminary indications hold any sort of prediction for the future, he’s going to be a player in this class for years to come.

But first, a bit of history on a guy who flies under the radar. I’ve known Tim Essick for a long time, going on 20 years or so now. In that timeframe, I’ve seen him race only three cars: an ‘86 Fox body car he raced in Fun Ford action back in the very early 2000s, the old reliable blue 2003 Mustang that he campaigned to an NMRA Outlaw 10.5 title in 2007 (along with four second-place finishes in six seasons), and Brown Sugar, which debuted earlier this year to great fanfare. The hook was set earlier than the ’86; he started bracket racing with a pickup truck while in college, but running 17-second elapsed times at just over 70 mph bored him quickly. Then, a stroke of fate changed his course.

“A cab driver ran into the side of my truck and broke my left leg and right arm, so I was kind of bored,” he says. There was an untouched 1989 Fox body Mustang sitting in the garage… what better time to get a project started?

“The car was just sitting, and I was in a wheelchair for a bit. I couldn’t get around campus, so I’d go out to the garage and sit in a rolling chair to work on it,” he says. After a few years chasing points every weekend, bracket racing became old news, so he transitioned into the ’86.

“I wanted something that I could win with in a different fashion. I don’t mind getting beat, but I don’t want to lose a race over trying to play the finish line, where you have to hold a little bit extra and dump on someone, or hit the brakes or whatever. It’s like playing poker with drag racing, and I don’t like playing poker,” he says.

The ’86 got him accustomed to heads-up style racing, with a big dose of Fun Ford Weekend action. The car’s nitrous-injected, Brodix Neal-headed small-block combination propelled him to 8.50s in the quarter-mile, which was pretty quick for the time but left him outclassed by some of the more serious racers. A conversation with dearly-departed Jim Summers of ASSC Racing and ProCharger fame foreshadowed the combination of today, as he purchased one of the company’s F-3R superchargers and retrofitted the ’86 with that power-adder. This car was campaigned for a season-and-a-half, before he pulled the drivetrain and began the build of the 2003 Mustang which brought him to prominence in the Outlaw 10.5 world.

A freak accident in that car at Maryland International Raceway in late 2004 nearly ended his racing career, as the driveshaft pretzeled itself during a run, breaking the pinion out of the rearend, sending it through the floor and seat into his right side and causing major injuries. The driveshaft itself shattered his right elbow and the bones in his forearm, leaving him with a severely limited range of motion after several surgeries.

But, as we can see, those setbacks only served to make him stronger—and more impressive that he’s the architect of this car.

Essick, a quiet man with a quick smile, prefers to let his weapon do the talking. You won’t find him on social media arguing rules with other racers or pontificating to anyone who will listen about how good of a racer he is; he just shows up, unloads the car, gets his teammates together with a plan, and does his best to end up in the winner’s circle at the end of the weekend.

He was interested in replacing the New Edge car when the S550 Mustang debuted in 2015, but it wasn’t until late 2016 when the body-in-white became available from Ford and he received a phone call to come pick it up. It was at this point that he jumped on the opportunity, hatching a plan to build Brown Sugar and beginning to source parts.

During our conversation, I was most curious to find out how difficult it is to put together a car like this in the garage, rather than stroking those checks to have someone do it for him. Every single part of this car—save for the chassis powder coating—was done in Essick’s garage. Wiring, paint and body, chassis fabrication and welding, engine building, even stitching up the vinyl covers for the zoomies in case of inclement weather. You name it, he and his teammates did it right here in this suburban garage. It’s an amazing feat when you think about the caliber of car that they’ve constructed.

I’ve seen a lot of racecars in my time built by the most accomplished chassis builders in the world. Once I had a chance to get up close and personal with Brown Sugar, I realized that I would put Essick’s talents up against any of them—this car is just that well-engineered. From bow to stern, roof to floor, every item has its place, the fit and finish on every part is amazing, and Essick’s eye for detail shows in the layout of components.

It’s simply immaculate. There is no doubt in my mind that it could win a Best in Show at many car shows, yet Essick is out on the track setting the class record in a class which offers notoriously difficult competition. Since its debut, he has won Best Appearing Car at both the Yellow Bullet Nationals and the PDRA Firecracker Nationals at Virginia Motorsports Park. He tells me that the Best Appearing Car award meant more than any trophy or winner’s purse, as it reflects the heart and soul put into this car from its very conception.

His time testing on the track prior to the PDRA event enabled him to set the class record and move all the way to the final round before bowing out to fellow heavy-hitter Ken Quartuccio’s Skinny Kid-built, Pro Line Racing-powered Corvette, an impeccable work of art in its own right.

“There’s two ways of building a car. You can build the basic car and get in a hurry and get some paint on it so you feel like it’s finished, or you can build the whole car, then take it apart and do your finish work,” he says.

The ability to visualize the process of working on the car in the pits a year and a half down the line also plays a part into component selection and placement, as does his desire to end up with a car that is most aesthetically pleasing.

“I had to plan where everything was going, every tab, every nook and cranny, because once you powder it, you’re done. If you have to do anything at that point it’s a band-aid fix, and it’s not a show-quality car at that point. I built this car around simplicity because of things I’ve learned in the past. Before, we had a fuel injection computer and a data logger and maybe a boost controller and an ignition box. You had so many different computers trying to talk to one another and none of them shared the same data. When I did this car, looking at the FuelTech FT600, I could do everything I wanted to do in the same system. So that eliminated other boxes and weight and wiring harnesses,” he explains.

Brown Sugar makes use of the latest and greatest innovations permitted by the ruleset in Outlaw 10.5 and is designed to give Essick every edge possible as he races against some of the most accomplished racers in the world.  Brown Sugar relies on one of ProCharger’s newest F-3R-136 superchargers for extra motivation atop the Essick Motorsports-built, Alan Johnson Performance-machined 540 cubic-inch 481X engine.

Inside, there’s a Winberg crankshaft, GRP aluminum connecting rods, and JE pistons wrapped in Total Seal rings. Of course, critical dimensions haven’t been disclosed in the interest of Tim retaining his competitive secrets. A billet camshaft from Crane couples with T&D Machine rocker arms to get the air into and out of the AJPE billet cylinder heads. Visner Engine Development manufactured the billet intake manifold, while Essick Motorsports-built zoomie exhaust pipes let the ProCharger’s boost into the atmosphere. An estimated 3,200-plus horsepower is on tap.

Essick has worked with ATI Racing for many years; the company’s three-speed Turbo400 transmission and billet bolt-together converter has “all the mods”, according to Essick, and is operated by a shifter from M&M Transmission. Power runs through a PST carbon fiber shaft.

The Essick Motorsports 25.2-spec chassis is based around a Mark Williams 10-inch rear differential housing which incorporates floater axles, an anti-roll bar and brakes from MW, and Precision Racing Suspension double-adjustable shocks.

The four-link suspension took him some time to iron out, with several non-fruitful passes before he finally discovered the sweet spot. Now that he has, though, he feels like he’s not at its limit yet—it just keeps taking everything he throws at it, and the car hasn’t even tried to make use of the wheelie bars down the track yet. It’s possible that there are still six or seven hundredths of a second locked up in the car’s performance as he begins to ramp the power in earlier in the run.

Up front, the strut-style suspension uses spindle-mount JRi Ultra Struts coupled with Hyperco springs and Strange Engineering brakes. RC Components wheels up front and Weld Racing wheels out back wear Mickey Thompson tires; Essick is one of the last holdouts in the class using the true 33 x 10.5 x 16-inch slick tire and says he doesn’t have any plans to change that, as it’s far more forgiving on marginal track surfaces.

Longtime partners Turbosmart and Vibrant Performance have a presence, with Turbosmart’s PowerPort blow off valve venting the excess boost and Vibrant clamps ensuring the remaining boost doesn’t escape.

From that original body-in-white chassis picked up in Michigan two years ago, the steel quarter-panels and roof were retained as per Outlaw 10.5 rules, and the rest of the pieces were tossed in the garbage. The one-piece nose and doors are constructed of carbon fiber, polycarbonate windows are mounted front, rear, and in both doors, and special attention was paid to the fit and finish of the nose, with quick-release latches installed rather than the traditional Dzus fasteners. It’s small touches like these which separate Brown Sugar from the rest of the eggs in the basket—along with Tim Essick’s desire to build the baddest hot rod in the land. And who can argue against the fact that he’s done it? Certainly not me.

I thought that’s where the story would end, but sometimes timing comes down to being in the right place at the right time, and that’s exactly the case for this feature article.

Tim went to compete at the World Cup Finals at Maryland International Raceway this past weekend with hopes of performing well in the Outlaw Vs. Extreme class against some of the toughest competition in the world. As you might imagine, he did—or I wouldn’t be adding more to the story.

Some race weekends are hard. Parts break, tuners struggle with track conditions, and any number of other stumbling blocks appear which can derail even the best race program. This race weekend was one of the more difficult ones, according to Tim.

On Wednesday afternoon, fellow racer Jimmy Dolan sought him out for assistance in repairing his parachute launchers. Essick took Dolan’s equipment into the garage, tuned it up, and had it back to him in less than two hours.

Then, on Thursday night, teammate/crew chief Dan Whetstine’s Warrior Outlaw Mustang (the red Fox body seen in some of these photos) hurt a piston during qualifying for that class, so after the day was done they took his car back to the Essick Motorsports shop and pulled the engine in a last-ditch effort to fix it. Unsuccessful, they hit the rack late and slept in preparation for Friday.

World Cup Finals photos by Wes Taylor

On Saturday, while warming the car, he noticed that the crank trigger wheel, mounted to the harmonic damper, didn’t look right and was wiggling around. So they skipped a round of qualifying, and pulled the supercharger and its drive off the car to discover all six bolts were sheared off. They figured out a fix after finding enough fasteners to make it all work properly.

But the weekend drama doesn’t end there. After every pass he was also fixing his own parachute launchers, which weren’t working properly, and on Friday his burst panel let loose, which required repair.

After repairing the damper problem, he realized he didn’t have a ton of accurate run data. With those bolts loose, all of his previous data was contaminated by the fact that the crank trigger was supplying retarded timing data all this time, so he put in the tuneup which helped him to secure the tire record and hoped for the best during the final qualifying round. The car went 3.88 to the eighth-mile, which gave him confidence that he was on the right track entering eliminations on Sunday.

These issues alone would be enough for most racers to lose focus. Cue evening maintenance.

“I was looking everything over, and it looked like it was starting to push a head gasket because one of the plugs looked a little funny. So Saturday night we pulled the head off, checked it out, and the gasket was starting to push, so we put it back together and got home around 2:00 am,” he says.

Press PLAY above for 16 minutes and 34 seconds of sweet Brown Sugar, courtesy of TheRacingVids.

Tired yet? He was too… but still had to race the race on Sunday. In the first round, Tommy Mauro spun the tires, giving Essick the easy win with a 6.55 shutdown pass. Marius Oosthuizen, who came all the way from South Africa with his BMW, fell next as Essick went 6.24 to the BMW’s 6.51.

Then Ken Quartuccio—he of the 5.88 qualifying pass on Friday, and number-two qualifier—spun the tire in round three, with Essick’s winning 6.23 at 220-plus mph, the quickest run of the semifinal round in either pairing. On the other side of the ladder, Mike Ziccardi’s ‘Cuda caught fire through the traps due to a cracked fuel cell… setting the stage for more drama.

Essick, not wanting to win on a technicality, offered up his help to Ziccardi, welding the split fuel tank up while the Ziccardi team thrashed in their own pit to repair the damage to the ‘Cuda. But with the WCF staff pushing the teams to get to the starting line to run the final round, Ziccardi’s team ultimately had to pull the plug on their repair efforts.

Essick rolled Brown Sugar to the line and took the anticlimactic single pass downtrack, taking the tree and motoring down at a leisurely pace to capture the team’s first win since 2014—with Old Blue—on what is one of the biggest stages in the world for this type of racing.

“It was a hard weekend, and to be honest, luck fell on our side. The hard work over the last two years has paid off big. We’re three races in, with one final-round runner up, one win, and a record on the tire. Words can’t describe it. I feel blessed,” he says.

We would too. Brown Sugar sure is sweet.