Racing runs in the family for Cloquet's Dave EsseDave Esse grew up around the race tracks that hsi father, Tom, loves. But the two didn't team up until recently, because Dave was always too busy with other sports and raising his own family.
By: Jeff Papas, Pine Journal
Family connections in Northland racing are strong. So when Dave Esse of Cloquet piloted his late-model car to victory at Proctor Speedway last month for his first WISSOTA late-model victory, he had mixed emotions.
Behind him was longtime friend and veteran WISSOTA racer Darrell Nelson. The connection between the Nelson and Esse families is very strong on the local circuits.
“I’ve known him since we were kids,” Esse said. “His father, Billy, was a local legend, and he won hundreds of races. I knew both the Nelsons from hanging out at the race track together as kids.”
Esse’s father, Tom, who has worked on local race cars for many years, coaxed Billy Nelson out of retirement to race together for a few years, and eventually set up cars for the first part of Darrell Nelson’s career.
“Darrell drove his first race at age 15 in the beginner class,” Dave Esse said. “But my dad had been involved with racing since high school. I can’t even tell you how many races they won together.”
When asked to guess, Esse demurred.
“Between qualifying heats, qualifying features and features, probably several hundred,” he said. “It seems like he won everything he could win.”
Yet, there was the veteran Nelson, trailing Esse as he crossed the finish line.
“He told me ‘Good job, buddy,’” Esse said. “If you look in the paper, it’s not unusual to see him in the top three or top five of just about every race. He’s got such a family history.”
Esse remembers watching Billy Nelson race as well.
“The races are different now, the drivers swing the car completely sideways on some of these tracks,” Esse said. “He probably won more races than Darrell, but Darrell is still young, just 41 now. They are good friends to us and great guys.”
The friendship also outlines some of the realities of local racing.
“I have an old car that I run,” Esse said. “My dad does such a good job in setting it up, I just lack the experience in driving it. They (the Nelsons) make it look easy.”
Esse, who is also the Cloquet-Esko-Carlton boys hockey coach, said driving the car is harder than playing hockey.
“I want to consider myself an athlete and athletically inclined, but this is by far the hardest thing I have ever done,” he said. “It’s like when you run, all your muscles are working together. When you drive a race car, your mind and your eyes and your hands and your feet go at different times. You look ahead on the track for spots to drive to, and your feet move to get you there.”
There are other distractions too.
“Sometimes I take a hand off the wheel to remove a tear-off and clean my mask,” Esse said. “And I read gauges too. Some drivers just wait for the red light to come on.”
Obviously, quick reflexes are important to safely driving a race car.
“You drive with two feet, non-stop,” Esse said. “My left foot is on the brake pedal all the time. I’ve got a five-point harness in the car and it’s a very tight fit. A couple weeks ago a car broke a wheel right in front of me and it came off. I veered hard, the tire bounced alongside and I nearly hit the guy next to me.”
All that said, Esse said the drivers on the track are all good.
“There’s definitely a risk factor, but in my class, the late models, most people have been racing for quite a long time,” he said. “The guys are good drivers.”
Esse’s success this season caps a lifetime of love of racing.
“I always wanted to drive as a kid,” he said, “but I was too involved with hockey or baseball or football in the summertime. My dad always had a driver and there was no way I was going to replace Darrell or Billy. So I used to go to the pit with dad and help do the small things like cleaning the cars, mounting tires and that sort of thing. My dad has always done 99 percent of the work.”
Then, Darrell drove for his father, and Tom Esse had an opening for a new driver.
“He asked if I was interested, but I was hesitant with my kids growing up and getting sponsors. But my dad is a one-man show.”
Finally, though, the younger Esse agreed and the fun began. The only issue: funds.
“Dad’s going to be 62 in March and it’s all about money,” Esse said. “We are a low-budget team. We’d like to race more but we can’t afford it. We pick and choose what we can, and race around work schedules.”
That means sponsorships are more important than ever. Esse’s main sponsors are Amsoil, Elite Auto Tinting and Graphics, Weets Brothers, CarQuest, Como Oil and Propane and Kernz and Kompany.
“I’ll give you an example,” Esse said. “A few weeks ago at Hibbing we won $450. But I wrecked a shock absorber which cost about $400. We had to replace a tire, which was $200, spent about $250 on parts from trips to the pits and burned about $50 in gas. So we wound up losing about $500 on the night.”
So what was the biggest thrill about winning?
“Giving the $700 check to my dad to pay the bills,” Esse laughed.
Ironically, one of Esse’s benefactors is none other than Darrell Nelson, who owns Dave’s Automatic Transmission.
“We race against him but he helps with our transmission,” Esse said. “He helps lots of people. It’s a small world and a small community and we have to work together.”
Esse estimates the drivers spend about 500 hours a year just working on cars.
“Most of these guys have five to eight people with money into their cars,” he said. “It’s so competitive. It’s amazing how much time is involved on the car. I love it – I wish I was more competitive but I understand it’s like a bantam hockey player playing against a high school player. If you’re off just a bit, you’re going backwards.”
Esse, who also manages Superior Speedway, hopes the rest of the season will see increased attendance.
“I wish more people would come out and see it for the first time,” he said. “There are so many things to [racing]. Hockey is simple compared to this. I read there are about 180,000 combinations of setups on a late model and sometimes the best setup changes by the lap. The trick is finding the right one.”