Questions for … Dan Esslinger
Like Del West, Esslinger Engineering, Inc. is a family-owned business, handed down from your father to you. How long do you estimate you’ve been at this line of work?
Forty-three years. I was eight years old when it started, in our garage, around 1967. At first it was a hobby. My dad’s an inventor. He was riding dune buggies and then he started making brake parts for dune buggies. Eventually, he began racing against his buddies, the thing evolved and we needed better motors. We couldn’t afford to buy them, so we had to start making our own.
And you helped him out.
It’s like the family farm. You go to school, then come home and work on the farm.
What did you like about the work back then?
The same thing I like now. I enjoyed the competition. It’s a great business. Your success is measureable.
But the kinds of vehicles you work on are different now.
About 50 percent of our business is stock car, boats, off-road: anything the Ford Pinto engine platform fits into. The other half of our business is midget engines. We make pretty much everything for the engines ourselves, except for valves, valve springs, gaskets and rods.
We know about the valves, because you get many of them from us.
You know, I don’t think we’ve ever had an unprovoked failure in any Del West part.
They only go into some of your midget engines, though, correct?
We have them in our $30,000 engine. Well, we have them in several other engine packages as well, like the most serious mini-stock racers, as well as Lucas Series off-road pro-lite trucks, 2.5 litre hydroplanes, and any drag racing or Bonneville applications. More or less anywhere budget and rules allow.
But as for the $30,000 midget engine, that one’s an evolving thing. It’s not stationary. For this engine, we use the best parts we can find. No substitutes.
30 grand. That’s a lot of money for some people’s budgets.
It is. A few years back, the guys at the BMARA [Badger Midget Auto Racing Association, in Wisconsin] were coming to us and saying, “We need an engine that costs around $20,000. We’re killing ourselves. Guys are spending $50,000 on an engine for a $1,200 purse.” So we came up with our newest engine. It’s about $19,500 and it’s sealed. We pulled a version out of the past, meant for racing a half-mile track on down. We use less expensive parts in some cases, such as stainless valves instead of your titanium valves. Our goal was to make an engine that made sense, price-wise, stayed that way, and was still competitive. Research and development drives the costs up, but in this particular package, the engine is the engine. There’s no R&D with it. That’s it, theoretically until the end of time.
You used to sell all your midget engines for $30,000. Now you sell some for less than $20,000. Aren’t you cutting into your own profit margins?
If nobody can afford to drive a car, then everybody loses. But if the sport grows, so do we. If the sport grows, everybody wins.
And all this work you do out of your shop here in El Monte, California. Have you always been at this spot?
Ever since the fires.
The first hit on Father’s Day in ’03. It took out two buildings – the office and the inventory. Thirty-five days later, another hit and got the other building. Both started in trash cans.
That sounds like arson.
[Shrugs]. They never did figure that out. Ultimately, though, it was one of the best things that ever happened to us. We moved everything into one, new building. It was a hard-fought blessing, but we got to put the shop together the way we’d like to have it.
Want to see the most unique thing about this place?
[Points to a white metal cage in the corner]. That’s Tex. He’s a Western Screech-Owl.
Wow. How did he get here?
Well, he’s our second. The first one, Rex, I found just walking down the street. He fell out of a nest. He was the greatest pet you could ever have. I carried him around on my shoulder, took him to the kids’ school. But after about 2 ½ years, he died while we were away on vacation. Then, a couple of years after that, my mom’s cousin caught Tex here in a barn in Texas. He called me and said, “Hey, you still looking for a screech owl?” So we went out there and picked him up.
What do you feed him?
He eats beef heart, plus we feed him about two to three live mice a week. The mouse hardly hits the ground before he’s got him. He swoops in, kills it, then holds it up under his wing like a stuffed animal. He will not eat while you are watching. Then, a couple of days later, he spits out a mouse pellet – fur, bones, everything.
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