How to Avoid Buying a Big Brake Kit that is Worthless! (Part 1)04.16.2023
How to Avoid Buying a Big Brake Kit that is Worthless!Most enthusiasts recognize that tracking or racing one’s car is a challenging and very gratifying experience. For many of us, the thrill of a perfect apex supersedes the practical and rational concerns that prevent more risk-averse individuals from participating in the sport. We pour our time, focus, and money into our vehicle in a quest to go faster for longer, with fewer problems, and as we do so we discover and address our car’s weaknesses. One of the first weaknesses that inevitably surfaces, with just about every car used to lap a racetrack, is the OEM braking system. As such, brakes are typically one of, if not the first, required critical upgrade to lap a racetrack with greater consistency, durability, and safety.
Unfortunately, the brake upgrade market is a bit messy and confusing. There are numerous available brands across a wide range of price points, and a nearly unlimited number of sellers promoting their own version of those products. In this guide we’ll explain the important questions you need to ask when shopping for a big brake kit, while showing you how to avoid a variety of pitfalls that could cost you thousands of dollars and make your car completely undrivable. As North America’s exclusive importer and distributor for one of the world’s most well-known brake manufacturers, AP Racing, we’ll also provide some additional insight into how these components make their way from the manufacturer onto your favorite track toy.
The AP Racing Distribution Model
As a leading manufacturer of brake components, AP Racing delivers their calipers and discs to retail customers throughout the world via their authorized global distributor network. AP manufactures the parts, and their distributors then purchase and import those parts into their contracted territory for distribution. In some cases, AP Racing has one authorized distributor for an entire country or territory (like Essex Parts Services in North America), or they may have multiple distributors in a single locale (England for example, has numerous authorized distributors).
Once they purchase the brake parts from AP Racing, the authorized distributors are then free to sell the products to other resellers or directly to retail customers as they see fit. However, each authorized distributor has an agreement with AP Racing to only offer AP Racing products to customers inside their own contracted territory. Why? Because local sellers better understand, and can provide superior service to, the customers within their territory. They speak the same language, can respond far more quickly and accurately to customer inquiries due to time zone differences, can immediately provide spare parts to the vehicle owner from their own inventory, can offer competitive pricing vs. the local market, and they understand which AP Racing products best fit the vehicles in their region, based on how and where those vehicles are being driven.
For example, when Essex is approached by a retail Porsche enthusiast in Germany, we immediately send that inquiry to our friend Wolfgang Zech at ISA Racing in Germany for assistance. Why? Because we know Wolfgang and his team can provide their local customer with a more positive AP Racing purchase and ownership experience than we can from the opposite side of the world. They’re familiar with the typical modifications German Porsche owners are performing on their vehicles at any given time, the local laws that impact those modifications, and the stresses those components will undergo when they run the Nürburgring. They can convey those thoughts to their customer in their native language, understand any extenuating circumstances impacting the owner’s operating conditions, and supply the appropriate products very quickly and in their local currency.
However, once the AP Racing products are out of the authorized AP distributor’s hands, there is no control over what the buyer does with those parts. That’s when the problems typically begin for the entire distribution chain, and the results are almost always a dissatisfied vehicle owner with a pile of brake components that are essentially worthless.
The Essex / AP Racing Partnership
Essex has been operating continuously in the North American racing market since the early 1980s and has been AP Racing’s exclusive authorized importer and distributor for racing parts over the past several decades. At one point, Essex dealt only in pure racing parts, but we now handle distribution for all AP products, encompassing both the road and track markets. The core product that Essex initially sold was a line of complete British Formula and Sports Racing cars. Along the way, Essex ultimately entered an exclusive import and distribution relationship with AP Racing for North America. Essex has its own engineering team, led by our vastly experienced technical director Mike O'Neil, and backed by a bevy of R&D tools such as an on-site brake dynamometer, coordinate measuring machine, pad and disc burnishing machines, etc. In addition to serving the enthusiast aftermarket, Essex has continually supplied AP Racing brake and clutch products directly to professional racing teams in the top US racing series including NASCAR, IMSA, IndyCar, etc. You can learn more about our company history and team on our website.
Because we are AP’s exclusive North American Importer and Distributor, every AP Racing component arriving on our continent is supposed to flow through Essex before reaching the end-user’s hands. Why? To ensure that all AP Racing owners in our territory have a long-term ownership experience worthy of the storied AP Racing brand, from the day those components are purchased until the day they are retired.
Every week Essex imports thousands of brake and clutch components to supply the amateur and professional racing markets in North America. We also hold millions of dollars in inventory of iron disc rings, disc attachment hardware, bleed screws, abutment plates, etc., so we can respond immediately when a client requires spares or has a problem.
In addition to being the sole distribution hub for AP Racing products in North America, our role is to act as AP’s application and integration expert for our market. In this manner, Essex ensures that the correct AP Racing components end up on the correct vehicles, based on the unique market needs of North American vehicle owners.
The Essex engineering and product development teams therefore conduct our own market research and data collection for North American vehicles. We ensure that any AP Racing product we develop, such as our AP Racing by Essex Brake Kits and 2-piece J Hook Disc Kits, are designed to bolt onto and integrate seamlessly with the USDM vehicle in question, without any additional modifications, required parts, etc. How? By bringing every vehicle for which we offer those products into our Charlotte, NC headquarters for measurement. We also try to make our applications fit as many popular wheels as possible in our region and consider other popular modifications typically applied to that chassis in our market. For example, if everyone tracking their e92 M3 in North America is running a specific wheel stud conversion kit, we make sure the aluminum hats/bells on our discs have holes large enough to accommodate those studs.
Essex only includes authentic AP Racing calipers and iron disc rings in our brake kits, and we manufacture the other brake kit components required to apply the AP Racing parts to the vehicle. We do so based on many decades of experience servicing and manufacturing for professional motorsports. In many cases, we also specify unique brake discs for our applications based on the market’s perceived needs. For example, if you flip through AP Racing printed or digital catalog, you won’t find the 372x34mm discs that we leverage in many of our Competition Brake Kits. Those iron disc rings were manufactured for Essex by AP Racing and are not available from any source other than Essex.
The Essex Distribution Model
We supply our AP Racing by Essex brake products directly to retail vehicle owners in North America, but we also have our own network of authorized resellers. Our authorized resellers/dealers typically specialize in one, or a limited number, of vehicle types (a Corvette specialist for example). Many of the most popular shops and names you recognize throughout the aftermarket industry purchase directly from Essex. However, we don’t sell to big-box or outlet-style businesses that offer every brake brand under the sun, as they are often margin and volume-driven, rather than customer service-driven.
Due to the premium quality of our complete AP Racing by Essex Brake and 2-piece Disc Kits, AP Racing has also authorized Essex to supply our kits directly to any of their authorized distributors around the world. In that manner, a Mustang owner in Norway has access to our ‘complete solution in a box’ through their local AP distributor (Kollevold), Since Norway doesn’t have many Mustangs in their territory, it wouldn’t make any financial sense for AP’s distributor there to develop their own Mustang brake kits using AP components. AP’s distributors enjoy this program because it allows them to offer premium-quality, complete solutions for their customers’ vehicles, without having to spend the enormous amount of time and resources required to develop every individual vehicle solution on their own. Rather than measuring vehicles, designing application-specific components, and holding a large amount of inventory, they can simply call us and have a properly designed, premium-quality solution that leverages AP Racing components immediately on the way to their customer.
Grey Market AP Racing Products
Grey market goods are those that are sold outside the authorized distribution channels for a given territory, by entities which may not have any relationship with the producer of those goods. Any product manufactured by AP Racing that reaches a vehicle owner in North America without first passing through Essex Parts Services is considered grey market.
In recent years we’ve been seeing more and more grey market AP Racing brake components finding their way into the North American aftermarket. Sometimes we see individual AP Racing brake calipers or iron disc rings being sold on the automotive forums or eBay, but more often we see a bundle of products being presented and sold as an ‘AP Racing Brake Kit’. These kits sometimes contain authentic AP Racing calipers, but other times they are counterfeits. These kits do not typically contain authentic AP Racing iron brake discs, but rather inferior iron sourced locally by whomever assembled the kit. The components used to adapt the calipers and iron disc rings to a specific vehicle are almost always of poor quality, as is the disc attachment hardware and brake lines. Quite frequently, the caliper piston sizes are completely wrong for maintaining proper brake bias on the vehicle the kit is supposed to fit, and the disc size and design are many times also inappropriate for the vehicle in question.
Unfortunately, the typical vehicle owner is not aware of this situation. When they see the words ‘AP Racing Brake Kit,’ their natural inclination is to believe that all of the components included in that kit were either manufactured by, or in some way officially approved by, AP Racing. That is not the case. The vast majority of the brake kits containing AP calipers that are currently circulating the market were not directly produced by AP Racing. That is why it is extremely important for vehicle owners to exercise caution when considering any product presented as an ‘AP Racing Brake Kit’. The authenticity, quality, and support behind such products can vary dramatically. We see these grey market ‘AP Racing Brake Kits’ arrive in North America via several routes, but the hypothetical scenario outlined in the next section of this article is the most common. In almost all cases, the ownership experience for the purchaser of these products is frustrating and unpleasant!
Hold on a second! Didn’t you just explain earlier in this article that AP Racing by Essex Brake Kits are available for purchase in territories outside of North America? Doesn’t that make them grey market? No, because the sale of AP Racing by Essex Brake Kits abroad is authorized by AP Racing and conducted through their authorized distribution network. Grey market parts are those that change hands outside of the approved distribution channel. AP Racing knows that any product Essex supplies will be properly designed, manufactured, and supported. We are also in direct communication with the authorized AP distributors who are passing our products on to the vehicle owners. That is a far different scenario vs. the unauthorized, covert, backdoor distribution routes explained below.
How You end up with a Worthless ‘AP Racing Brake Kit’
For the purposes of this hypothetical example, we’ll say that an AP authorized distributor somewhere in the world sells a sizeable batch of AP calipers to a shop in a different country where there is no authorized AP Racing Importer or distributor. The purchasing shop may believe they can easily assemble their own version of a complete ‘AP Racing Brake Kit’ and sell it to BMW M3 owners across the globe. They sell these “kits” to an aftermarket shop in Canada, and they now have a path to export the seemingly genuine, low-cost brake kits to North America.
A year later, some quantity of these “AP Racing Brake Kits” have been delivered to M3 owners in North America. Halfway through their first track season, one of those owners has a minor off-track excursion and cracks one of his brake discs. He reaches out to the Canadian shop he purchased from to secure a quick replacement disc before his track event the next weekend. The shop tells him they unfortunately don’t stock those discs in inventory, and that he’ll need to directly contact the shop that assembled the brake kit. He emails the shop but doesn’t receive a response. He keeps emailing and calling, until he finally receives an email three weeks later. When they do finally respond, the shop tells the M3 owner that they don’t hold spare AP Racing discs or the required disc attachment hardware in inventory, and that they only purchased a small batch of discs to create the brake kits. They suggest that the M3 owner contact AP Racing directly to obtain the parts they need (because shrugging off the responsibility of supporting the products they sell is what these shops do best).
By this point the M3 owner is getting upset. It’s been three weeks since he cracked the disc, and his car remains undrivable. It’s the heart of track season and he has already missed a track event that he paid for. When he talks with AP Racing, AP refers him to their authorized distributor in his territory, which is Essex Parts Services.
Our phone rings and the M3 owner explains the situation to someone on our client service team. That conversation begins with the owner stating, “I have an AP Racing Brake Kit and I need spare discs.” After a ten-minute investigation, our staff member determines that the M3 owner doesn’t even have authentic AP Racing discs! The discs in his “AP Racing Brake Kit” were supplied by a different manufacturer. The discs have obscure part numbers we’ve never seen before, so we unfortunately can’t tell the owner where to find replacements. In other words, we have zero ability to help the M3 owner. His multi-thousand-dollar brake kit is now essentially worthless, and his car is undrivable.
How about a similar scenario that we’ve seen? The M3 owner follows the same path as the example above and is funneled to Essex for spares by AP Racing in England. In this instance, we find that the discs in the customer’s brake kit are indeed authentic AP Racing parts. Unfortunately, those discs were either a low volume one-off, or in many cases an “old-new inventory part”, and the cost for one or two replacements from AP Racing is hundreds of dollars more per disc than the correct discs Essex specifies and imports in volume. We also run into another snag. We find out that the shop used locally sourced disc attachment hardware and bobbins to mount the iron disc rings to their aluminum hats. So even if we could provide the iron discs rings at exorbitant prices, we’re unable to provide the appropriate hardware required to mount them on the aluminum disc hats. Again, your multi-thousand-dollar brake kit is now essentially worthless, and your car is undrivable.
What if, rather than simply cracking a disc when he went off the track, the M3 owner also damaged the aluminum disc hat? When he reaches out to the shop, they tell him that they only made one production run of those parts, and that they’ve already sold the only two sets of spares they produced. Since the cost to manufacture aluminum parts diminishes drastically as volume increases, there’s no way the shop is going to invest in another production run of aluminum disc hats unless they have a lot of potential buyers already lined up (which they don’t). Guess what? You’re never getting a replacement disc hat! Your multi-thousand-dollar brake kit is now essentially worthless, and your car is undrivable.
What happens when you find out that the calipers in your kit aren’t even authentic AP Racing components, but instead low-quality knockoffs? What happens when you realize that one of your aluminum caliper brackets is bent because it wasn’t manufactured from the proper materials, or it wasn’t designed for the appropriate level of stress using FEA analysis? What if you strip the threads inside the caliper when snugging down a bleed screw and need a spare caliper by the weekend? Do you think you’ll be able to get your hands on one? You guessed it…under all these common scenarios, your multi-thousand-dollar brake kit is now essentially worthless!
While reading through these scenarios you may have thought to yourself, “What’s the likelihood of that actually happening”? Unfortunately, these scenarios are the norm rather than the exception, and our service team constantly finds themselves digging our fellow enthusiasts out of these situations. The most frustrating aspect of these grey market parts scenarios is that our Essex team is usually unable to do anything to help the vehicle owner. We may not have access to the parts they need to get back on track, or we may not even be able to identify the problem they have, since we don’t know anything about the components in the brake kit they received. These products were never purchased, authenticated, or inspected by Essex, so we therefore have no ability to service, support, or replace them.
How are AP Racing by Essex Brake Kits different?
So now that you understand the potential debacle that ensues every time an enthusiast gets his hands on a grey market “AP Racing Brake Kit,” how does that experience differ vs. buying a legitimate AP Racing by Essex Brake Kit (either directly from us or from one of our authorized Essex distributors)?
First, Essex only supplies authentic AP Racing calipers and iron brake discs purchased directly from AP in England, so you don’t have to worry about receiving low quality, knock-off parts. All authentic AP Racing calipers have recorded serial numbers, and since July of 2016 they also have an attached QR code tag that can be used for authentication.
As noted previously, Essex also has our own additional layer of quality control procedures in place.
Elite Level Racing Standards
The aluminum caliper adapter brackets and disc hats Essex designs and manufacturers are of the same quality and material standards as those we supply to racing teams at the elite levels of motorsport. We do not differentiate between a disc hat being installed on a NASCAR Cup Car or one being installed on Bob Smith’s Miata. Disc hats and brackets are designed by our engineers using FEA analysis to determine the appropriate design for that application. They are then cut locally in the USA from the highest quality domestic aluminum, and hard anodized for extreme durability. We also use advanced machinery for quality control, such as a CMM (coordinate measuring machine) to verify that the parts were produced to their exact, as-designed specifications. All other brake kit hardware and components are aircraft grade and sourced from the finest suppliers.
If Essex claims that our brake or 2-piece disc kit will fit your specific year/make/model/trim of car, it will fit! We don’t rely on guesswork or consensus opinion to increase the number of vehicle applications in our catalog. Instead, we put in the legwork to obtain, measure, and assess every vehicle we list as an application. We provide downloadable wheel fitment templates for every brake kit we offer. That allows you to ensure our kit will fit your wheels BEFORE spending a dime on either wheels or brakes. Essex also includes a full-color, multi-page installation manual with every brake kit, so mounting one of our kits in your garage is a breeze with basic hand tools.
Our team of brake experts has centuries (not decades) of combined experience in the brake business. When we create a brake system for a specific application, we leverage that experience to create the absolute finest brake kit available for that application at any price. You can purchase our system knowing that you have the absolute best kit on the market for your favorite track toy. We also frequently create several different brake kits of varying sizes and specifications for a single chassis, so our clients can choose the kit that best meets their needs, depending on how they intend to modify and drive their car.
Complete Solution in One Box
Our goal is to provide everything you need to complete the job in one box. You won’t have to order additional components from other sources, and you won’t have to run to the hardware store after your car is already in pieces and/or on the lift. Every single nut and bolt you need will be in the box, and you won’t have to shim, modify, or do anything other than simply bolt the included pieces to the car.
Essex perpetually holds millions of dollars in AP Racing inventory at our Charlotte, NC headquarters. If you need spare iron disc rings, mounting hardware, bleed screws, or even a replacement caliper, we can usually ship that product to you the same day your order is received. We also have a wide array of the finest complementary brake products on hand to support your brake kit, such as AP Racing and Ferodo Racing Brake Fluid, Ferodo Racing Brake Pads, Teknofibra thermal barrier products, etc.
Caliper Rebuild and Disc Burnishing Services
Setting you up with the best brake kit possible isn’t our only goal. We also want to make your ownership experience as easy as possible. One of the ways we do so is by offering our brake caliper recertification and disc burnishing services. If you don’t like to get your hands dirty, you can simply send us your tired calipers to rebuild after you’ve been pounding on them for a few years. Our disc burnishing service eliminates the need to try and bed-in your brakes properly on the street, or waste valuable time doing so during an expensive track session.
Client Service and Support
Possibly the most overlooked and most valuable advantage of buying an authentic AP Racing by Essex Brake Kit is the service and support that Essex provides. Not only do we make sure our customers have the best brake system possible for their vehicle, but we also make sure our customers remain happy. If you call 704-824-6030 between the hours of 8am-5pm ET on Monday through Friday, you will get a live human on the phone to answer your questions. We don’t have an automated phone attendant, and we won’t force you into mashing numbers on your phone in hopes of eventually getting through. If you don’t like to talk on the phone, we also offer live chat on our website, as well as an email inbox monitored by our entire team.
Why do People Buy Grey Market?
A lack of knowledge and a lower price are the primary motivators for enthusiasts to buy grey market parts. If they don’t know how the distribution system works, they innocently believe they’re getting a great deal on a top-tier brand. That’s what happened to one of our customers named Josh Van Veld. He bought a used “AP Racing Brake Kit” on the Corvette forum, thinking that it was a kit Essex produced. He subsequently found out that what he bought wasn’t what he thought he was buying, and he produced a series of videos explaining the whole ordeal. The series concluded with a video titled, “Big Brake Scam Resolution! Valuable lessons learned,” in which Essex High Performance Division Mgr. Jeff Ritter explains where he went wrong and shows him many of the physical differences between the parts he received vs. the real deal. Josh had no idea how many of the brands in our industry operated, and he genuinely believed that all ‘AP Racing Brake Kits’ were the same.
The other group of grey market buyers are those who do understand how the system works but choose to ignore it to try and save money. Rather than buying through the authorized channel, they believe they’re going to somehow beat the system that was literally put in place to protect them. They might even be willing to put themselves in harm’s way to justify the amount of money they ‘saved’ on the initial brake kit purchase. To them, those ‘savings’ are worth the risk of something potentially going wrong after the purchase, installation, and use of the product. Unfortunately, they many times don’t fully understand the ramifications of just how ugly and expensive the situation can get when something does go wrong, and they watch their ‘savings’ instantly evaporate. As shown above, something as simple as a cracked disc can render the brakes (or the entire vehicle) inoperable and reduce the value of their newly acquired brake kit to zero. Sure, they paid $1,000 less upfront, but now their brake kit is unusable, unserviceable, and worthless.
In every case, the “AP Racing Brake Kit” one can find on eBay or in a social media ‘group buy’ is inferior in every conceivable manner vs. an authentic AP Racing by Essex Brake Kit. These grey market products are poorly designed by unqualified individuals, fabricated from inadequate materials, don’t offer any post-sale support, and many times incredibly unsafe. They are therefore far cheaper to produce vs. one of our Essex kits, and that lack of investment in the kit is passed along to you the consumer.
Conversely, Essex employs a team of approximately 30 full-time staff to envision, design, manufacture, and support AP Racing product owners in North America. We own and operate a 30,000 sq.ft. facility, brimming with AP Racing products and the required people, machinery, and tools to support them. An undertaking of this magnitude requires considerable investment, and continuously operates at a significant cost. We therefore will never be able to, nor do we want to, offer the cheapest brake options on the market. Buyers of the AP Racing and Essex brands deserve far better.
In just about every conversation we have with enthusiasts who have gone down the grey market path, they begin with the statement, “I got a great deal on this AP Racing Brake Kit,” or “I got this pair of AP Racing calipers at an unbelievable price”. Every time we hear those words our team members cringe in anticipation of the disappointment and frustration that will surely ensue on both ends of the phone as that conversation plays itself out. Please don’t become that guy.
Before laying down your hard-earned money on a brake kit, do some homework. Understand where the components in the kit you’re considering came from, including how and why they were chosen and adapted to your specific vehicle. Most importantly, know your seller! Are they an authorized distributor or reseller for the brand you’re purchasing? Who put the kit together, were they qualified to do so, and will they be there to support you when you need it most? If you ask the right questions and don’t skimp on your initial investment, you should end up with a brake system that will bring you (and any subsequent owners) a rewarding long-term ownership experience.
- by Jeff Ritter