Sometimes, Nice Guys Finish First

Andy Pilgrim’s impressive career is built on more than just talent

Photo: Sometimes, Nice Guys Finish First 1
September 17, 2015

ANDY PILGRIM HAS WON 63 professional races and five championships in a storied career that spans some three decades. A combination of intelligence, a personable nature, innate talent and a very improbable series of lucky events took Pilgrim from a child in Nottingham, England, with dreams of racing to a champion who’s competed around the world.

As a toddler, Pilgrim stood between the front seats of the family’s Hillman Minx and called out the make of every car he saw. His father, a chemical engineer, had no interest in automobile racing but was fond of motorcycle racing, and he took his son to nearby Mallory Park to watch the bikes.

“I first went there when I was under two years old,” he recalls, “and that certainly had an influence. I was still more interested in cars, but I enjoyed the motorcycle racing very much.” While Pilgrim and his dad were having their fun at Mallory Park, his mother was petrified that it could lead to something sinister—namely, the eventual purchase of a two-wheeled vehicle. “She would threaten my dad with divorce or worse if I ended up with a motorcycle.”

Photo: Sometimes, Nice Guys Finish First 2
Mrs. Pilgrim’s fears grew when young Andy used money earned from selling papers and working at a gas station to buy a worn-out Honda PC50. “It was a horrendous machine,” he says. “One day I went down a steep hill to try and get it to reach 30 mph, and I could feel it sinking. The pressed-steel frame was coming apart, and the thing was actually collapsing.” That was the end of the moped, and Mrs. Pilgrim could breathe a sigh of relief, as her son didn’t have nearly enough money to buy a motorcycle. But an odd turn of events would change that.

In 1974, between finishing high school and starting college, Pilgrim signed up with Camp America, an organization that connects young Europeans with jobs at American summer camps. He realized a long-held dream to visit the States when he came to Milford, New Jersey, to work at a camp for disadvantaged children. While there, he spent 50 cents on an Atlantic City lottery ticket because one of the prizes was a new motorcycle. He didn’t win the bike, but he did win a brand-new AMC Hornet. After getting over the shock, he claimed the Hornet—and then promptly sold it to buy a motorcycle when he got home.

Pilgrim wanted a Kawasaki H1, a savagely fast but notoriously ill-handling beast he’d read about and fallen in love with several years earlier. “I bought a secondhand ’72 H1B,” he recalls. “They called it the ‘widow maker’ because it had a habit of killing people.”

Photo: Sometimes, Nice Guys Finish First 3
He bought the Kawasaki to street drive, but then another odd coincidence changed his course. “One day I went to a motorcycle shop to buy something, and on the way I passed another bike at a very high speed. It turned out the guy I passed was Steve Henshaw, a well-known pro racer who was the manager of the dealership I was going to. He sort of backed me up to a wall…and gave me a stern lecture about what he’d just seen. He said, ‘You’re obviously very fast, but you’re an idiot to drive like that on the street. You ought to go racing.’ I was just a kid, 19 years old, and he was pretty intimidating, so I took his advice and began to think about how I might be able to go racing one day.”

The year was now 1978, and Pilgrim had quit college after seeing an opportunity to get into computer programming and earn a paycheck. And with a paycheck came racing. His first outing, at Darley Moor in Derbyshire, was on the widow maker, and he won. Perhaps even more valuable, the Kawasaki’s bad habits taught Pilgrim important lessons that would serve him well later on, including how to get the best out of a deficient machine.

“That bike was fast but absolutely evil,” he says. “Everyone advised me not to race it, but I was in love and unwilling to listen. Motorcycle racing was deadly. In my very first race at Darley Moor, I saw someone slide off and get killed. But I was young and determined and convinced I could go fast and stay in control. When it began tank slapping, as it inevitably did, I would hold on for grim death!”

Photo: Sometimes, Nice Guys Finish First 4
After winning two regional championships in ’78, Pilgrim replaced the H1B with a Yamaha RD400E for the ’79 Avon series. He also purchased a wrecked Kawasaki KH400 to contest a spec series by the same name. “I bought [it] from Steve Henshaw after it was written off with a bent frame. It was a real piece of junk, but I managed to finish second in the championship with it.”

Pilgrim continued racing motorcycles into 1980, but halfway through the year had his first serious accident. That ended the season and gave him some time to think about job opportunities in the United States. After being hired by an American IT-consulting company, he reached New York with his life savings of $100 and plenty of optimism. He landed his first contract, quite coincidentally, with Pontiac. The pay was terrible, but it was a start. A year later the desire to earn more and get away from Michigan’s brutal winters led him to a new job in El Paso, Texas.

From Two Wheels to Four

In 1983, while still in El Paso, Pilgrim bought his first new car, a VW Rabbit GTI. Afterward he happened to see people “…driving like maniacs around cones in a parking lot.” He stopped to investigate and discovered the sport of autocrossing. The next weekend he returned to compete in his Rabbit. “Right from the start, I was winning against Corvettes and other much faster cars. The GTI was more suited to the tight courses they set up in parking lots, and I was driving on three wheels like a complete nutter.”

Pilgrim began traveling to autocrosses elsewhere, and at a competition in Roswell, New Mexico, he had an epiphany. Instead of laying out a tight course in a parking lot, organizers here had used an airport runway. “It was more like a road course with a few cones, and I was flat out in the Rabbit. I loved it!” he recalls.

Photo: Sometimes, Nice Guys Finish First 5
Automotive writer Jim Pettengill witnessed Pilgrim’s performance and told him he should consider road racing. “I said I couldn’t afford it, and he suggested looking at Renault Cup, which was relatively inexpensive.” Pilgrim needed very little encouragement, so when Pettengill let him know about a used Renault Alliance Cup car that was available, he jumped at the opportunity.

“I’d just gotten a $4,000 bonus at work and had $1,000 in the bank. The Alliance was $6,500, so I figured I needed another $3,000 to buy the car and have some money for expenses. I went to a local bank in El Paso and told the manager I wanted to borrow $3,000 to furnish my apartment, and to my surprise, he agreed. I thought if he ever came to my house, I’d put the Renault’s seats in the living room.”

The first race of the 1984 season was in Riverside, California, and the Alliance was in Las Vegas. Pilgrim drove the car from Las Vegas to El Paso and then from El Paso to Riverside, where he qualified 18th and finished ninth out of 51 cars. He went on to finish every race, recording a Second, a Third, and even a pole position in the season finale at Watkins Glen, earning Rookie of the Year honors.

Photo: Sometimes, Nice Guys Finish First 6
Racing the Alliance wasn’t enough to satisfy Pilgrim’s urge to compete, so he added a bolt-in roll cage to his Rabbit and ran several SCCA races with it in 1984. Toward the end of the year, in yet another fateful twist, he went to Middlekauff Ford in search of a tow van, as he realized he couldn’t keep driving a racecar to the track. An article about Pilgrim’s racing prowess had recently been published in a local Plano newspaper, and dealership owner Rick Middlekauff had seen it. This led to the Dallas dealership providing Pilgrim with a Mustang GT to run in the 1985 SCCA National races.

Aside from a roll cage installed by Jeff Beitzel, the Mustang was bone stock, and Pilgrim’s success racing it got plenty of attention. “I was beating Corvettes and other faster cars in the Mustang. There were good drivers in well-prepared cars, and I had a stock car, so when I beat them it seemed to mean something.”

Going Pro

Going into 1986 Bill Bayley, Tom Goad and Doug Goad were putting together a two-car Firebird team for the Firehawk series and were looking for a fast, reliable driver. Beitzel, who had installed the roll cage in Pilgrim’s Mustang and who did work for Pontiac, recommended Pilgrim and this led to a full season ride. On July 20, 1986, Pilgrim and Bayley won the six-hour race at Sears Point. This was Pilgrim’s first professional victory.

Besides running the Mustang in 1985, Pilgrim also contested a few races in the SCCA Escort Endurance Challenge that year. He ran in the SSA class with a very unreliable Ford Thunderbird Turbo. In between Firehawk races in 1986, he again ran in some Escort Endurance events, but this time he did it in Corvettes, with much better results. In the 24-hour race at Nelson Ledges, he and his co-drivers finished Second; in the 24-hour at Mid-Ohio, they did the same.

A New Challenge

Pilgrim continued racing a Firebird in the Firehawk Series in 1987 with considerable success, including a win at Sebring and Second Place finishes at Riverside, Road Atlanta and Lime Rock. When the Corvette Challenge series was announced for 1988, he reached an agreement with Sugar Land, Texas, Chevrolet dealer George Pharis wherein Pharis provided a Corvette and Pilgrim provided everything else. “I was working a full-time job [and] racing almost-full seasons in several championships, and now I was also responsible for finding sponsors and managing a team, so it was a huge undertaking. But I knew the Corvette Challenge was going to be the most competitive series in the country, and I thought it would present a level playing field for drivers to compete in equal cars, so I was determined.”

Photo: Sometimes, Nice Guys Finish First 7
Pilgrim subsequently learned that the playing field wasn’t always level, with better-funded teams enjoying advantages both in terms of preparation and in their ability to field multiple cars. His may well have been the most underfunded team in the entire series. “For example,” he tells us, “we used a 1969 pickup—a nasty, ugly green thing—to tow the Corvette. One time, going over the Rockies, the truck broke down and we ended up using the Corvette to tow the truck and trailer!”

Even operating on a shoestring budget, the team found some success. Their first win came at Brainerd, Minnesota, in July. “We were actually the only single-car team to ever win a Corvette Challenge race.”

Pilgrim raced another season in the Corvette Challenge, chalking up his third and final win at Road Atlanta on August 20, 1989. That same year he also raced Firebirds and a Honda Civic in the Firehawk series, a Barber-Saab in the Barber-Saab series, and a Camaro in World Challenge. In 1990 he switched to Corvettes for World Challenge after the SCCA made them legal again. His best finish was a win in the 24-hour contest at Mosport, co-driving with John Heinricy, Stu Hayner, and Don Knowles.

Photo: Sometimes, Nice Guys Finish First 8
Each year, for the remainder of the 1990s, Pilgrim competed in 20–30 professional races. Besides Corvettes, Camaros and Firebirds, he also raced Lotus turbos, Porsches, Mazdas, Mustangs and BMWs. Highlights from this period include winning the 1995 IMSA Grand Sport Endurance Championship, as well as the 1997 and ’98 IMSA GT1 and Motorola Cup Championships.

Corvette Comes Calling

All of this success made Pilgrim well known and forged his reputation as a consistent, smart and fast driver. Equally important, he was well liked throughout the racing community because of his easygoing nature. It’s not surprising, then, that Chevrolet invited him to test a C5-R at Road Atlanta in November 1998. Favorable results there led to a position with the factory team from 1999–2003. “This was a tremendous opportunity for me,” he recounts. “I’d driven factory cars alongside factory drivers, but until this point I wasn’t a full-fledged factory driver. Getting offered this ride with Corvette Racing was a dream.”

Chevrolet’s faith in Pilgrim was validated in September 2000 at Texas Motor Speedway, when his stamina brought the program its first win. It was unbearably hot, with the ambient air temperature reaching 111 degrees (F). Pilgrim has a remarkable tolerance for heat, and while most other drivers in the race were impaired by it, including Pilgrim’s co-driver Ron Fellows, he was virtually unaffected. (In fact, while Fellows was being treated for heat exhaustion, Pilgrim was double-stinting.)

Pilgrim also played an integral role in the program’s second win, which came on September 30, 2000, in Road Atlanta’s Petit Le Mans. On the last lap of the 10-hour race, he executed what is now known as the “Pilgrim Pass,” a brilliant move that took the GTS victory from Tommy Archer in a Viper. The 2003 Petit Le Mans race was also a memorable one. “Our gearbox was broken, but we managed to nurse it home for a Third Place finish, which was enough to win the manufacturer’s championship for Chevrolet. That was huge.”

Another highlight of Pilgrim’s tenure with Corvette Racing was co-driving with the Earnhardts at Daytona in 2001. Earnhardt Sr. had seen the Pilgrim Pass and made his admiration for Pilgrim, and his excitement about co-driving with him at the Daytona 24, well known. The two became close friends leading up to the race, and Earnhardt’s tragic death in the Daytona 500 two weeks later was devastating.

Pilgrim was also very close with Ron Fellows, and the pair drove a Corvette together one last time at Mosport in 2007. “A final, memorable moment in my Corvette Racing history was racing with Ron in his last race for Corvette in August, 2007, at Mosport. That was a real honor.”

Life After C5-R

Beginning in 2004 Pilgrim drove a CTS-V.R for Cadillac in World Challenge and also piloted a Doran JE4 in three Grand-Am races. The high point came early in the year, with an overall win in the Daytona 24, co-driving the Doran with Terry Borcheller, Christian Fittipaldi and Forest Barber.

In a convincing demonstration of the value of consistency, Pilgrim drove his CTS-V.R to the 2005 GT Driver’s Championship without winning any races. He did, however, earn top-five finishes in eight of the season’s 11 events. He continued racing the Caddy through 2007, a year in which he also wheeled Impalas in two Busch Series races. After the factory Cadillac program concluded in 2007, Pilgrim continued campaigning a CTS-V.R in World Challenge, running in 2008 with Team Remington. He also raced a Pontiac GXP.R in Grand-Am that year. In 2009 and 2010 he signed on with K-Pax to race its Volvo S60 in World Challenge. In 2010 he also raced a Camaro and a BMW in Grand-Am, and a Porsche in the 12 Hours of Sebring. In 2011 he enjoyed running his first Sprint Cup race at Sears Point, ending up as the first-placed “road course ringer” and finishing on the lead lap.

Cadillac returned to World Challenge in 2011 and signed Pilgrim to drive alongside fellow Corvette Racing veteran Johnny O’Connell. As usual, his consistently high finishes paid off, contributing significantly to Cadillac’s three consecutive Manufacturer’s Championships in 2012–2014.

Looking forward, Pilgrim shows no sign of slowing down. “I’m still competitive, and I still get a big thrill from racing. As long as it remains fun and the opportunities are there, I’m going to continue.”

Also from Issue 101

Like us on:   Facebook icon