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.”
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.”
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!”
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.
“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.
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 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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.”