Andy Pilgrim's Living the American Dream WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. (June 18, 2008) - Andy Pilgrim is a lucky guy. He'll be the first to tell you that. From racing motorcycles in England, to becoming a Champion road racer in the United States and a...
Andy Pilgrim's Living the American Dream
WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. (June 18, 2008) - Andy Pilgrim is a lucky guy. He'll be the first to tell you that. From racing motorcycles in England, to becoming a Champion road racer in the United States and a GM factory driver, all while growing a successful business, the pieces have all settled into place. Many struggle to accomplish just one of those things, but the English-born Cadillac CTS-V driver makes it look effortless.
In speaking with him however, you'll find it was far from effortless. It's his attitude rather, that makes it all seem simple. He prefers it that way.
"Life is what you make it," Pilgrim says while delving into the politics and frustrations of racing. "If you see things as being a problem, then it's a problem. You have to see them as a solution. Sometimes, there is no solution and it's easy, but the best you can do is go forward. What are you going to do? Sit there and sulk about it for the rest of the day or the rest of the year?
"I've always been the kind of person that just deals with it. Life is going to throw enough garbage your way without making it worse and creating more garbage. I just think that I'm very lucky to be a professional race car driver, especially as old as I am now and still doing it at a factory level. This is not something I did as a kid, ever. I dreamed I could, but I never though I'd be able to. To still be doing it, I feel so very, very fortunate."
In a sport as emotionally charged as auto racing, where your destiny doesn't rest merely on the agility of your arms and legs, but on the performance of the 3,000 lb. machine you're strapped in to, not to mention the fickleness of a sponsor's checkbook, that can be a tough lesson to learn. For Pilgrim, appreciating and making the most of what you have, started with motorcycle racing in England.
"My parents didn't have any money for me to race anything. Nobody in my family raced -- there was none of that stuff. When I started racing motorcycles, I had a job as a computer programmer and basically I raced my street motorcycle. I was a fast street rider and I thought 'well, the only way to see if you're any good is to go to the track.' A friend of mine had a van, so I basically paid for his gas and put my bike in the van and he'd drive me to the track. That's how I started racing motorcycles. I won, what would be the equivalent of some Divisional Championships. I got second in the National British Championships, won some club championships in two and a half years of racing. But the whole idea was that I really wanted to race cars, I just couldn't afford it. I loved bikes, but I didn't want a career riding motorcycles, I really wanted to race cars."
Computer geeks rejoice, because it was programming that gave Pilgrim an opportunity to come to the states and embark on his own 'American dream.'
"I came here in 1982 and started programming, but of course I had no money for race cars. In 1984, with a friend of mine, I did some autocross, and that's where I met Randy Pobst for the first time. I didn't do much of it, but I went to the National Championships one time. A buddy of mine said 'you need to go road racing,' and at the time I didn't know anything about road racing.
"IMSA, at that time, had the Renault Cup series. A buddy of mine in Vegas had a second hand one for $6500. So I had four grand, then I borrowed three grand from a bank manager. I told him I was buying furniture. I figured if he ever actually came to the house to see if I actually bought the furniture, I'd take the seats out of the Renault, stick them in the living room and say 'here's my furniture.' I was working in El Paso at the time. I bought the car in Vegas, left the car in Vegas. I flew from El Paso to Vegas and drove the car to the race track. I slept in the car, didn't have money for a hotel. I drove to the track, qualified 18th and I think I finished ninth out of 55 cars. I won $500. A set of tires at the time was $140, so it paid for my $55 Southwest Airlines ticket and it paid for my tires for the next race -- I though I was in heaven. That's how racing started for me."
Pilgrim continued to perform well in a move to the ultra-competitive Firestone Firehawk Series. He started the 1986 season paying for a ride with a team run by Bill Bailey, but eventually impressed Bailey enough to forgo the race payments, as long as he could find his own way to the track. Things continued to get "bigger and better" as he expanded to some Escort Endurance series races as well. Eventually, Pilgrim, who still had a full-time job as a computer programmer was spending more time at the track than in the office.
"In 1989 I was racing too much to keep a full-time job, so at that point I had about 20 grand saved up and I started my own consulting firm. Now, the Stanford MBA business program does not tell you if you want more time off, start your own company, but that's effectively what I was thinking to myself. Little did I know, 19 years later, the company's grown and we've got about 160 people working for us. Along the way, I've had a full-time professional racing career. Lucky for me, in the last 10 years, I've had some great people managing the company, Electronic Computer Services, so I can go play race cars. It's unusual in a sense; starting a business and starting racing when I did and then growing a business and growing the racing, I don't think there's many people who've done that."
There also aren't very many people who've had the chance to race a Cadillac CTS-V either. The 520hp, 3000lb sedan burst onto the scene in 2004 and Pilgrim was there every step of the way. How does the CTS-V and World Challenge stack up to the other jobs on Pilgrim's resume?
"It's a showroom stock-based, high-performance automobile on steroids. It's heavy and it's very much based on a street car. We've still got a lot of stock suspension stuff on it and everything. From SSB and SSC cars all the way up to World Challenge, you're looking at a progression there that's production-based. World Challenge is the Incredible Hulk, where the SSB and SSC cars are just regular showroom stock, there's very little modification. It's a lot of fun to drive, but it's hard to drive on the extreme limit, consistently."
The CTS-V was fast out of the box, perhaps a little too fast. After all Andy, isn't sandbagging half the game of SCCA SPEED GT?
"It's hard for me to say anything about that," Pilgrim says. "Honestly, we don't have anything left in our car. After we came out so strong in that first race [Sebring 2004] and Cadillac so badly wanted a win, we basically let everything out of the bag in the first race. When I came off the line with no clutch, 45 seconds behind the field, and came back. That screwed us up totally for the rest of the whole deal. We had nothing [more] in 2006, nothing [more] in 2007, nothing [more] in 2008. Really, we had very little after 2004 in terms of things we found in testing that we could use later."
Despite having "nothing," Cadillac still managed to take titles in 2005 and 2007, and came damn close in 2004 and 2006, but that's Pilgrim's line and he's sticking to it. He's been doing this long enough to know how the game works.
"I don't see the data they [SCCA Pro Racing officials] have, but they can see our acceleration curves, they can see what we're doing... so I think they have a good idea what's going on. I think, more than a performance balance, I see it as a points balance and a Championship balance. I have to respect that we're in the entertainment business. I'm comfortable that they keep an eye on performance and try to keep the playing field level, and if they keep the points and the Championship in balance through the year and if the guys that win it make the least mistakes, as opposed to the guy that has the fastest car, then I think SCCA is doing a great job."
Racing for years in series that use performance balancing and being a factory driver, Pilgrim is all too familiar with the politics of racing, but his "just deal with it" attitude allows him to avoid any frustration and has a lot to do with his long career.
"I understand how to play a game. There's certain things that go on in factory racing that you just have to deal with. If you want to race, there's always the politics of racing and I think if the politics make you crazy, then you're not going to race in professional racing for too long. There's a big picture and frustration makes your picture much smaller. I very rarely get frustrated. I'm very competitive, but I don't get frustrated. The bottom line is: there's a solution, not a problem."
The politics have changed for the Cadillac team this year and the pressures of the factory are no longer there, as support has switched from GM to Remington. The results however, remain consistent, with Pilgrim the only SCCA SPEED GT driver to finish each of the opening four rounds on the podium.
"It's definitely a little more laid back and a little easier going, but I'm a professional, I am with GM Racing, I still answer to GM Racing and for me it's not very different. Neville [Agass] is my crew chief and Ben [Bradley] I knew from the Corvette program and obviously Cadillac as well. The preparation on the cars is fantastic. Neville has given a lot of feedback to those guys and Dan [Fiffick, team manager] is a really conscientious guy and he's got a great bunch of people working for him."
When Pilgrim's not strapped into the CTS-V or checking in on his computer consulting business, he has another passion that's close to his heart: teaching teenagers safe driving. Though Pilgrim himself is not a parent, losing friends in accidents at a young age, and later watching a friend lose his child in a car accident, convinced Pilgrim that something needed to be done. He began approaching high schools in his area and volunteered to speak to students about safe driving. Prom week became a busy time for Pilgrim's speeches and the parents in the audience took notice of what he was saying.
"It was the reformed drug addict, the reformed alcoholic and then me. Parents would come to these assemblies and they would tell me, 'what you just said was great, but he's going to forget it by next Wednesday. Why don't you make a video?' It was the parents that prompted me to think about it."
Pilgrim did more than think about it. He did it. After finding no luck trying to find corporate backing for a video about responsible driving, Pilgrim and a business partner used their own money to make the video titled, The Driving Zone: Essential Techniques for New Drivers. Pilgrim was proud of the video, but knew it needed a little something extra if he expected kids to pay attention, that's when he enlisted the help of friend and NASCAR superstar Dale Earnhardt Jr.
"He said 'where do you want me to be? What do you want me to do? I'm in, no problem.' It was awesome. We went to his house and shot some stuff, then inserted about 20 items into the video. It sort of helps the kids pay attention, because it's not sexy, you have to pay attention and he helps the kids pay attention when we tried some focus groups."
Pilgrim continues to speak at high schools about safe driving and even found the time at Watkins Glen to drop by the local high school to talk.
Speaking of Dale Jr. though, after putting in two solid NASCAR Busch Series races at Watkins Glen and Montreal for Junior's team last year, will Pilgrim be climbing back into a stock car this season? Probably not this year owing to Junior's switch to Hendrick Motorsports, but in his best English-North Carolina drawl, Pilgrim recalls Dale Jr. hinting at where his next ride might be.
"He said, 'You know what? I'm not sure if I'm going to put you in one of these road races, cause you know how to road race. I think it might be kinda fun to run you at Martinsville sometime.' He had a wink in his eye and a nasty smile on his face, kind of like 'you can see how the real races go,' or something like that."
Maybe Pilgrim will get his shot at a half-mile oval, maybe not. He's just grateful for the opportunity and is dead set on having fun. After all, we're talking about the guy whose helmet covered in cartoons.
"Cartoons make me smile. They teach things about the realities of life much more so than regular sitcoms. I've always had an affinity for cartoons and for making fun of life in general. When I first put cartoons on, going back at least 12 years... people really liked it, even adults. South Park is brilliant for me. It makes fun of everybody and everything and that's the way life should be. Life should not be taken too seriously."
The competition takes Pilgrim seriously though. 'Mr. Consistency' is a Championship threat year in and year out. It didn't come easy though; hard work and a positive attitude were paramount to Pilgrim's success and continue to open doors for him.
The rest of the SPEED GT grid will just have to deal with it.
Top Ten Finish
1. If I couldn't be a race car driver I would be:
"A professional golfer. I only discovered golf about seven years ago, but I wish I'd discovered it sooner."
2. Favorite vacation spot:
"Southern California, Laguna, Newport Beach, places like that."
3. Favorite corner in all of racing:
"The Kink at Elkhart Lake."
4. If you could jump into any Touring Car, which would it be?
"PD's for sure. I love PD, he's a great guy, so I'd definitely use his car."
5. If you could have dinner with any celebrity past or present, who would
6. Bungee jumping or skydiving?
7. Favorite English Premier League Team:
"Manchester United, my cousin plays for them. He was the Center Forward for England. That's why I didn't play soccer, I saw him play when I was 13 and thought 'yeah right!'"
8. I can cook the best:
9. If your MP3 player was wired to your helmet in a race, what song would
"The Cure, 'Elise.' When you're racing you have to be relaxed. You want your favorite relaxing music, you don't want something that's going to make you go down to the zero brake marker and shove it in a trap."
10. Most embarrassing racing moment:
"Spinning on the pace lap at Long Beach two years ago."
-credit: scca pro racing