The Proficient Driver – Andy Pilgrim

Andy PilgrimIn the world of road racing, you will be hard pressed to find a driver with as much experience in a variety of cars as Andy Pilgrim. With 53 race wins in 10 different series and five professional championships, it’s easy to understand why his knowledge and experience are sought after by several of professional racing teams and vehicle manufactures.

We recently had the opportunity to talk with Andy about winning his most recent championship in the Speed World Challenge series, life as a professional driver and some of his interests outside of the racing world.

Mecca of Speed: During the World Challenge championship last year, what did you find as the greatest unseen challenge during the season?

Andy Pilgrim: Weight benching in racing. The rewards weights were posted on the windshield because we get reward weights for having good finishes. The bottom line is when we had the reward weight on the car, the car got progressively more and more difficult to drive. There definitely were the weight issues, which was the hardest thing. Being the heaviest car for 8 of 11 races, sometimes by as much as 200 pounds, made it very tough.

I would qualify 12th with what I would consider a flawless qualifying lap. A lot of guys can do one good lap with a lightweight car for qualifying, then I would have to pass them in the race with my heavy sled. My average finish for the season was fourth. I might come from twelfth to finish fourth, which was really hard. They don’t show all that on TV so it was almost like a stealth championship. Of the five professional championships I’ve won, it was definitely the hardest one.

Mecca of Speed: When you approach a World Challenge race compared to an endurance race, is there a different mind set, technique, or training you use before you start the race?

Andy Pilgrim: Absolutely, because we are on a standing start, you have to get yourself in the zone before you see the green light. Your whole starting procedure has to be right there. There are several things you have to do to the car on the warm up lap that are very important to get the car sorted out. Then, when you go, you have got to maintain position as best you can knowing you could loose a couple of positions off the start as the Cadillac is so heavy because of the rules.

Our car is not the best standing start car. With all the weight, a long wheel base and a low CG, it doesn’t get off the line as well as Corvettes and certainly not as well as the Porsches. We can sometimes loose a couple of positions, but you have to minimize the damage off the line because you don’t have a whole lot of time to get people back.

The endurance mind set is where you are conscious about saving equipment. You are not going to hit certain curbs and things like that during an endurance race. In the World Challenge races you have to get every ounce out of the track, so curbs and other things that you normally would not hit in an endurance race you are going to attack in a World Challenge race and hope your car is going to last fifty minutes.

Mecca of Speed: When you run an endurance race with multiple classes, how do you approach overtaking lower classes such as two GT cars?

Andy Pilgrim: If you are in a prototype and you are the fastest class, it makes it a lot easier – a lot easier. People don’t realize the slow classes have the hardest job to do. They have to run their race flat out as fast as they can go. A lot of times, say 60 percent of the time, if you are competing in a lower class you are going to be looking in your mirrors. That’s way more than you would imagine you have to look in your mirrors. You have to know if there is one DP (Daytona Prototype) coming, or two, or three, or six. The slower classes have a hard day, Jan Magnussen, an ex F1 driver who ran the Pontiac GT car for a year before going back to DP said that all DP drivers need to run a season in GT so they understand how much harder it is and how hard the GT drivers are running.

I’ve done races when there have been four classes, three classes, and two classes. Having won Daytona in the prototypes and won it in GT, from my experience it’s much more difficult for 24 hours in a lower class car.

If you are a mid-pack Daytona Prototype, you only have to watch for the faster Prototypes coming by you. If you are in one of the top GT cars, you have to look in your mirrors a lot for the fast DP cars, race the other GT cars and possibly the slower DP’s also.

Mecca of Speed: If you could pick three tracks you find the most satisfying as a driver, either your favorites, or tracks you love to run, what would they be?

Andy Pilgrim: In North America, Elkhart Lake, in Europe, Monza, and in Asia, Zhuhai. All of those tracks have very fast corners. I love fast corners. Flying through corners, be it a prototype or GT where the car will drift a little bit, is awesome. Those three tracks have some great corners.

Mecca of Speed: To switch from four wheels to two, you are a motorcyclist. What characteristics do you like in a street or sport bike?

Andy Pilgrim: For me, comfort. I’ve always been someone who didn’t like leaning forward onto the wrists. I’ve never been comfortable leaning forward on a street bike, even when I raced them. I actually raced street modified bikes with flat bars on them because I like the feel that the flat bars gave me. I did also race open class sport bikes, which have the clip-on type bars which are lower, but I don’t like them. So comfort is important.

Speed, brakes and handling are also very important. I also like a lot of power. I’m not necessarily looking for 180 horsepower like the new GSX-R 1000 Suzuki. I had one of those for about four months. As brilliant of a bike that it is, to me that’s too fast of a bike for the street. I just couldn’t use it. 95 mph in first gear is like, ok, this is silly. You couldn’t keep the front wheel on the ground.

I have an Aprilia Tuono, which has about 140 horsepower, which is still a lot, but it has so much torque you can have fun with it and ride it comfortably. It has flat bars, which makes it’s handling very quick and it’s comfortable. You can hang with anything and it handles as well as any sport bike out there, especially considering I know how to go around corners.

Mecca of Speed: Do you find balancing a bike through a corner, similar to balancing a racecar through a corner?

Andy Pilgrim: Yes, you can slide bikes. I do trick riding and there is a lot of balance involved in doing wheelies and stoppies. Admittedly, it is something I would not advocate doing on the street, but if you have private areas, you can go and practice. I’ve been doing trick riding on bikes for probably 30 years. I believe that kind of balance training has helped me with car racing a lot. If you can balance a bike on one wheel, or if you can slide a bike on two wheels, sliding a car on four wheels may be a little different, but it’s a variation of that and in some senses, it’s easier.

Mecca of Speed: Going back to endurance racing, you have worked with multiple driver teams. How do you work with someone coming in from say NASCAR or stock cars? Do you try and give them pointers and play back and forth because it’s not their normal type of racing?

Andy Pilgrim: Well, I get along with pretty much everybody. I’ve never had co-drivers I didn’t get along with. I respect anyone who is a professional driver.

When Dale Earnhardt came into the scene, Dale said to me “Now Andy, if I’m not doing something right you tell me.  If you see something that can help me, you tell me. Don’t hold back, if you think you can help me or Jr, just do it, we’re here to race.”  Getting to know Dale and running with the 24 hour with him was probably the highlight of my career, the guy was so much more than just a legend of a race car driver.

Now obviously Dale Earnhardt knew how to drive, there was very little that I could teach him. There were bits and pieces, like braking points in the Corvette for instance. Just telling him that honestly, you can brake much later because the car is lighter and the brakes are better. That was something he had never experienced.

So instead of him working up to it over an hour or two, I said to him you can go down to the three marker before you even think about braking. He had been braking at the five, then the four and a half. I said you can go to the three. He went to the three and did it right off. All I did was speed up the learning process for him.

Personally I’ve been able to be teammates with so many great drivers. I’m not one of those drivers that won’t tell a teammate what I’m doing. I’ll share, it’s always fun. It’s always good to have a good relationship with your teammates.

Mecca of Speed: How would you compare a car like the Corvette Z06 production car to the Cadillac CTS-V you are currently racing in World Challenge?

Andy Pilgrim: The World Challenge car is so much faster then a Z06 on a race track, even though the Challenge car has less horsepower then the Z06. It’s faster because it’s a racecar.

Even though it weighs more and has less power we are still seconds faster then a Z06 street car because the World Challenge car is so well sorted for the track. All the components of the car are designed to be great on a racetrack. In any streetcar, you have the suspension made more for the street, wheel travel for the street, etc. Those things get changed for racing. Even though a lot of the CTS-V race car is standard, you still decrease your suspension travel for racing. You also change the shocks, the anti-sway bars and every thing else that will improve the handling.

Mecca of Speed: Fitness wise, you are in very good shape. Do you have a strict regiment such as strength training and cardiovascular training along with a strict diet?

Andy Pilgrim: I would say it is strict, but not weird strict. Life is too short. I don’t starve myself of anything that I like. If I feel like having a pizza, I’ll have pizza with friends, but I won’t eat pizza every day for a week. That is an important thing to understand, things in moderation.

I believe that life is too short and you need to enjoy yourself, but my training is still strict. I work out at least five days a week. I do a lot of testing with other teams, however, I don’t over train.

I know how to train cardiovascular-wise. I keep my body fat down to about 12% but I don’t need to go less then that. I’m in my 40s competing against guys in their 20’s who are professional athletes too. It’s really important when you get into your 40s that you are really training hard and correctly.

I eat and train correctly because of education from Dr Jacques Dallaire of HPI fame, the guy is a genius. It’s very important for competing at the level I’m at. This week I was testing an ALMS car at homestead in 100 degree weather. I’m able to run a car for hour after hour after hour. Another pro driver might get in the car who is a lot younger than me and after 20 minutes he is cooked, it’s rewarding to see positive results that confirm your hard work.  I never take my health for granted.

I’m a professional athlete and take it very seriously. It’s good for my health, but also good for the company I’m working for. I don’t struggle to stay fit in the car because the CTS-V racecar is very, very hot. It’s black on black and I’m wearing a black suit. It can be 135-140 degrees in that car.

You can be in the car at Mid-Ohio in the summer on a 100 degree day, sitting and toasting in the car for 40 minutes before you even start the race. Just sitting there, doing the parade laps, in your helmet and drivers suit. Then the race is another 50 minutes after that. You could heat soak your self to the point you are out of it before you even start the race if you’re not fit.  Some guys use cool vests and cool suits but because the Caddy is so heavy the engineers don’t want us using them as they add weight higher up in the car.

Mecca of Speed: On average, between testing and racing, how many days do you spend at the track during an average year?

Andy Pilgrim: Around 80 days. I would say between 75 and 100 days.

Mecca of Speed: Did you pass your public drivers test on the first try?

Andy Pilgrim: Yes I did. It was in England and it’s not that easy to do. I was the first one to pass my drivers test in my school, in England. It usually takes you six months to get a test day or re test day so I was happy to get it first time.

Mecca of Speed: How did you get involved with MindSHAPER and Dallaire consulting?

Andy Pilgrim: Dr. Jacques Dallaire and myself go back about 12 years. When I heard about MindSHAPER I went to HPI Human Performance International and talked to Dr. Dallaire and the other doctors at the facility. Then I did the program. I found out so much mind, body and nutrition info that has helped me ever since.

I found it very useful for teaching my self how to not only have a better workout, but how to maximize my workout time. That was very critical. I completed that first program about 12 years ago. Since then we have stayed in touch and I’ve been back to the program at least three times over the last decade or so. I keep going and keep getting better and better, which is great. Fitness wise and strength wise I’m much fitter then I was 12 years ago.

MindSHAPER itsself, the actual suite, includes the world challenge. I got into that because I thought that would be fun to check out. It has to do with mind speed and mind training, like a workout for your mind. I thought it was a fascinating deal and it turned out I was pretty good at it. I ended up being number one in the world for the World Challenge on MindSHAPER.

Mecca of Speed: So you like to win a lot in general.

Andy Pilgrim: Yes I like to win but winning in Mind Shaper is like playing golf, you can compete against your own personal best as well as other people, Not everyone is going to have the same capacity, it just so happens that I’m number one in the world right now. Hopefully someone will knock me off and then I’ll have to improve my score. I find it very interesting and get a lot of use out of it.

Content credit Andy Pilgrim and John Vatne. Photo credit Andy Pilgrim.

6/5/2006