Payne Q&Auto: Pilgrim’s progress

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Andy Pilgrim is the American Dream. Right down to his surname.

Pilgrim crossed the Atlantic in 1981 to seek a better life. Arriving in New York City as an IT contractor under the watchful gaze of Lady Liberty with just $100 in his pocket, the 25-year old computer programmer was placed in Pontiac with General Motors. An avid motorbike racer in his native England, he also hoped to race a bit.

Give me your huddled masses yearning to breathe free ... and do some hot laps.

Now 59, Pilgrim has realized his dreams. He has his own tech business. And by the way, he is one of the most highly regarded sports car drivers in the business after a career racing everything from Corvettes to NASCAR. Today he pilots Porsches for Black Swan Racing in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.

“I came to the U.S. for opportunity,” said Pilgrim in Atlanta last week where he was testing Chevy’s new Corvette Grand Sport for Automobile magazine. “Racing was a dream. Car racing in England takes huge money.”

Pilgrim’s rags-to-riches rise in racing is a rare journey in an expensive sport dominated by wealthy families with names like Andretti, Earnhardt and Rosberg where money and sponsorship often talk louder than talent. Humbled by his success, Pilgrim is determined to give back to his adopted homeland. Alarmed by the lax driving standards in the U.S. (compared to say, England and Germany), Pilgrim is a missionary for safer driving habits through his non-profit Traffic Safety Education Foundation.

After spending his first year in Pontiac, Pilgrim’s next contractor gig took him to El Paso, Texas.

“Pontiac at the time had 68 percent unemployment, I was told. The room I got was $100 a month,” he says. “It was a rough neighborhood. (My complex’s) guard dog got beaten up.”

In Texas he bought his first ride, a used Renault Alliance Cup Car. “I called it a Renault ‘Appliance’ – and that’s how I got into serious racing,” says Pilgrim. “I funded myself. I never went to a racing school – I couldn’t afford it.”

It was a big step up from his motorbike in England.

“I didn’t have car,” he remembers of that first bike. “I would pay a buddy (gas money) to drop me at the track. And if I wasn’t dead, he’d pick me up in the evening to take me home.”

He started his own company, Electronic Computer Services, in Dallas in 1989. The successful small business kept the revenue stream coming to feed his racing habit. Pilgrim’s talents were getting noticed. His habit would soon become all-consuming.

In 1999 his career took off as Corvette Racing tapped him to race their first C5 race car. Co-driving the car with the father-son duo of Dale Earnhardt and Dale Earnhardt Jr. at the 24 Hours of Daytona in 2002, he finished second-in-class. In 2004 he moved over to GM’s Cadillac race team where he would win the 2005 World Challenge GT Series championship. He has driven for numerous teams since, including a bid in NASCAR.

What’s a race driver’s life like?

On the Thursday I spent with Pilgrim at Atlanta Motorsports Park testing the Grand Sport, the race jockey had opened the week in Portland to talk at an auto conference, then flown to Pontiac to school a Corvette driver’s club on the M1 Concourse’s new Championship Motor Speedway.

“Fantastic,” he says. It is just blocks from his first Pontiac apartment.

From Atlanta he flew to Lime Rock, Connecticut, where he would qualify his Porsche for Saturday’s Weathertech race.

That’s a lot of frequent-flier miles.

“I’m getting paid to race cars in my late 50s,” says Pilgrim. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d be doing it. It’s been phenomenal.”

When he’s not in airports, at race tracks or overseeing his tech company (“My insurance policy if the racing dries up”), he is passionate about teaching driver safety.

“We’re killing 20,000 more people on our roads than we should be,” laments Pilgrim, who is now a U.S. citizen. “Relative to other industrialized countries, we should be killing about 12,000 people if we were doing things as well as Germany and U.K. But we’re killing 32,000 to 40,000.”

“The driving test is a joke. They might as well hand it out with Kellogg’s Corn Flakes package tops,” he says. “We’ve got to change the culture. It starts with parents and with helping ... kids understand what distracted driving is. Legislation isn’t going to fix it. They’re not going to make the driving test as hard as it should be because kids won’t pass the driving test until they’re 20 – and that is unacceptable to voters.”

So he travels the country handing out DVDs and instruction manuals, and giving speeches. “You gotta give back,” says Pilgrim who now resides in Boca Raton, Florida. “My mother taught me that.”

And how did he like the Corvette Grand Sport? “This car will not disappoint,” he grins. No, it won’t. Pilgrim set an unofficial production car track record at Atlanta Motorsports Park at a blistering 1:23.6.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.