Racer Andy Pilgrim Recalls His 24 Hours of Le Mans Experiences
Even though this year’s race will be a little different, without the thousands of fans lined up in the stands, Le Mans itself is still the same notorious 8.5 kilometers of straights, chicanes and flat corners. Just ask Andy Pilgrim, who has raced at the 24 Hours of Le Mans six times in his career and who knows the track as well as anyone. But his first memory of racing on the famous street circuit has nothing to do with racing. It has to do with bacon.
It was 1996 and Pilgrim was behind the wheel of New Hardware Racing, a New Zealand-based team that ran a Porsche 911 GT2. In his first appearance at Le Mans, Pilgrim wanted to get to the track very early, but he made the mistake of showing up a little too early.
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“I didn’t know anyone, I wasn’t traveling with anyone.… I really had no idea what I was doing,” Pilgrim recalls. “I was sort of running in the morning before I went for the first few tests and I was looking at the car.… And then it was around lunch time and my first thought was’ I really have hungry and I need to eat something. ‘But there was nothing to eat! “
None of the food stalls were open. With nowhere to go for lunch, he wandered hungry around the pit lane until he sensed something strangely familiar. “I smelled this bacon sandwich and I thought ‘this must be British,’ Pilgrim said.
Sure enough, there was a small British racing team making bacon and eggs. The pilgrim walked over to the grill and told them that whatever they were cooking smelled good, and that they were kind enough to feed a hungry racing driver. He said it was still the best bacon sandwich he had ever eaten.
With a full stomach, it was time to start racing. But there is a lot of work to be done before the green flag falls. Pilgrim had never driven at Le Mans before, and he said the first thing he did when he got in the car during a practice session was “find another car that looks like this “. Scoring behind a more experienced driver, Pilgrim thought, would be his best chance to learn the racing line on a circuit he didn’t know at all – and time was running out. The riders are lucky if they get three laps in a practice session at Le Mans. The laps are long, four different drivers need to have time to sit down and there are only two hours of free practice.
“Between the car set-up and the problems you usually get a four-lap session, and that’s it.… I ended up getting six laps,” said Pilgrim.
On his very first lap of Le Mans (ever), Pilgrim discovered, in a dramatic fashion, that Mulsanne’s straight has a crown. Le Mans being an urban circuit, the road must be crowned so that the rainwater can drain off. But that crown grabbed the wheel from Pilgrim’s hands, nearly pulling the car over the side of the road and into one of the barriers. Talk about a first impression.
By the time their first Le Mans race weekend was said and done, Pilgrim and New Hardware Racing finished fourth in their class – not bad for Pilgrim’s first time. But he would return to Le Mans next year with Roock Racing and finish 2nd in his class and 10th overall, a career best result. Then from 2000 to 2003, Pilgrim joined Corvette Racing, finishing second in its class every year except 2000, when they won the bronze medal.
“I’ve never had the top step, but being on the podium is the amazing part,” said Pilgrim. “The first leg would have been great, but the first three get you on that podium – and what an experience. To see thousands of people on that point right away is great.”
Sadly, this year there won’t be as many Mulsanne straight fans cheering on the winning teams as they take their trophies and spray champagne. Not only that, but Le Mans usually takes place in June; Due to the pandemic, this year it runs from September 19 to 20. Despite the odd timing, Pilgrim doesn’t think the drivers are going to miss a beat.
“As far as the track goes, (the drivers) will be ready from the start,” said Pilgrim. “I really don’t think the free time will make a difference.”
Pilgrim is probably right, but there is only one way to know for sure, and there are only a few days left before Le Mans 2020 is fully launched. Be sure to check all actions on the MotorTrend app.