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Even though this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans race will look a little bit different without thousands of fans filling the stands and the woods, Le Mans itself is still the same 8.5 notorious miles of straights, chicanes, and flat-out corners. Just ask Andy Pilgrim, who has raced at the 24 hours of Le Mans six times in his career and knows the track as well as anyone. But his first memory of racing at the famed French circuit has nothing to do with racing at all. It has to do with bacon.
It was 1996 and Pilgrim was behind the wheel for New Hardware Racing, a New Zealand-based team that was running a Porsche 911 GT2. Being his first appearance at Le Mans, Pilgrim wanted to get to the track nice and early—only he made the mistake of showing up a bit too early.
“I didn’t know anyone, I wasn’t traveling with anyone. I really didn’t have a clue what the hell I was doing,” Pilgrim recalls. “I was sort of running around in the morning before we went to do first practice and I was looking at the car, and then it was around lunchtime and my first thought was, ‘I’m really hungry and I need to eat something.’ But there was nothing there to eat.”
None of the food stands were open. With nowhere to go for lunch, he wandered, starving, around the pit lane until he smelled something oddly familiar. “I smelt this bacon sandwich and I thought, ‘that’s got to be British guys. ‘” Pilgrim said.
Sure enough, there was a small British racing team cooking up some bacon and eggs. Pilgrim walked up to the grill and told them whatever it was they were cooking up smelled great, and they were kind enough to feed a famished race car driver. He said it’s still to this day the best bacon sandwich he’s ever had.
With a full stomach, it was time to get racing. But there’s a lot of work to do before the green flag falls. Pilgrim had never driven at Le Mans before, and he said the first thing he did once he got in the car during a practice session was “find another car that looks like this one.” Tagging behind a more experienced driver, Pilgrim figured, would be his best chance of learning the racing line at a circuit he was totally unfamiliar with—and time was short. Racers are lucky if they get three laps in a practice session at Le Mans. The laps are long, four different drivers need to get seat time, and there’s just two hours of free practice.
“Between car setups and messing with things, you typically get one session of four laps, and that’s it. I ended up getting six laps,” Pilgrim said.
On his first-ever lap of Le Mans, Pilgrim discovered in dramatic fashion that the Mulsanne Straight has a crown to it. Since Le Mans is a street circuit, the road has to be crowned so rain water can drain off of it. But that crown grabbed the wheel out of Pilgrims’ hands, nearly pulling the car sideways off of the road and into one of the barriers. Talk about a first impression.
By the time his 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 out. But he would go back to Le Mans the next year with Roock Racing and finish second in class and 10th overall, a career best result. From 2000-03, Pilgrim joined Corvette Racing, finishing second in class every year save 2000, when he and his team took home the bronze.
“Never got the top step, but being on the podium is the amazing part,” Pilgrim said. “Top step would have been great but top three gets you on that podium—and what an experience. Seeing thousands of people on that straightaway is great.”
Sadly, this year won’t have anywhere near that many fans on the Mulsanne Straight cheering for the winning teams as they take their trophies and spray champagne. Not only that, but Le Mans is usually held 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.
“When it comes to the track, [the drivers] are going to be on from the get go,” Pilgrim said. “I really don’t think the time off will make a difference.”
Pilgrim is probably right, but there’s only one way to find out for sure, and there are only a few days left until the 2020 24 Hours of Le Mans gets fully underway. Be sure to check out all of the action on the MotorTrend App.