Unlike most race car drivers who start racing at an abnormally young age, championship driver and McDonough resident Dwight Pilgram did not sit behind the wheel of a race car until he was out of high school.
A Legends champion and mechanic at Legends Cars of Georgia, Pilgram grew up on a middle-class farm in Pennsylvania.
"Growing up, my father and I would go to races, but it was hard enough making ends meet," Pilgram said. "We certainly didn't have enough disposable income to go racing."
It wasn't until Pilgram was 18-years old that he was able to get out of the grandstands and onto the track. Driving a 1968 Ford Fairlane in a dirt spectator division, Pilgram realized early the importance of taking it easy on his equipment.
"You couldn't tear it up because if you did, you wouldn't be able to get it home," Pilgram said. "We flat-towed it to the races, so if it didn't roll at the end of the night, it wasn't coming home."
Pilgram won two races his first year in the Fairlane, which he called an "old junk car."
Graduating from the spectator division, Pilgram started his climb through the ranks of the racing world until 1984 when his racing career temporarily ran out of gas.
"I just simply ran out of money," Pilgram said. "I was drilling oil and natural gas wells when the market started to decline. After a year, I decided I had to get out of that line of work."
A friend of Pilgram's moved to Atlanta to find a job in the racing industry. A few short years later, following his friends advice, Pilgram moved to Atlanta and started working in the construction industry, accumulating the funds to go racing again; at least on a budget.
That is when Pilgram discovered Legends cars; affordable 5/8 scale fiberglass, full-fendered versions of the same cars the legends of NASCAR drove early in their careers.
"I went to 600 Racing in Charlotte, N.C. and bought my first Legends car in 1999," Pilgram said. "Legends cars are versatile cars and as long as you don't bend the chassis, you can just keep rebuilding them."
Pilgram has come a long way from his early days in a Legends car, where his first few races produced less than desirable finishes.
"My first race out, I about knocked the wall over. I thought you could drive it wide open into the corner, like you did a dirt track car," Pilgram joked. "It didn't take long to get things straightened out and I even won a couple races that first year in a Legends car."
Since his first year in a Legends car, Pilgram has won five National Championships and five Georgia State Championships, more than 150 feature wins and a Thursday Thunder Championship.
Shortly after branching out from his job in the construction industry and forming his own company, Pilgram was forced to make a decision between racing and his business.
"After September 11, literally overnight, my phone quit ringing," Pilgram said. "I knew I needed to do something else and I thought it would be exciting and rewarding to work on Legends cars at Legends Cars of Georgia."
Pilgram never imagined he would find a job as rewarding as the one he has now.
"When I see the excitement on someone's face after they ran well, it makes my day complete," Pilgram said smiling. "It is special knowing that I set their car up and I had a large part in the success they just experienced."
Unlike most people caught up in early retirement and 401K plans, Pilgram plans to simply spend as much time behind the wheel of a race car as he can, while he still can.
"I know that at more than 50-years-old, I'm not going to go find that Busch Series or NEXTEL Cup Series ride," Pilgram said. "I am just going to take life one day at a time and enjoy my last hoorah. As long as I can climb in a car and be reasonably competitive, I'll do it."
Pilgram knows there is no replacement for the fun he is having now.
"There is just nothing like running into the corner wide open and turning left," Pilgram said.
Fans can watch Pilgram try and claim his second Thursday Thunder Championship at Atlanta Motor Speedway this summer from June 1 to August 3. Tickets for Thursday Thunder, Atlanta Motor Speedway's weekly Legends racing series, are available at Gate 13 (frontstretch Champions Grandstand) on event nights. Parking is free. Spectator gates open at 6 p.m. with preliminary action beginning immediately. Feature racing begins at 7 p.m. and concludes by 10:30 p.m.