"So, you got any advice for me here coming up?'' Dale Earnhardt radioed to Andy Pilgrim while slowly driving caution laps around Daytona International Speedway, preparing for the final race restart with 21 laps to go in the 2001 Daytona 500.
Only two weeks earlier, the NASCAR icon had co-driven to a runner-up GT Class finish in the historic Rolex 24 at Daytona with the sports car champ Pilgrim (second from left above), who was now sitting with his girlfriend and Earnhardt's wife, Teresa, hooked up to the race team's radio in the couple's private motorcoach in the speedway's infield. A pair of motorcycle policemen had just arrived outside and were waiting to escort them all from the track after the race.
"When he said that to me, I just started laughing and thinking to myself, 'Dale Earnhardt, the seven-time NASCAR champion, is asking me, a road racer, what to do in the Daytona 500,' '' Pilgrim recalled. "I told him, 'No, man, I haven't got any advice for you, just keep doing what you're doing.' '''
"Okay, just wondering,'' Earnhardt good-naturedly replied, his words getting cut off by his spotter, who was alerting him the race was going green on the next lap.
"I told him, 'Cheers, talk to you later,' '' Pilgrim said. "And there was no more radio communication other than him cheering on and yelling for Michael (Waltrip) and (Dale Earnhardt) Junior.
"Then, 10 minutes later, he was gone.
"The black Suburban was there for us, the two cops on motorcycles. ... but he never came,'' recalled Pilgrim, who vividly and painfully remembers just sitting in the motorcoach for another hour or more waiting on news.
Earnhardt was pronounced dead at Daytona Beach's Halifax Medical Center, having suffered a massive head injury when his famous No. 3 Goodwrench Chevrolet hit the wall in the last turn on the last lap of that afternoon's Daytona 500.
The last time Pilgrim had been at Daytona's high banks, he and Earnhardt had stood alongside one another in the Winner's Circle, standing on the podium spraying champagne and celebrating their second-place finish in the GT class of the Rolex 24. It was a highlight of their short-lived friendship.
Despite their different backgrounds, they had an instant bonding of mutual respect, even if Pilgrim was admittedly and understandably often swept up in the Earnhardt awe.
"It was the effect he had on regular people, that's the whole thing for me,'' Pilgrim told AOL FanHouse in the first in-depth interview he's given about his relationship with Earnhardt and that fateful February day 10 years ago.
"The racing part is almost immaterial, honest to God. Being around someone who had that kind of effect on people, you cannot fail to care and just be impressed. I was just moved many times in the years afterward from people who met Dale.
"If they met him once in autograph line, they had a story to tell that was a highlight in their life -- the fact (that) he might have said something to them in that one time they waited in line.
"He was just a special man,'' Pilgrim said. "The more I knew about him, the worse I felt (about him dying). It was almost like a twilight zone for five months and then, snap. .. gone.
"It was just very, very strange.''
Pilgrim, now the lead driver for the factory-Cadillac effort in the SCCA World Challenge Series, still has what he calls a "very personal" thank you note from Earnhardt that arrived in the mail only four days before his death.
Equally as cherished is the letter that initiated the drivers' partnership and friendship five months earlier. It reveals as much about Dale the person as it does Dale the racer.
It came in October, 2000, only two days after Pilgrim had made international racing headlines with what's now referred to as the "Pilgrim Pass'' -- a daring, aggressive, last-lap Earnhardt-esque pass to give Chevrolet a victory over the heavily-favored Dodge Viper in the prestigious Petit LeMans sports car race at Road Atlanta.
Pilgrim initially thought the FedEx package he received was an errant delivery. He'd never ordered anything from Dale Earnhardt Inc. and couldn't figure out why he'd be getting a letter from a NASCAR team.
"I still have the letter and, to paraphrase, it says, 'Dear Andy, Wow, that was some pass you made on that Viper. That pass is exactly why I want you to be my teammate for the 24 hours of Daytona.
'You obviously know how to rub paint so I can't teach you how to rub paint. So now you've gotta teach me how to drive that Corvette.'
"And he signed it, 'Sincerely, Dale Earnhardt.' ''
Dale Earnhardt, the NASCAR icon, "The Intimidator," was inviting Andy Pilgrim, the humble, soft-spoken British-born sports car superstar, to co-drive with him and his son Dale Jr. in the 2001 Rolex 24 at Daytona.
Earnhardt had seen Pilgrim's amazing pass on a highlight reel during ESPN's RPM Tonight show that weekend. Three weeks later, he hosted Pilgrim at a press conference at DEI's headquarters outside Charlotte, N.C. to announce the Rolex 24 deal with Earnhardt, Pilgrim, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and eventually sportscar veteran Kelly Collins -- and to unveil the factory-backed No. 3 Corvette they would steer.
The announcement came the day after what would be Earnhardt's final NASCAR victory -- one of the most spectacular performances among many spectacular performances -- when he passed 17 cars in the final four laps to win at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway.
"Man, that was some pass you made on the Viper, unbelievable,'' Earnhardt told Pilgrim as they shook hands for the first time.
"I told him, 'Well, you did pretty good at Talladega yesterday, too,' '' Pilgrim said, laughing at the understatement then and now.
"And he says to me, 'Yeah, yeah, but I don't want to talk about that, I want to talk about the Corvettes.' He grabs me and turns me around to face all these NASCAR journalists and says, 'Do you guys know who this is? Did you see the pass this guy made on the Viper?'
Pilgrim smiles, remembering the scene, "It was just the most bizarre, coolest moment. And that's how I met Dale.''
From then on, it was a surreal mix of get-to-business and get-to-know-ya.
From that day on, Earnhardt would often randomly call Pilgrim to check in and just shoot the breeze.
"I remember one time my phone rings and my parents were here visiting from England and we're all having dinner,'' Pilgrim said. "Dale calls, tells me to say hi to my mom and dad for him then wants my opinion on some mopeds he was going to buy.''
When it came to the sports cars, Earnhardt was an eager student and not-surprisingly quick study. It had been important to him to be as well-regarded and successful on the road courses as he was on the superspeedways and short-tracks and the Rolex 24 is a world-renowned event.
"He was very competitive and really pushed himself to learn,'' Pilgrim said. "He said, 'If I'm screwing up, tell me, don't be easy on me. If me and Junior are screwing up, tell us and we'll work on it. We're not just coming here (to ride around), we want to do as well as we can.' ''
The group had only two brief testing weekends with the Corvette before the 2001 Rolex 24 weekend rolled around. But that didn't prepare the Earnhardts for the massive rain showers that tormented the twice-around-the-clock race. Unlike in NASCAR, sports cars race in the wet and Earnhardt was up for the challenge with Pilgrim coaching him corner-by-corner, lap-by-lap.
"Once he figured out where the tricky parts were, he was as fast as anyone,'' Pilgrim said. "In fact, he was phenomenal. He just had this incredible feel. Both he and Junior were three-tenths faster than all of us guys on the oval portion. Every lap.''
It wasn't until October of 2001 that Pilgrim first saw a photograph from that Rolex 24 (below) that is now among his most treasured possessions.
"Earnhardt's walking toward me on pit lane and has his big leather jacket on over his racing suit and he gets closer to me and he says, 'You tired, boy?' and smiles.'' Pilgrim said, pausing and smiling as he recalled Earnhardt's wide smirk and then the precise moment the photo was snapped.
"Then he grabs me around the shoulder, leans in and says in my ear,
'Second sucks, don't it, son?' "