Is Patrick Dempsey Really a Racecar Driver?

Given the actor's recent success racing his Porsche, it might be time to quit that day job.
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Given the actor's recent success racing his Porsche, it might be time to quit that day job.
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When Patrick Dempsey landed his first big job - long before he became every woman’s desired source of primary care - he spent the entirety of his first paycheck on a Porsche 356, which he still owns. “That evoked real emotion in me,” he says. Now in his tenth year as a gentleman racer, Dempsey has turned semipro team owner and climbed behind the wheel of a factory Porsche 911 RSR, which he's used to burn past competitors in the IMSA TUDOR United SportsCar Championship, a GT Daytona division that has not been historically kind to dilettantes. Clearly, the 48-year-old Dempsey (with the help of no-bullshit teammates like Patrick Long) has grown into more than just an actor who dabbles in racing. Dempsey drove in 24-Hours of Le Mans last year and his team is on a streak in the TUDOR series, having just placed in the top four for the fourth consecutive race. 

Maxim caught up with the debonair Dempsey at a record store in Manhattan’sMeatpacking District as he prepared to prepare for today's Petit Le Mans 12-hour endurance race at his favorite track, Road Atlanta. He talked about go-karting, crashing, and the green future of racing. 

Congratulations on three consecutive podiums. You and Patrick Long are really hitting your stride.

Thank you. The team is coming on strong late in the year. The racing has been intense. And Patrick and I are basically neighbors in Los Angeles, so every week we go out and go go-karting. It’s nice to be around drivers at that level. He’s got a lot of information to share.

It seems to be helping. Personally, you’re driving much cleaner races than when you started out.

Well, I wrecked during practice at VIR [Virginia International Raceway]. I was trying to pick up some time in the last sector, and you can’t make a mistake at VIR or you’re going to hit the wall. I was pushing too hard in the final corner, lost the rear-end of the car. The grass was wet, the car sort of pulled away. Then you got nothing to do but sit back and wait for the impact. 

And that’s when everything suddenly feels a lot faster.

Yep. Boom. Luckily the team is on it, man. They got us back out and we made a podium. They’re total pros.

So this is your tenth year racing professionally.

I guess so. Time flies.

You’ve raced Maseratis, Mazdas, Aston Martins and now Porsches. Is it difficult to transition from car to car like that?

It’s not easy. Each of those cars have very different dynamics, the feel is very different, the way you race each one changes. But I’ve been with Porsche for two years now, and the atmosphere with Porsche is really intimate. It’s also very competitive. You’re walking into a place with such high expectations and so much success behind it. It forces you to work harder. I train harder, I push myself much harder than I ever have and you start to race better.

What’s your goal this year? Where would you like to end up?

Petit Le Mans, man. We really want to go after that. We were on the podium last year. Road Atlanta is the track I started racing at, and there’s nothing like it—the elevation change, the speed, the non-existent margin of error. It’s incredibly fun. It’s also pretty frightening.

How so?

Well, you try and compare it to modern tracks and you really can’t. There’s a lot of runoff at, say, Circuit of the Americas, which is new, or any of the Formula 1 tracks. You don’t have that cushion at VIR or Road Atlanta or mid-Ohio or Laguna Seca. These tracks were not designed on a computer. They were designed by a guy in a tractor going, “Let’s make it go up here, and now this way.” So when you’re racing those older tracks you feel the character of that guy on the trailer. Not to take anything away from the modern tracks. They are certainly safer, and they have very particular rhythms. At COTA, you have to be very precise. If you can find that rhythm, it’s rewarding. If you can’t, it’s incredibly demoralizing.

So has Mark Webber let you drive his 919 prototype yet?

No one’s getting in that car. But the 918 Spyder is phenomenal. I wish I’d had one. If I didn’t own a race team I probably would.

Is it like an insurance thing?

No, it’s because I’m spending my money on racing. Look, all that hybrid technology in the 919 and 918 is so important. Racing has to do something. People are not going to get rid of cars, we’ll always have cars, people are going to be passionate about them, and people are going to want sports cars. But the technology is going to evolve and we’re going to get much more environmentally friendly along the way. Bring on the green. That’s what I say.  

Is that black nail polish on your finger?

No, definitely not nail polish. I stacking surfboards for my kids and one of them fell on my finger. That’s blood under the nail, buddy. Not nail polish.

Photos by Hoch Zwei / Corbis