On TV he’s McDreamy. On the track, he’s a skilled race car driver.
Although he’s had a successful acting career (Grey’s Anatomy, Bridget Jones’s Baby, Enchanted), Patrick Dempsey is an adrenaline junkie at heart.
Racing is more than a hobby for the 53-year old actor. In 2014 he said, “It’s all-consuming in many ways. I couldn’t imagine not racing right now. It really keeps me motivated. It’s all I think about on a daily basis.”
His interest in cars began as a child in Lewiston, Maine. His father would bring home a Matchbox car every week. Young Dempsey would wait at the door, anxious and excited to see what model he would get. But racing had to wait. His first real passion was skiing. He won several races including a state downhill championship, and dreamed that someday he’d compete in the Olympics. But Olympic hopes remained a dream. He later toyed with the idea of being a magician or clown.
At 21, he got his first big Hollywood break in a film called “Can’t Buy Me Love.” With his first paycheck, the entire thing, he bought a car he saw parked on the road in Santa Monica. A 1963 356 Porsche, a car he claims is the best car he’s ever owned. He drove it for 15 years and to this day, swears he’ll never sell it.
Although he’s always loved cars and racing, he credits his wife for making his passion a reality. She watched him obsess over the sport on TV and one day suggested he get off the couch and try it for himself. She gifted him a course at the Skip Barber Racing School. That was it. He was hooked. Soon after he attended the Panoz Racing School, and moved into the Panoz race series to further improve his driving skills. His instructor Joe Foster later became his partner. More on that in a minute.
His first formal track appearance was at the 2005 Toyota Pro/Celebrity Race, a competitive event for celebrity and pro drivers for the high-speed challenge of real racing while raising money for charity. He crashed in the 9/10 lap. He entered again the following year, and moved up from nearly last to sixth place.
After that, he began competing in many prestigious pro-am events including the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Sebring, Rolex 24 at Daytona, and the Baja 1000 off-road race.
His first start in Le Mans was a memorable experience. “It was an extraordinary night,” he said, “an in-and-out-of-the-body experience in many ways, because it is something you dream about for so long and finally there you are – you’re alone out there in and out of your body. The race itself was just something we wanted to finish. Our co-driver at the time fell ill, so it was just Joe Foster and myself driving. So we kept going and going. I got a lot of seat time; I think it was ten hours. And this is what it is about – it is about challenging yourself in situations that you never imagined.”
While his vehicle of choice remains the Porsche, he’s competed in a variety of vehicles. In his early racing days, he drove a Mazda RX-8. In the 2009 24 Hours of Le Mans, a Ferrari F430 GTC. In the 2012 American Le Mans, he drove a Lola B12/87, a Le Mans prototype built by English company Lola Cars International. But in most of his races he was a dedicated Porsche man, competing in a Porsche 911 GT3 Cup, Porsche 997 GT3 Cup, and Porsche 911 GT America among others. “Porsche was winning sports car races before I was even born. As a childhood fan of Porsche, I grew up with their successes at Le Mans, Daytona and the Targa Florio. The 911 is an icon; it stands for speed, performance, endurance, success, and driving pleasure – Porsche simply embodies it all.”
His first top podium step took place in 2015, the Fuji round of the FIA World Endurance Championship. He’d already won a second place in the 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance classic.
Throughout his racing career, Dempsey has scored nine podiums, two of which were high profile races (Rolex 24, Sebring 12 Hours and Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta).
But he experienced his first big victory as a team owner, not a driver. He founded Dempsey-Proton Racing (along with Joe Foster, his former Panoz instructor) a company made of motorsport enthusiasts and professionals. According to the website, the organization was created with the intent to nurture new talent alongside esteemed racing legends, to the top echelons of the sport. The team pulled off a Le Mans win in June, 2018.
At the time of the Le Mans win, Dempsey had already put his driving career in hiatus. In 2016, he announced he would stop racing in order to focus on his family and acting career. “I’m grateful for my success in Hollywood, but I feel more at home in the paddock of the Rolex Grand-Am series than I do on a movie set. It took some time to earn respect, but now I’m comfortable that I belong here. On the track I’m a racer, nothing more and nothing less.”
Dempsey has recently merged his love of racing with his movie career. He bought the rights to the book The Art of Racing in the Rain, the true story of race car driver Denny Swift. He was originally slated to star in the film, but is now listed as Producer. The movie boasts some big Hollywood names, Milo Ventimiglia, Amanda Seyfried and Kevin Costner. It’s expected to be released September, 2019.
Go behind the scenes of the film and hear about Dempsey’s efforts to keep the racing real: