Dempsey driven to earn his place on racing's A-list
Saturday, Jul. 23, 2011
MILLVILLE, N.J. Most co-stars of a blockbuster movie rocketing toward a worldwide gross of $800 million would rather audition for a Lifetime movie than pull on the hood of their fire suit and go racing on an asphalt track where the temperature reads a scorching 133 degrees.
His day's worth of stubble, wavy hair, and blue eyes that make women swoon are hidden in the cockpit. Patrick Dempsey is ready to ride, just another driver fighting the heat at New Jersey Motorsports Park, another driver wanting to earn a podium finish in Sunday's race.
There's just one exception:
"You don't see a lot of A-list movie stars walking around," said Dempsey Racing teammate James Gue.
In most racing series, like NASCAR, the closest a celebrity comes to the track is to give the command for drivers to start their engines. Dempsey, a star in "Transformers: Dark of the Moon," proved long ago his love affair with sports-car racing was more than just some frivolous dalliance for a restless, rich actor. It's his passion maybe felt more deeply than acting.
Dempsey is the most famous face behind the wheel in the Rolex Grand-Am Series American Red Cross 250, even if he's not the most successful one. But he's getting there.
For the first time, he's carved enough space in his schedule to compete in all but one Grand-Am event this season. He led laps in the No. 40 in the prestigious Rolex 24 at Daytona and nabbed his first career podium finish. Dempsey was in tears over his third-place result, validation that all his time and money had earned him the success and respect in the garage that every competitor craves.
"It was definitely the highlight of my career so far, that and racing at Le Mans," Dempsey said. "It's so hard to get on the podium for this series."
Even better, Dempsey and each of his teammates led laps.
"You can't deny it, either you're No. 1 or you're not," he said, smiling at the recollection.
Dempsey has been at the top of his game in his day job as a prime-time star of ABC's "Grey's Anatomy," since 2005. He took a break from Dr. Derek Shepherd and the start of filming season eight to catch a midnight flight, land at 7:45 a.m. Friday and hit the track at 9:20 a.m for practice.
Three hours later, he's stretched out in the back of his transporter, escaping an energy-sapping heat that has the public address announcer directing fans to public showers (yes, really).
"I'm getting used to it now," Dempsey said. "I've been training so, hopefully, I'm in good shape."
Finding time to dedicate to every race has been Dempsey's biggest obstacle.
He formed Dempsey Racing in 2002 and had his first competitive driving experience in 2004. He made his debut in the GT series in 2007, and ever since has tried to balance the commitment of racing weekends with an active acting career that included movie roles in "Made of Honor," and "Enchanted."
Dempsey believes he's become more proficient at both crafts because of their similar traits.
"You test yourself physically, emotionally and psychologically, too," Dempsey said. "One helps the other. A lot of the stuff that helped get the job for 'Transformers' was because I was racing. I'm starting to gain credibility in both worlds."
Dempsey plays a villain in "Transformers," for the first time in a leading role.
"No one perceives me as the bad guy. They see me as the 'McDreamy' guy," Dempsey said. "I'm not that kind of guy in real life.
"It's fun to have an opportunity. It's like driving a different type of car for a different seers. You want to stretch a little bit."
The lone race Dempsey skipped was because he was promoting "Transformers" in Moscow.
Dempsey teams with Joe Foster in the No. 40. Gue and Dane Cameron share the No. 41, the second Mazda RX-8 Dempsey Racing entry. It's a timed race that starts at 1 p.m. and ends at 3:45 p.m. Sunday. At least one driver change is required on the 2.25-mile track and the winning cars are expected to complete about 260 miles. It will be televised on Speed.
Dempsey qualified 13th on Saturday.
Gue and Leh Keen drove the No. 41 to victory last year at Watkins Glen International for Dempsey Racing's first career victory.
Gue believes Dempsey will celebrate a win one day.
"At the end of the day, he's a racer and so am I," he said. "He's certainly very good as a driver. That's not even taking into consideration how little time his schedule allows him."
Dempsey's teams are racing for more than trophies. The prize money of the No. 41 is donated to charity.
Dempsey has the No. 41 racing in support of Team Seattle, which is one of the largest fundraising guilds affiliated with Seattle Children's Hospital, and the Patrick Dempsey Center for Cancer Hope & Healing in his hometown of Lewiston, Maine.
Dempsey called it the most rewarding part of his visibility in racing.
Except for a couple of photographers hovering around his car and some fans peering from behind a fence, Dempsey blended in on pit row with the rest of the field. If McDreamy gets the girls to a race, "Transformers" gets the men.
"What's fascinating is, it used to be just women showing up to the track,' Dempsey said."Now, it's a nice combination of men and women. The guys come now with the girlfriends who didn't like racing before."
He'd like to pattern his racing career after Oscar winner Paul Newman, who was part of the 1995 Rolex winning team at the age of 70. When they met, they did what two guys who love fast cars would do: talk racing.
"Nothing to do about Hollywood," Dempsey said. "And he was complaining about his allergies. It was pretty funny."
Dempsey has no plans of scaling back his acting or racing careers. He caused a bit of a stir when he said he was finished with "Grey's Anatomy" after this year, before backing off. Show creator Shonda Rhimes said the show will go on beyond this season.
"It's the first time anyone said that," Dempsey said. "I think it's a question of what ABC wants to do and what kind of deal will be in place that makes it worth staying. It's up to the fans, too. Are they liking they stories and still connecting with the characters."
No matter the future of his character, Dempsey says, "I want to go racing."