Interview: Patrick Dempsey
Actor, racing driver and now team boss: the owner of Dempsey Proton Racing talks to Total 911 about his Porsche passion
Known for his on-screen antics, Patrick Dempsey shares the highs and lows of running a Le Mans-winning Porsche GT team
Patrick Dempsey is best known to his fans as neurosurgeon Derek ‘Mcdreamy’ Shepherd in medical drama Grey’s Anatomy. But car enthusiasts might associate him more readily with his passion for Porsche. That’s both as an avid hoarder of Stuttgart road cars and as a race driver and co-owner of the Dempsey Proton race team – a team formerly known as Proton Competition, which had raced 911s since the 1990s, but has teamed with Dempsey since 2015.
Dempsey is no multi-millionaire dilettante
– he’s stood on the podium at Le Mans in the GTE-AM class, and when Total 911 caught up with him at this year’s race at Circuit de la Sarthe, one of his team’s 911 RSRS took victory in GTE-AM. It topped off the perfect weekend for Porsche, which scored a one-two in the GTE-PRO category.
“To do this with 70 years of Porsche history just feels amazing… it’s like a Hollywood movie ending!” said Dempsey after the chequered flag. “I was blown away [by our drivers]; you expect a rookie to make a mistake, but they just didn’t. They pounded out laps that were as close to the pros, and in some cases a little faster. To have 15 years battling it out in this sport, trying to make a budget… what a great way to do it. I can’t tell you how incredibly proud I am for Porsche, too.”
Just over a day before that historic victory, we meet Dempsey in his team’s trailer behind the paddock. These days the 52 year old has quit Grey’s Anatomy and stepped back a little from racing after focusing fully on his co-owner responsibilities since 2016. But still he describes himself as consumed by racing; in fact, it was only three years ago that Dempsey put his acting career on ice to race in the World Endurance Championship [WEC]. “My acting career took a big hit in 2015 because I left the show to focus 100 per cent on racing,” remembers Dempsey. “I’m so grateful [to Grey’s Anatomy] because it gave me visibility around the world to go racing, but it was too challenging to work out a schedule and do both things – I knew I had to seize the moment. But now it feels completely natural to be more on the managerial side.”
You wouldn’t know that he’s behind the scenes this weekend and not the steering wheel by the enthusiasm with which he recounts qualifying: the #77 car (driven by Matt Campbell, Christian Ried and Julien Andlauer) qualified well with a time of 3:50.728 – 3.2 seconds off the 911 RSR GTE-PRO pole sitter, if still enough to clinch the GTE-AM pole. But the #88 car (Matteo Cairoli, Giorgio Roda, Khaled Al Qubaisi) was repeatedly frustrated, ending up with a 3:51.930 – good enough for third position. “We were strong, we were up. I think we would have both been on the front row but the yellow flag would come out right when the #77 car had a flyer. You could really feel everyone pushing. That level of competition, it
was a crazy qualifying session – it was good TV, but not so good for the people in the pits!”
Dempsey inherited his passion for racing from his father, who ran a ‘short-track’ stock-car team. ‘I remember getting a Matchbox model every Friday night off my dad, laying in the station wagon front seat listening to the Indy 500 on the radio in the 1970s with AJ Foyt racing, that whole generation, and watching probably a helicopter shot of one of the prototypes speeding down the Mulsanne Straight at Le Mans. It was before they put in the chicanes, it just went on and on so fast, and I thought ‘I want to do that!’ I never thought I’d get there, but as the years clipped it got closer, and then it became a reality – that was pretty remarkable.”
Dempsey regrets not racing until his 30s, but he started with a three-day course at the Panoz Racing School and by 2009 got on the grid at Le Mans in a Ferrari F430, finishing 30th overall and eighth in GT2 alongside Don Kitch Jr and Jo Foster. “I felt well prepared the first time I raced at Le Mans. I’d done the Daytona 24 Hours, Sebring, I was very used to dealing with traffic, but at times I probably did jump in the deep end and then figured out how to swim to the side of the pool!” he admits.
Dempsey kept up a dialogue with Porsche as his driving continued to improve, and in 2013 things stepped up a gear ahead of the planned WEC campaign. “I was like ‘I need to improve in order to be competitive here’. Everything changed dramatically after that – Porsche knows exactly how to look after its drivers, nurture them and analyse them, they’ve got that down, and I really like the methodical step-by-step approach. I’ve never spent so much time in a car as I did that year. Patrick Long was coaching me, and we were in everything: sprint cars, karts, off-roading, testing all the time, it was a lot of seat time.” Fitness, too, became a crucial focus ahead of the lengthy stints Dempsey had already endured. “There’s acting fit, which is a more superficial fitness, and there’s the [racing] reality. You need the cardio, the core strength – your shoulders, your neck – and you only really get that if you’re constantly pounding out the laps and training. I don’t think people understand just how physically demanding racing is: you have to deal with the high temperatures, the lower body, the upper body, it’s a real workout.” A podium at Le Mans was the ultimate goal. Fourth place in 2013 brought Dempsey and his co-drivers tantalisingly close to the champagne, and they returned to achieve the dream and clinch secondin-class in 2015. The greatest success, however, was reserved for Japan, where Dempsey, Long and Marco Seefried won in GTE-AM at the challenging Fuji Speedway. Dempsey reflects: “For me, that was it. It was like winning the championship!”
Achieving such success also triggered a turning point, and Dempsey reveals he probably won’t return to Le Mans, at least as a driver. “I thought to myself ‘how much faster can I get, what’s realistic here?’,” he remembers. “But I also wanted to stay in the sport and make an impact, so starting the team and developing young drivers felt very natural.
“Being a team owner is absolutely as satisfying as being a driver,” he continues. “One of our guys is Julien Andlauer. He’s 18, French and he was racing at Le Mans for the first time – that’s really something special to be able to give him that opportunity.” Later, Dempsey’s dollar will have helped put Andlauer on the top step of the GTEAM podium.
“With the right funding and opportunity you can still live the dream; that’s the beautiful thing about the GTE-AM category,” says Dempsey. “It is certainly expensive, not everyone can do it, but it is achievable, especially with the infrastructure that’s in place with the Porsche customer programme. That’s rare [at a high level] in sport.”
Talk naturally leads to Dempsey’s large collection of road cars – and something really quite agricultural. “My latest addition is a 1961 Porsche Junior tractor; it’s completely unrestored. It has a sickle and I use it to mow the fields. I own a 1972 911 T – it’s orange, which was the original communication colour – and a 1982 model year 911 SC that I worked on with Patrick Long. It’s now running a 3.6-litre engine conversion and I remember seeing the 1978 Turbo and having a thing for that, so it’s got the whaletail spoiler – it’s a real outlaw, a bit of a beast. I’m also fortunate
to own the latest 911 R – silver, no stripes, black rims – and to me that’s priceless because of what it represents.”
Dempsey’s links with Porsche mean he’s also cycling through the modern stuff too: his wife – Jillian Fink – daily drives a 911 Targa, while a Cayenne hybrid takes care of the practical stuff.
But it’s Porsche’s first car, the 356, that was Dempsey’s “first significant purchase”, and is likely to be his next. “I’ll never let my 1963 356 Cabriolet go. I’ve done some great trips in it, like Los Angeles to Laguna Seca, with the open top, cruising along, and right now I’m looking for a 356 Coupe from the early 1950s – the silhouette is so iconic, and it’s still relevant when you look at the contemporary cars – that DNA is still alive.”
Dempsey plans to enter rallies with the 356 Coupe he’s planning to buy next. “I won’t be racing at the same level as I once did, I want to leave that as a great memory, but I’ll still be doing it – some karting, some track days and race programmes in the future – because now I’m into it. I just need it for my soul.” Here’s betting ‘Mcdreamy’ will make that a reality…