TV star Patrick Dempsey 'at home' on track
January 25, 2014, Holly Cain, NASCAR.com
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The largest crowd of the morning lined up four-deep outside an auxiliary garage inside Daytona International Speedway, enthralled to watch what is typically a rudimentary and largely ignored preparation for the Rolex 24 at Daytona: driver change practice.
But this wasn't just any driver change practice. This one involved actor Patrick Dempsey, 48, star of the popular long-running ABC television drama "Grey's Anatomy," who recently signed a two-year deal to stay on the show and this weekend resumes his favorite real-life roles as racer and team owner when the green flag drops Saturday (FOX at 2:10 p.m. ET) in the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship's inaugural event.
Politely focused -- even with pleas from the crowd for him to take off his helmet and smile for a photo -- Dempsey went through the drill with his three co-drivers in the No. 27 Dempsey Racing Porsche 911 GT America.
This is serious business for Dempsey. His wallet and heart are heavily invested.
"We've been working almost 10 years to build this program," Dempsey said Friday relaxing in his transporter during a break from practice. "I think initially people were like, 'oh this is kind of interesting to see an actor come in from Hollywood, but how long will it last? How serious is he and can he sustain it?'
"That's what we're trying to prove. We had a very clear plan on how we wanted to develop and achieve and what the right pace to do it would be. It's incredibly tough. ... But we're steadily getting to where we want to be.
"We have a lot of work to do. We haven't won a race yet. We've been on the podium a couple times and had some great runs at Sebring and at Le Mans."
A historian of racing, Dempsey appreciates historic venues such as Sebring (the next race in the TUDOR series schedule) and Le Mans, which he featured in a well-received documentary series "Racing Le Mans" which aired on the Discovery Channel.
He is also, naturally, historically enamored with Daytona's famed high banks and its roots in NASCAR.
"When you go down to the beach, you think back and wonder what it must have been like running around on the beach," he said smiling, "just insane.
"And the evolution of how this (speedway) came about and the evolution of how it is today. That's what's great about racing and all the different places you go."
In fact, Dempsey has a particularly good relationship with Daytona. He led 28 laps and earned his first podium finish -- third place -- in the 2011 Rolex 24. It prompted an emotional Dempsey to tease reporters during the post-race interviews, "I'm retiring from 'Grey's Anatomy' as of today. I'll be racing full time from here on in. There's a headline for you."
As he continued to explain -- tears in his eyes -- what the accomplishment meant, his co-driver and longtime racing business partner Joe Foster patted him on the back and said, "He's got a true passion for the sport. He's not one of those jackasses that just comes in here to race because it's cool."
Andrew Davis, 36, who will co-drive with Dempsey during a full season of TUDOR GTD class competition this year, agrees with Foster. A 2011 GRAND-AM Series GT champion, he was a racing instructor when Dempsey participated in the renowned Panoz Driving School in the mid 2000s. They have competed against and alongside one another for years.
"I've been able to watch Patrick through the very beginnings of his career," said Davis. "Him having his other life in Hollywood and what he does as a profession, people could look at this as a hobby for him. But he has put so much time and effort into this. I'm very impressed with his skill level and his effort is unquestionable. He really is a professional driver."
For Dempsey, that's the highest praise he can receive. Like another famous actor who stood on Daytona's Rolex 24 winner's podium, Paul Newman, Dempsey cherishes the time out of the Hollywood spotlight. At the race track he is just "another driver” in the paddock.
A great bonus is that any special attention he receives race weekend can be -- and is -- directed to raising awareness and funds for his Dempsey Center for Cancer Hope and Healing. He even has a special Rolex 24 "Dempsey” ticket package that includes a 15-minute question and answer with his team before the race.
"As soon as I come to the track, I immediately relax, I feel more at home here than anywhere," Dempsey said. "The other drivers, the fellowship and there's a twinkle in everybody's eye when we're out here because we all know we're lucky to have a chance to do this.
"There is a sense of camaraderie I really enjoy, and your results are proven on the track. You're either fast or you're slow, and you can't hide from that.
"In Hollywood, it's kind of an abstract notion of what success is. It depends on so many things. It's similar in ways to racing. ... a script is like a car. How competitive is that car? How well-written is that script? I find there's a lot of parallels, and I like to be able to do both. It's nice to be able to come back and forth.
"Of course," he added with a big smile. "If I could focus 100 percent on racing, I'd do that in a heartbeat."