Making tracks: a chat with Patrick Dempsey

By Adam Hay-Nicholls | 25 Apr 2022 | Sport, Speed

The Hollywood actor and racing fanatic talks to Tempus about his on-track highlights and dream film projects, as he takes on Porsche’s ice driving challenge with TAG Heue

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Patrick Dempsey has swapped hospital scrubs and Hollywood film sets for sub-zero racing gear and the Finnish wilderness. Tempus is deep in the Arctic Circle with the actor best known as ‘Dr McDreamy’ from Grey’s Anatomy; we’ve come to Levi, 700-miles north of Helsinki, where Porsche has built a driving facility atop a large frozen lake, with intricate handling tracks groomed onto the 1.3m-thick ice.

Dempsey skilfully slides into view across the snow-covered badlands, his black Porsche 911 Turbo S creating a blizzard in its wake. The 56-year-old has been racing for the past 18 years, during which time he has competed at the 24 Hours of Le Mans four times, finishing second in the GTE Am class on his most recent attempt in 2015. He and his team – Dempsey Racing – also won the Six Hours of Fuji, in Japan, the same year.

The majority of his on-track success has come at the wheel of a Porsche, while his personal car collection, which is mostly stored at his home in the snowy US state of Maine (which may explain his natural talent on the ice), could rival that of noted Porsche fan Jerry Seinfeld. His cars include the marque’s 1963 911 (one of the very earliest examples), a 356, the 911T, an R safari car, and an ‘outlaw car’ he’s working on with an ’82 chassis and a 3.6-ltr engine. At the brand-new end of the scale, he has a 992 Targa and all-electric Taycan.

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Anything he’s missing? “I’d like a 906 or a 907,” he offers, citing two of the marque’s rarest and most prized sports racers from the 1960s. The other brand he’s loyal to is watchmaker TAG Heuer – and so it’s no wonder he was thrilled at the announcement of a partnership between the Swiss watch company and German automobile-maker, announced last year. “I’ve been rooting for this for years,” says Dempsey, who’s long held a professional relationship with both brands. “It’s a personal connection and a perfect alignment”.

TAG Heuer and Porsche reps we spoke to talk of this long-term partnership in terms of decades to come – it’s a formalisation of an unofficial association that goes right back to 1971, when Steve McQueen also swapped La La Land for Circuit de la Sarthe. Unlike Dempsey, the iconic actor never actually raced at Le Mans – he intended to partner with F1 driver Jackie Stewart, but couldn’t get insured – yet he did make the movie Le Mans, in which he drove a grey 911S, raced a Gulf-livered 917K, and wore a TAG Heuer Monaco.

The most feted Hollywood racer was Paul Newman, who won his class and came second overall at Le Mans in 1979 in a Porsche 935. Like Dempsey, Ol’ Blue Eyes went on to establish his own racing teams. Are McQueen and Newman his heroes? “They’re everybody’s heroes,” Dempsey says. “They were so cool, and they represented a particular era which doesn’t exist today. You can take inspiration, but you need to be your own person.”

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Are there any other drivers in Tinseltown that he rates? “Michael Fassbender’s on a programme with Porsche and I’ve been working with him. He’s got a series on YouTube, Road to Le Mans, and he’ll be competing at the 24 Hours this summer – and, let me tell you, getting the insurance if you’re doing a film is not easy. I introduced him to Porsche because they’re incredibly good at developing drivers.

“Michael’s quick,” Dempsey adds of his fellow actor. “He was on the podium at his last race. He’s got enough natural ability – and he speaks German, which helps. He’s got good chemistry with the team. If we can keep him going, he will be very successful. I know he’s doing a film with [David] Fincher right now, and then we’ll start getting him back in the car, because seat time is crucial.”

Dempsey didn’t take up racing until he was 38, just before he landed his role in Grey’s Anatomy in 2005, but his fascination with cars can be traced back to childhood. “Matchbox cars, stuff like that. And my dad loved racing. We always watched the Monaco Grand Prix and the Indy 500. Unfortunately, he passed away before I could start racing.

“I’d love to know what he would think of this. He didn’t think much of the acting. He preferred speed and racing. And my mother hated the show; she hated anything medical. She loved to come to the racetrack,” he says. “I can’t believe the opportunities that I’ve had, I get very emotional about it.”

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It started with a three-day course at a racing school which Patrick’s wife of 23 years, Jillian, bought him as a present. Then he met race car constructor Don Panoz at a charity event in Atlanta and, with his help, started on the path to becoming a semi-pro endurance driver. Fame didn’t hurt his progress.

“Everything was on the same ascendancy,” he says. “I started racing around the time the show broke. I was able to parlay the visibility of the show into sponsorship. I mean, I made the mistake of buying a team and really understood how to waste some money, but I don’t regret it at all.”

Citing Le Mans 2015 as his greatest experience, he speaks of the “transcendence” he feels at the wheel of a racing car “where everything just fits. It’s like when you’re [here] on the ice and you get the power down and you feel it in the seat of your pants, there’s nothing better. You have the right rhythm, and your mind just stops thinking and you’re present. It’s so cleansing, mentally. It’s very zen, the sense of being on the limit but in control.”

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But his aspect changed after the Six Hours of Fuji. “Winning in Japan was huge. And then something shifted. I was shooting a film in London at the time [Bridget Jones’ Baby], and something snapped... like, I’m done at this level. It’s time to go home. It was taking a toll on my family. It’s been tricky”.

He says he plans to race again but has resolved not to do so until his twin boys have graduated high school. “I’ll keep my foot in the door. I truly love the camaraderie. I feel most alive when I’m on the track. When I’m not there, there’s a numbness to life.”

Grey’s Anatomy came to an end for Dr Derek ‘McDreamy’ Shepherd the same year Dempsey took his Le Mans podium – although he returned for a cameo in 2020. Ironically, the character had been killed in a Porsche Cayenne.

“With the schedule, it became too much. I thought, I need to get out of here. There was no growth for me. With a show like that, you’re at the mercy of what the show wants to do. I wanted to be more in control of things, and there’s nothing like the control you get behind the wheel.”

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Dempsey describes John Frankenheimer’s 1966 film Grand Prix as the best racing movie he’s seen – before adding that he would’ve liked to have been in Ford v Ferrari. “I was so jealous of [Matt Damon and Christian Bale]. It was very hard,” he says.

In fact, Dempsey used to live next door to Damon’s character – legendary race car builder Carroll Shelby, who died ten years ago. “He’d invite me up and cook chilli or blueberry pie. He hated Le Mans – hated it! It was awful for him. And we’d talk about the racing programme I was doing. It was really special to have that time with him.”

As for tales from the track that have yet to be told, Dempsey has a few suggestions.

“I’d love to see the Wolfgang von Trips story told. I think there’s something in that,” he says, speaking of the driver who was leading the 1961 F1 championship until being thrown from his Ferrari and killed, along with 15 spectators, during the Monza Grand prix.

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“’55 would be a good year to do,” he adds of the year when a huge crash at Le Mans 24 Hours caused the death of 83 spectators as well as French driver Pierre Levegh. The incident led to Mercedes-Benz withdrawing from motorsport for 30 years.

Finally, he says: “Denise McCluggage; female racer [and American motoring journalist], really an exceptional woman. I would like to tell that story.”

Patrick’s not just here in Finland to have fun in the 911 Turbo S, yellow Cayman GT4s and give us a course in ice driving. He’s here to launch the new TAG-Heuer Carrera x Porsche limited- edition; a sporty black chronograph with yellow details that looks particularly on point when wrestling a wheel bearing the Stuttgart crest. Its textile-textured black calfskin strap with yellow stitching is inspired by the seat upholstery of Porsche’s high-performance models. Limited to 1,500 numbered units, it is priced at £5,850.

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“TAG-Heuer is very similar to Porsche in that it’s an iconic brand that keeps evolving, but it hasn’t lost its heritage,” reflects Dempsey. “The DNA is very much alive and present in this watch – just like the 911, they haven’t gone too far off ”.

Unsurprisingly, the thespian petrolhead owns more than a few timepieces. “My [TAG-Heuer] Monaco means the most to me, because that’s the one I had on when I was on the podium [at Le Mans]. That’ll always be special when I look at it. And this Porsche one,” he says, lifting the chronograph, “will remind me of this ice experience, where we are now. Each watch I own is a moment in time that is captured.”