The place where Patrick Dempsey goes to be Patrick Dempsey is far away from the "Grey's Anatomy" soundstage and nowhere near the publicity-junket hotel suites where he's required to hawk the so-so chick-flick "Made of Honor." In fact, it's across the country from the house in Bel Air where his wife and three little kids are blithely enjoying their weekend.
On this particular weekend in March, Dempsey finds himself in the sun-streaked flats between Miami and the Keys at Homestead Miami Speedway, among fellow travelers who have ascended to gearhead heaven. As the weekend of racing begins, pit crews disembowel and relubricate engine blocks.
Over the high-decibel rush of firing pistons and tires on asphalt, Dempsey tries to explain why he's learned to drive among the horsepower hopefuls in his Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series league. "It's really about relaxation, but it's about being aggressive too!" he yells before strapping himself into car No. 40 — his six-speed, three-rotor engine Mazda RX-8 — and peeling into the path of Porsches, Pontiacs and Daytona prototypes. A lone F-16 pilot from the nearby Air Force base surveys the action in silent loops. Watching the 42-year-old embody a boy's dream of having his Hot Wheels setup turn into actual-size reality, one thing becomes clear: Patrick Dempsey is a man trapped inside a woman's soap opera.
In these practice laps, he alternates driving duty with Joe Foster, a Georgia-based father of two who's the team's lead driver and motormouth engineer. When Dempsey drives, Foster pipes instructions — as well as here-comes-trouble reports from another driver stationed atop the grandstand — into his earpiece. The course is serpentine, with hairpin turns that slow cars down to 50 mph and straightaways allowing sprints of 170. "Big guy's commin' ay-out," drawls one of the pit-crew dudes as Dempsey pulls up to the team canopy. Practice round completed, he climbs out of the driver's seat, distributes back pats, and asks for his times. A Toughbook on a folding table shows him to be in the lower middle of the pack, with each of his 13 laps clocking in at just under 90 seconds. Vaguely satisfied, he busts out of the pit for a golf-cart journey through the crowd mingling among the mechanics' stations.
Getting up to speed
Dempsey asks Foster for specifics and they replay footage shot inside the car. The temperature routinely climbs to 150 degrees in the driver's seat, and as Dempsey strips off his quilted race suit — it contains built-in tubing through which ice water flows — Foster talks telemetry and tire pressure. Then the two discuss adjustments to a hard foam pad, which keeps a driver from sliding down during the g-turns. Dempsey needs his footwork on the clutch and brake and accelerator to become instinctual and effortless so he can focus on the track and the other drivers.
There are metrics that show how firmly he braked through a turn and whether his downshifting was smooth and where the traction got skiddy. Dempsey savors every nuance. The differences between his and Foster's performances are only a second or two, but the kid from Maine who wanted to be an Olympic slalom skier knows that fractions of seconds separate champions from also-rans. "I need to improve my braking into six," he says, talking about a dogleg bend where it's easy to tear up the shoulder turf. "I need to go deeper there. That's where I had a lockup on the front right. That's where everybody's catching up."
It's taking him a while to literally get up to speed. This is only his third race in the Mazda, and in the three years he and Foster have been in business — and this is more enterprise than hobby — he's worked hard to earn the respect of teammates and competitors alike. Foster is clearly grateful for the attention that follows his partner: Dempsey's involvement makes it far easier to attract sponsors like Serengeti eyeglasses, Specialized bikes and Jean Richard watches (though the logo of the last, emblazoned on Dempsey's helmet, unfortunately calls to mind the Ricky Bobby nemesis Jean Girard). Foster is especially pleased that Dempsey wants hard feedback, not room to sulk or sessions of ego repair. "It's like a director giving you a note after each take," Dempsey says. "I love an adjustment. It gives me something to focus on."
Dempsey is a competitive guy. He was raised that way. His dad was a Maryland jockey who retired young and moved to south-central Maine, where he ran a bar (and purportedly ran moonshine, though his son doesn't know if that's exactly true). William Dempsey took his son (there are two older daughters) to stock-car races from an early age, and though it was ski racing that really grabbed Patrick's attention — he was the Maine state slalom champion in junior high — dad also dutifully supported his son when he tried to win an international juggling championship. (Dempsey was a runner-up, behind a man who, he's quick to point out, is now the Tiger Woods of juggling). An obvious performer, Patrick bolted for Manhattan and a stage-acting career when he was only 17. His father died a year later.
What Dempsey found upon lighting out for New York and, later, Los Angeles, was both success and slump. The highlight was a star turn in the '80s guilty pleasure "Can't Buy Me Love"; the lowlight, six years later, a long string of failed auditions. He had gone from zero to 60 to zero, a slow-motion crash-and-burn overseen by Rochelle "Rocky" Parker, a woman 27 years Dempsey's senior whom he married in 1987. He's not eager to discuss his escape from that mismatch except to remark on its protective aspects. "That relationship was so outside any normal relationship, but what I got out of it was a lot of life skills," he says. "It was like a finishing school for this business. It's given me the tools and resources and experience that have prepared me for having a family," he says with a case-closed nod.
Dempsey emerged from that divorce with little more than the '63 Porsche 356 he bought with his first big paycheck. Slowly he turned around his career: partly by taking greater risks but partly by finding the security of a new wife, Jillian Fink, an accomplished — and, needless to say, gorgeous — makeup artist. Oh, and as for cars, he's added a '69 280 SE Mercedes, a '74 Jaguar E-Type, a '54 Jaguar XK120 SE, a Panoz Esperante GTLM that won Le Mans, and a Porsche GT3 RS, along with a vintage Range Rover in Maine and a Cadillac for the family. He still dreams of a Gullwing Mercedes and a Hinckley lobster boat, but seems a little maxed-out on stuff just now. He collects watches, though he won't wear a Rolex until he wins one on the track. He has overcome dyslexia, submits himself to punishing workouts and takes a Yankee pride in earning things.
Dempsey is also proud of the equestrian skills his father passed on to him, and of those of his 6-year-old daughter, Talula, whom he's been squiring to riding lessons. Recently, though, Talula fell during a jump, and later threw a tantrum while playing a game of cards. Her dad sat her down for a little talk about sportsmanship, which required some dictionary help, which in turn led to the word grace. Dempsey has learned a bit about that himself. There have been heated moments on movie sets and on the soundstages of "Grey's Anatomy," and while making "Made of Honor" in Scotland there was a problem with a horse. The scene began with the clapper boy doing his thing too close to the horse's muzzle; seconds later Dempsey was on his back, a hoof on top of his leg, with someone else's stupidity to blame. Dempsey was already simmering that his movie contract wouldn't allow him to race cars — too dangerous — but he remembered something else he'd told Talula: "Always get back on the horse if you fall off." Which, in front of the whole crew, he did, with a wince and a wan smile.
From physician to phenomenon
As for the TV drama, Dempsey admits to a certain on-set tension and need for modulation. "Sometimes you're in an emotional place and you can be short with people," he says. "But as soon as you go outside the building, you have to let it go." There are adjustments he still wants to make, both in the show itself — to which he's committed at least through the '08 to '09 season to the tune of a reported $225,000 an episode — and in his much-dreamt-about character, Derek Shepherd. Again, Dempsey is in the hands of a powerful shot-calling woman, series creator and executive producer Shonda Rhimes, who has turned McDreamy from a physician to a phenomenon. "Dr. Shepherd is the embodiment of a man that women wish existed," she says. "During the show, women turn to their husbands and say: 'Why don't you talk to me like that? Why don't you look at me like that?'"
During the third season, Dempsey was caught in the middle of a homophobic outburst co-star Isaiah Washington directed at T.R. Knight, another actor on the series. It's a scab the actor refuses to pick, though the scar is obvious. "I think we lost season three completely," he says. "It took everybody a long time to get back. A lot of stuff came up. It was the end of the innocence." The set is clearly more comfortable now, and Dempsey appears to be spoiling for new challenges. He thinks they can all do better, especially him. In particular, he'd like more men to watch the show, and singles out a particular episode from last year as a reason they're not.
Dempsey's character was talking about fly-fishing, yet when they filmed the scene the men were spin casting from the shore. "A lot of guys called me about it," he says. "I thought it was like a mortal sin, and I said: 'Men have got to connect with the character. When you didn't do that, you killed the character. This is action; it says so much about the man.'"
Rhimes, of course, is happy that her star is game for trying harder, which is why she indulges the breaks for car racing. "It's like working with a doctor and knowing they're exhausted and sending them home for 36 hours of sleep," she says. "Patrick comes back ready to attack the material in a new way. Maybe it's spending all that time with all those guys and all that gasoline. He comes back happy."
While he's obviously deferential to the racing legends on the track — today they include Danica Patrick, A. J. Foyt IV, and Hélio Castroneves — Dempsey clearly yearns for his own time in the winner's circle. But he's also working hard on practical goals: He wants the team to make money and to maintain stability and longevity. "I'm a beginner," he says, with a mix of pride and anxiety. "And I cannot forget that; I can't pretend to be anything else."
He climbs back into the team car with his head full of notes from Foster, who guides him around turns with radioed commands about when to brake hard and when to turn harder and tells him who's coming up hard on the outside. It's a pretty good run, and after 70 minutes the crew is readying fresh tires when, with one lap to go before the switchoff with Foster, Dempsey spins out. He's in the infield grass having trouble with the reverse gear, and the other cars are lapping him — once, now twice. Finally he gets it going; the substitution happens, though the crew is oddly quiet when he emerges from the crowd — always a bad sign, as he said earlier. Red-faced and sweating, he pulls off his helmet, cocks an eyebrow, and forms a crooked smile. Five paparazzi have arrived to record all this, and Dempsey turns to me, explains his mistake, and says, "Now I know. I won't do that again."