After ten years of trying, Patrick Dempsey reached the top step of the podium for the first time on Sunday, realizing his dream in what’s been a long and challenging road in his racing career.
The Hollywood actor/racer teamed with Patrick Long and Marco Seefried for the GTE-Am class victory in the Six Hours of Fuji, in the most challenging, mixed-condition race of the FIA World Endurance Championship season.
Dempsey, who drove a solid stint early in the treacherous conditions, had the pressure of getting back into the class-leading Porsche 911 RSR for the run to the checkered flag to fulfill his minimum drive time.
While the car’s one-lap lead, largely built up by an impressive double-stint from Silver-rated Seefried, gave him a cushion, the final 20 minutes felt like the longest of his life, as the gap dwindled away, eventually to a 17-second margin at the checkered flag.
“I just remembered to breathe and focus on one step at a time,” Dempsey told Sportscar365. “I kept visualizing the driver change and making sure I got my belts on properly and was comfortable getting out of the pits.
“I saw a lot of drivers spin in the first corner and I just wanted to get my first lap under my belt and just get a rhythm and not push too hard.
“We had a cushion so I didn’t want to be too aggressive but I wanted to be aggressive enough to keep my head in it.
“But I had a lot of time to think, way too much time to think. It’s much easier when you’re out there and you can finally get going.”
It marked Dempsey’s first win as a driver, dating back to the start of his racing career in 2004 in the Panoz Racing Series, where he first cut his teeth on the sport.
While having worked his way through the GRAND-AM and IMSA ranks in the decade since, some of 49-year-old’s biggest strides have come this season in the WEC, particularly working with Long.
The Porsche factory driver established a comprehensive training program away from WEC weekends, which has seen Dempsey get experience in everything from go-karts to off-road buggies, and most importantly, maintain a competitive edge.
Long credits a new approach taken last weekend, in Dempsey’s first trip to Fuji Speedway, as one of the keys to their success in Japan.
“It was the first time we were in contact [on the radio], multiple times per lap, for the whole stint, and it seemed to help,” Long told Sportscar365. “I think we’re onto something with his stints.
“It makes for a little bit of a mental-fatiguing day because not only my stints in the car but on the radio with him.
“But a big thanks to the team for giving us the trust to have the radio waves in the full American style spotting. That was a big part of it.”
While the race, which started under the safety car, shook up their strategy, Long was impressed with Dempsey’s reaction to the pressure of taking the car to the checkered flag.
“It was certainly more treacherous and easier to have a mistake and there were more desperate moves from the other classes with a single dry line at the end,” he said.
“He still had [20 minutes] to bring it home in the end. We saw at Le Mans that’s not always an easy thing to do in this category.
“There was a lot of pressure, a lot of focus and a great way for him to graduate to another step in his career as a driver.”
The win, Porsche’s first in the GTE-Am class in more than two years, came on the heels of a podium finish for the trio at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, as well as a pole for Long and Dempsey last month at Circuit of The Americas.
“We’ve come very close and have been incredibly competitive all year,” Dempsey said. “We just had things [not go our way].
“I thought we were going to be really close to the podium finish in Germany and lost out on some stuff and I wasn’t strong in Texas in my final stint, which I was really upset about.
“Since then I did a lot more training and mental conditioning to get ready for this race and it paid off.
“It’s a tough series and very competitive. But I have to thank Patrick, whose been coaching me all season and throwing me in different situations and seeing how I could adapt, and today coaching.
“Marco, chemistry-wise with the team, is really a great fit and he’s always driving very solidly and consistently but today was really exceptional.”
“It means a lot to me to be here and to be with this group on the [top step] of the podium. It’s sometimes hard to put into words.
“It’s been so long to try and get to this place. To finally realize it… I’m going to try and enjoy it as much as possible and get ready for the next race.”