In the world of sports car racing, the 24 Hours of Le Mans stands alone as the pinnacle event, a race that every driver hopes of one day winning, or at least being able to get to the podium.
For Patrick Dempsey, that dream started before the Hollywood actor even began his professional racing career.
“I remember the first moment when I realized this is what I really wanted to focus on,” Dempsey said in an exclusive interview with FOXSports.com.
“It was back at Petit [Le Mans] in 2006. I went to Le Mans the next year for the first time, just as a spectator, and walking down pit lane I went, ‘God, wouldn’t it be nice to come here and race and actually get on the podium?'”
Eight years later, Dempsey turned his dream into a reality, having achieved the highlight of his racing career last weekend by recording a second place class finish in the twice-around-the-clock French endurance classic.
The 49-year-old, who has gone through well-documented changes both professionally and personally this year, has shifted his focus towards racing full-time in the FIA World Endurance Championship, with the goal of achieving an elusive podium finish at Le Mans.
“We knew we had a job to do and that was our focus, to get on the podium,” Dempsey said. “We had that, from finishing last year to putting the program together this year, we really focused on the process of how we could put ourselves in the position to be in the fight.
“I think the real thing was the focus on the process and what we needed to do to get there and not worry about the result. With the support of Porsche and the entire team and working with Patrick Long over the course of the last year, what was it that we needed to do to achieve that goal and work to that end.”
While having made three previous starts at Le Mans, this year’s effort was different in terms of preparation, as Dempsey had the first two FIA WEC races get acclimated with his surroundings, although in less-than-ideal conditions.
He was thrown in at the deep end at Silverstone, flying directly from his last shoot on the set of “Grey’s Anatomy” to make it in time for Friday’s Free Practice 2, but never got up to speed on his first visit to the famed British circuit.
The second round of the season at Spa-Francorchamps was a slightly different story, with Dempsey and co-drivers Patrick Long and Marco Seefried taking their Proton Competition-run Porsche 911 RSR to a fifth place finish in the competitive GTE-Am class.
“I think the whole synergy and chemistry and support makes such a huge difference,” Dempsey said. “We had a real, clear methodical approach, with tremendous support from Porsche on how to work on the pace and improve.”
Dempsey worked with co-driver and mentor Long, Porsche’s only American factory driver, between races, fully dedicating himself to improving as a driver in various different disciplines.
“[Patrick Long’s] objective was to put me in as many different situations as possible to see how quickly I could adapt,” he said. “We did a rally school, sprint car, shifter karts… We did everything.
“And at different moments during the [Le Mans] race, I was able to see where those moments of testing and training paid off. There were moments where I could have thrown the car away but that’s what saved me.”
While Dempsey ran solid stints during the race, it was Long’s battle with the No. 62 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari F458 Italia of Townsend Bell for the final podium position that took the spotlight in the closing hours.
The late-race retirement of Paul Dalla Lana’s No. 98 Aston Martin Vantage V8, which had dominated GTE-Am, promoted the No. 77 Porsche to a surprise runner-up finish, which Dempsey credits as the highlight of his racing career.
“Without question,” he said. “To be successful at Le Mans is what the dream is all about. It’s the greatest endurance race in the world and to succeed there…
“People who don’t even care about racing have called me. That’s the thing that’s really remarkable. It’s been the goal for year.”
With Le Mans awarding double points, the Dempsey Proton Racing trio have moved up to third in the GTE-Am drivers’ championship heading into the next round at the Nurburgring in two month’s time.
“I think we have to work even harder now,” Dempsey said. “We have a big gap until we’re back in the car. We’re taking a little bit of a breath to just enjoy the moment and savoring it and we’re back at it as soon as we can.
“We have a testing program in place. It’s going to be tough. This is a very hard series. The [Aston Martin] is going to be tough to beat. I think right now the work is really beginning.”