Actor Patrick Dempsey lives fast-paced life off camera

For a guy whose first car was a Mercedes 240 diesel, who prefers alternative bands like the Arctic Monkeys in his CD changer and grew up a ski racer in Maine, it’s probably a bit fitting to see where Patrick Dempsey sits today.

He’s a famous TV actor. He has been in hit movies such as “Sweet Home Alabama” (2002), “Made of Honor” (2008) and “Valentine’s Day” (2010). Oh, and he has been spending time on pit road as a race driver and the co-owner of Vision Racing in the open-wheel Indy Racing League. And that only happened because IRL founder Tony George happened to ask Dempsey if he was interested in coming on board.

Just another day at the office?

“I feel like a kid in the candy store,” Dempsey said during an IRL conference call before the beginning of the 2006 season when he joined Vision.

And why not?

As Dr. Derek Shepherd on ABC’s medical drama “Grey’s Anatomy,” Dempsey has become a recognizable name again around the Hollywood Hills.

Now he’s becoming just as well known in places such as Homestead, Fla., and Indianapolis. And not just for TV and movie work.

Dempsey has always been passionate about cars. Or at least speed.

Born in Lewiston, Maine, in 1966, Dempsey grew up an alpine ski racer where he won the Maine state championship in slalom.

His father taught him about cars, taking him to the Indy 500 as a boy and introducing him to other racing circuits such as NASCAR and Formula One.

He was always an interesting kid who craved attention. As a teenager, he placed third in his age group at the National Jugglers Convention. He actually wanted to attend Clown College as a kid.

After graduating from Buckfield (Maine) High School, Dempsey headed for California, earning his first part in the 1985 film “Heaven Help Us.”

He even bought a classic “James Dean” 1959 356 Porsche from the rewards of one of his first acting jobs.

Two years later, he was married at 21 to a woman who was 48. He even had a stepson who was a year older than he was.

After roles in “Meatballs III” and “Can’t Buy Me Love,” Dempsey went into a decade-long drought in Hollywood. Ironically, it was only then that his racing career began to gain momentum.

“I wasn’t intentionally staying away (from acting roles), I wasn’t getting hired,” Dempsey said.

He also divorced in 1994 and then remarried in 1999 and began a family.

In his down time, Dempsey attended the Skip Barber and Panoz racing schools and eventually worked his way into more track time. By 2004, with his film career back in order, he began driving in several amateur racing series.

But his involvement blossomed during a trip to the Indy 500 as a “celebrity guest” of IRL founder Tony George.

While at the May 2004 race, George casually asked Dempsey if he was interested in joining George’s new Vision Racing team.

A year later, following another meeting with the Georges in May 2005, Dempsey expressed a keen interest for the team and diligently followed IndyCar competition throughout the 2005 season. Over the winter, Dempsey agreed, pledging money and support in exchange for some free pit passes to watch drivers Ed Carpenter and Tomas Scheckter race.

“I think my role will continue to expand as the team expands,” Dempsey said. “It’s certainly much more enjoyable to go to the track when you have a vested interest in the team.”

Vision suspended operations early in 2010, but between his TV show, movies and his own racing in the Grand-Am road-racing series (where Porsches and Corvettes run) he’s more than a little busy.

“The most difficult time is getting there (to the track). I have more stress trying to get to everything on time. I cannot miss the Indianapolis 500,” he said. “I like getting away from Hollywood and being around the racers and the racing community.”

And what of the chances of Dempsey getting into an open-wheel race car at some point?

“I have no business getting on the oval track,” he said. “It’s so dangerous. If I was 20 years younger, I might try it.”

Jason Stein is a feature writer with Wheelbase Media. He can be reached on the Web at www.wheelbase.ws/media by using the contact link. Wheelbase supplies automotive news and features to newspapers across North America.

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