Tonight at 10/9 Central Time on Velocity, the four-part documentary of "Grey's Anatomy" star Patrick Dempsey's long road to the 24 Hours of Le Mans begins. Marshall Pruett asks the actor and the documentary's producer about their goals with this venture.
There are no second-string drivers in motor racing. There's no chance to hide behind a teammate on the depth chart, or to use one's inexperience as an excuse for failing to measure up to the best in the sport. The stopwatch leaves rookie and late bloomers exposed to ridicule on every lap, and it can also wreak havoc upon fragile egos, which has made Patrick Dempsey's entry into the sport a fascinating journey to follow.
That year-long trek, filled with incredible highs and balanced by humbling lows for the actor/racer, has been serialized in a four-part documentary which debuts tonight, August 28, on Velocity and Discovery, chronicling the 47-year-old's efforts to build a career and team in sports car racing along with his ultimate goal of racing at the 24 Hours of Le Mans with his own team.
RACER sat down with Dempsey and Patrick Dempsey Racing Le Mans executive producer/creative director Jim Hancock for an exclusive Q&A to discuss the goals and choices made in creating the documentary, and like the finished product racing fans will see at home, candor was a central theme throughout the conversation.
Marshall Pruett: The documentary doesn't shy away from taking an in-depth route with sports car racing, which isn't what I anticipated. I figured it would be more of a personality-driven piece with racing as the backdrop, but it's more of a nuts-and-bolts look at what we do. Why go so far in that direction?
Patrick Dempsey: I hope it satisfies the racers and I hope it turns on the people to road racing that wouldn't have discovered it. The sports is amazing to follow as a fan, but it would be hard to bring someone into this sport without opening it all up and letting them see what really happens. This documentary would be a great way to introduce them to that world, and we decided from the beginning to stay away from adding any gloss to a sport that doesn't need any kind of artifice.
Jim Hancock: I'm fortunate to have spent some time with Paul Newman when he was wanting to make a documentary during the CART/IRL battle to create something to explain how special the sport was. And later in my relationship with Patrick, he had the same thing; that we have to tell people what's special and different about this sport of endurance racing. NASCAR started to define racing and there's a difference in road racing that people don't get to see as much.
When Patrick's career started to accelerate as a driver, we had a conversation with some creative ideas that said this would be a good story. We've been through a lot of challenges and hurdles over the past few years to get it done, but finally we got everything together to follow him last year and this year in telling his story as a racer, as a team owner, and with all that takes place there—the good and the bad.
MP: Pat, this is a warts-and-all documentary… While I appreciate your willingness to show all of the unflattering footage, I'm not sure I'd have let every frame make it through to the final cut.
PD: Yeah…it's hard to relive those mistakes time and time again…the editing process was painful at the time [laughs]. It's really difficult to get enough distance to ask, “How do we tell the story?” You really had to rely on Jim and myself and the editors to keep it accurate. We all agreed and said, let's tell the true story here. Let's show it. And that's how I got through it. Let's have nothing to hide; this is not a fluff piece, this is our journey and this is our road, as bumpy as it is, this is what we're going to show. And I hope people take away the fact that we're honest and we're just telling the story as it actually happens.
And then I'm really committed to wanting to win. And I'm committed to doing that journey publicly. I started many years ago with the visibility of the show, whether that's good or bad, I always made a commitment to say, I'm here and I have nothing to hide. And I think that's what the essence of the documentary is all about. Winning in professional racing isn't easy, and we show the steps it takes to try and get there.
MP: Jim, one nice touch is that you weave in footage of some of the actor/racers who've preceded Pat in the sport like Paul Newman, Steve McQueen (ABOVE) and James Garner. Garner's driving efforts are lesser known to the world, but Newman and McQueen are still renowned for their accomplishments on the racetrack. Why pull those icons into the documentary while Pat is still in the formative stages of his career?
JH: It's true, he hasn't won races or championships yet, but we do compare him to Newman, we compare him to Garner, to McQueen, because there's a common thread amongst all of those guys that goes beyond their race results.
One of the things I used in the initial creative brief for the project was to explore these men - the actors were racers and those three were the only ones to really be validated in this other culture. We want to show why and how these guys tried to be validated by a different culture and that's Patrick's journey as well.
That's not an easy thing to see, especially in endurance racing where you need strong financial backing. And if you come from wealth you can get into that world; but to truly be validated takes something different and something special. And his dedication is incredible. He's faced some tremendous challenges. And we show all those challenges as well; the challenges of sponsorship, the challenges of family, the challenges of time. He didn't have the cooperative support from Grey's Anatomy for a number of years while he was trying to find his way in the sport and that hurt him. They support him now, but back then he would get to races and miss the first day of practice. Out of the eight to ten races he'd do a year, three or four he'd miss the first day of practice. Go to a race and miss the first day of practice without much experience, and you're screwed.
And that's the same kind of situation the Newmans and McQueens faced in their time, so peeling all of that back to see how Patrick deals with many of the same limitations seemed only natural.
MP: Pat, you delve into one area that might not stand out as unique to the casual viewer – someone who's new to motor racing – but for those inside the sport, your choice to talk about the money it takes to run your own team, sponsorship issues, and finances in general is something most owners try to keep under wraps.
PD: Look, in all the stuff I've read, whether it's the Williams Formula 1 team or any other team, they always struggle with funding, and that that never goes away. And I think for us we've always really tried to work with our sponsors that have funding and I've been fortunate over the last four years with Mazda. I had a great deal with them and then with the transition of the motorsport program we had to move somewhere else. So this is the first year we were really struggling with our sponsors and trying to get enough money to do things properly.
And the other thing that's really important is to make sure we're paying our bills. There are a lot of people who come into this business who don't pay their bills, and for my partner Joe Foster and I, it's vital that we pay on time. We don't overextend ourselves. We race with what we have and put everything into that car so we can get to the track and do that. And that's the real struggle. Sometimes you're delivering what you need to do and your sponsors aren't getting you the money on time. And then the whole thing snowballs and it catches you out.
Again, it might have looked better if we shied away from this stuff, but I wanted people to see what goes on behind the scenes and it isn't all glamour and celebrations. Not in any way.
MP: The title of the documentary series is “Patrick Dempsey Racing Le Mans,” and it does a great job of depicting your efforts to learn as a driver, to build Dempsey Racing as a team, and move everything toward bringing the program to the 24 Hours of Le Mans… But it also feels like there's a film within the film, one geared towards bringing new fans into sports car racing, which I think is brilliant, but it wasn't expected.
PD: We recognized in the very beginning that with the audience we could reach, it was just a case of showing people how incredible endurance racing is and they'd be hooked. The sport now has a great moment in time because there's the merger of these two series with Grand-Am and the American Le Mans Series coming together, and we have a real shot now – if we can do the marketing correctly – to bring road racing back to where it was in its glory days.
And people need to understand in this country the importance of what Le Mans represents – it all started there – and what the attraction is for the manufacturers . That's why Porsche is so passionate about it. That's why Audi is so passionate about it. And all of that work, all of that technology eventually leads back to the road cars that we have a relationship with. I just love the history and heritage and how it translates to the present day, and I want to share that with people. And if I have this platform, then why not do it?