Tempus: Making tracks

Hollywood actor and racing fanatic Patrick Dempsey chats to Tempus about his on-track highlights and dream film projects, as he takes on Porsche’s ice driving challenges with TAG Heuer.

Patrick Dempsey has swapped hospital scrubs and Hollywood for sub-zero gear and the Finnish wilderness. I’m deep in the Arctic Circle with the actor who is best known as ‘Dr McDreamy’ from Grey’s Anatomy. We’ve come to Levi, 700 miles north of Helsinki, where Porsche has built a driving facility atop a large frozen lake, with intricate handling tracks groomed on the 1.3m-thick ice.

Dempsey slides into view across the snow-covered badland, his black 911 Turbo S creating a blizzard in its wake. The 56-year-old has been racing for the past 18 years, during which he’s competed at the Le Mans 24 Hours four times, finishing second in the GTE Am class on his most recent attempt in 2015. He and his team also won the Six Hours of Fuji that year, in Japan. The majority of his on-track success has come at the wheel of a Porsche. And at home, which is mostly Maine (and maybe explains his talent on ice), he has a collection that could rival Jerry Seinfeld’s; a 1963 911 (one of the very earliest examples), a 356, the 911T, an R safari car, an “outlaw car” he’s working on with an ’82 chassis and a 3.6 powering it and, at the brand-new end, a 992 Targa and the all-electric Taycan. Anything he’s missing? “I’d like a 906 or a 907,” he offers, citing two of the rarest and most prized sports racers from the 1960s.

The other brand he’s loyal to is TAG-Heuer. The strategic partnership between the Swiss watch brand and German auto-maker that was announced last year has got every car nut and horology fan asking one question: Why did it take so long?

“I’ve been rooting for this for years,” says Dempsey, who’s long had a relationship with both. “It finally happened. It’s a personal connection and a perfect alignment”. TAG-Heuer and Porsche reps I spoke to talk of this long-term partnership in decades. “We’re looking at the next fifty, sixty years”, said one. The unofficial association goes right back to 1971, when iconic screen star Steve McQueen also swapped La La Land for La Sarthe. He never actually raced at Le Mans – he tried, alongside Jackie Stewart, but couldn’t get insured – yet he did make the movie Le Mans in which he drove a grey 911S, raced a Gulf-livered 917K and wore an Heuer Monaco.

While he mightn’t have done the 24 Hours for real, McQueen did win the 12 Hours of Sebring, in Florida, in 1970 where he ran a Porsche 908 alongside Formula One’s Peter Revson.

The most feted Hollywood racer was Paul Newman, who won his class and came second overall at Le Mans in 1979, in a Porsche 935. Ol’ Blue Eyes went on to establish his own racing teams, something Patrick has done himself with Dempsey Racing. Are McQueen and Newman his heroes? “They’re everybody’s heroes. They were so cool, and they represented a particular era which doesn’t exist today. You can take inspiration, but you need to be your own person.”

Are there any other drivers in Tinseltown that he rates? “Michael Fassbender’s on a programme with Porsche, and I’ve been working with him. He’s got a series on YouTube, Road to Le Mans, and he’ll be competing at the 24 Hours this summer – and let me tell you, getting the insurance if you’re doing a film is not easy. He was with another brand but I introduced him to Porsche, because they’re incredibly good at developing drivers. How they brought me along was very measured, very clear. Michael’s quick. He was on the podium at his last race. He’s got enough natural ability and he speaks German, which helps. He’s got good chemistry with the team. If we can keep him going, he will be very successful. I know he’s doing a film with [David] Fincher right now, and then we’ll start getting him back in the car, because seat time is crucial.”

Patrick didn’t take up racing until he was 38, just before he landed the role in Grey’s in 2005. But his fascination with cars can be traced back to childhood. “Matchbox cars, stuff like that. And my dad loved racing. We always watched the Monaco Grand Prix and the Indy 500. Unfortunately, he passed away before I could start racing. I’d love to know what he would think of this. He didn’t think much of the acting. He preferred speed and racing. And my mother hated the show! She hated anything medical. She loved to come to the racetrack. I can’t believe the opportunities that I’ve had, I get very emotional about it.”

It started with a three-day course at a racing school which Patrick’s wife of 23 years, Jillian, bought him as a present. “That unleashed Pandora’s box”. Then he met race car constructor Don Panoz at a charity event in Atlanta and, with his help, started on the path to becoming a semi-pro endurance driver. Fame didn’t hurt his progress. “Everything was on the same ascendancy,” says Patrick. “I started racing right around the time the show broke. I was able to parlay the visibility of the show into sponsorship. I mean, I made the mistake of buying a team and really understood how to waste some money, but I don’t regret it at all.”

Citing Le Mans 2015 as his greatest experience, he speaks of the “transcendence” he feels at the wheel of a racing car “where everything just fits. It’s like when you’re [here] on the ice and you get the power down and you feel it in the seat of your pants, there’s nothing better. You have the right rhythm, and your mind just stops thinking and you’re present. It’s so cleansing, mentally. It’s very zen, the sense of being on the limit but in control.”

But his aspect changed after the Six Hours of Fuji. “Winning in Japan was huge. And then something shifted. I was shooting a film in London at the time [Bridget Jones’ Baby], and something snapped… I was, like, I’m done at this level. It’s time to go home. It was taking a toll on my family. It’s been tricky”. He says he plans to race again, but has resolved not to do so until his twin boys have graduated high school. “I’ll keep my foot in the door. I truly love the camaraderie. I feel most alive when I’m on the track. When I’m not there, there’s a numbness to life.”

Grey’s Anatomy came to an end for Dr Derek ‘McDreamy’ Shepherd, and in turn Patrick, the same year he took his Le Mans podium, although he came back for a cameo in 2020. This was despite being dead. Ironically, the character had been killed in a Porsche Cayenne. “[The showrunners] were pissed because I was racing. With the schedule, it became too much. I thought, I need to get out of here. There was no growth for me. With a show like that, you’re at the mercy of what the show wants to do. I wanted to be more in control of things, and there’s nothing like control behind the wheel.”

He says John Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix is the best racing movie he’s seen, and he’d have liked to have been in Ford v. Ferrari – “I was so jealous of [Matt Damon and Christian Bale]. It was very hard!”. In fact, he used to live next door to the character Damon played, legendary race car builder Carroll Shelby. “He’d invite me up and he’d cook chilli or blueberry pie. He hated Le Mans, hated it! It was awful for him. And we’d talk about the racing programme I was doing”. Shelby died ten years ago. “It was really special to have that time with him.”

As for tales from the track yet to be told, the actor has a few suggestions. “I’d love to see the [Wolfgang] von Trips story told, I’ll be honest with you” – who was leading the 1961 F1 championship until being thrown from his Ferrari at Monza and killed, along with 15 spectators – “I think there’s something in that. ’55 would be a good year to do” – which was when a huge crash at the Le Mans 24 Hours caused the death of 83 spectators as well as French driver Pierre Levegh. It led to Mercedes-Benz withdrawing from motorsport for 30 years. Also – “Denise McCluggage; female racer [and American motoring journalist], really an exceptional woman. I would like to tell that story.”

Patrick’s not just here in Finland to have fun in the 911 Turbo S and some yellow Cayman GT4s and give me a course in ice driving. He’s here to launch the new TAG-Heuer Carrera x Porsche limited-edition; a sporty black chronograph with yellow details that looks particularly on point when wrestling a wheel bearing the Stuttgart crest. Its textile-textured black calfskin strap with yellow stitching is inspired by the seat upholstery of Porsche’s high-performance models. Limited to 1,500 numbered units, it is priced at £5,850.

“TAG-Heuer is very similar to Porsche in that it’s an iconic brand that keeps evolving, but it hasn’t lost its heritage,” reflects Dempsey. “The DNA is very much alive and in this watch, just like the 911, they haven’t gone too far off”. Unsurprisingly, the thespian petrolhead owns more than a few timepieces. “My [TAG-Heuer] Monaco means the most to me, because that’s the one I had on when I was on the podium [at Le Mans]. That’ll always be special when I look at it. And this Porsche one,” he says, lifting the chronograph, “will remind me of this ice experience, where we are now. Each watch I own is a moment in time that is captured.”

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