In that fabled Hollywood lineage of actors who also happen to be devils behind the wheel, television and film star Patrick Dempsey is today’s answer to Paul Newman and Steve McQueen. But having just starred in Michael Mann’s Ferrari story as the great, and underappreciated, driver Piero Taruffi—known as the ‘Silver Fox’ for his white hair—it might surprise some audiences to learn that he has a passion for racing that extends well beyond the occasional track day. Dempsey has been driving since before he shot to stardom, straddling a career as an actor with a second-life as a respected racecar driver; going on to run a competitive team of his own (Dempsey Racing), and achieve a podium at the hallowed 24hrs of Le Mans—a dream that he realised after years of hard work and competition. So, there are few actors better equipped to take on the role of the sage and experienced Taruffi, who had a vital part in Enzo Ferrari’s Mille Miglie triumph of 1957, which the film depicts. Patrick speaks with A Rabbit’s Foot on his journey as a racer; the relationship between cars, his father, and his sons, and performing as the Silver Fox under Michael Mann.

Patrick Dempsey at the 24 Hour Le Mans qualifying session. By Xavi Bonilla, 2019.

I fell in love with cars because of my father. He was a travelling salesman, and on Fridays he would bring me home matchbox toys—Hot Wheels and small trucks—and that’s where I first gained an understanding about different types of cars. Dad ran short-track, and he was always a passionate competitor. We would sit together to watch Formula 1, some Nascar, and Indy 500—which I would hear through the radio in our station wagon. We also lived off of Route 4, and you would always see these exotic cars driving through, but it wasn’t until I got to California that I realised people could afford and drive them, and that it was part of a wider culture.

As a young man, I wanted to be a ski racer. My idol was Ingemar Stenmark. I met him at Le Mans last year, and broke into tears—he was the top ski racer during my youth, and I fell into competitive racing because of him. Later, I would win the State of Maine Championship in the sport! I actually fell into acting by accident because of him. I remember watching Stenmark on ABC’s Up Close and Personal riding a unicycle, so I worked as a door-to-door salesman to afford my own unicycle, and lo and behold the town I was in had a vaudevillian troupe who I started to perform with. One thing led to another.

Stamp showing Ingemar Stenmark at the Winter Olympics, Lake Placid. Circa 1980.

I started racing before I shot into the limelight as an actor. It had just been after the pilot of Grey’s Anatomy, and so the driving community knew me just as a guy who wanted to race. Over time, they would say, ‘Holy shit! I saw you on TV’ but I’ve always been shown respect. What’s important is how well you do on the track. Like Steve McQueen and Paul Newman, we’re just people who are car fans who also happen to be actors.

I remember my first car race. It was a hot July day at the Mid Ohio Panoz Racing Series, and I remember getting ready to go and just thinking about the searing heat. I was glad to have finished, but I could barely believe I was finally competing; doing something I’d fantasised about for so long. My girlfriend at the time—now my wife—got me a three-day racing school certificate, and after that I took on a tonne of other courses. There was an auction for a Panoz certificate, and I began racing in that series, with the goal to eventually make it to Le Mans.

It took me twelve years to get to Le Mans. My first race was in 2009 with Ferrari, and up till then I’d been only to watch from the crowd. But to go as a competitor was a dream come true. My proudest moment. It wasn’t straightforward: I remember that one of our co-drivers got sick so it was just me and one other person going back in-and-out of the car over the race’s duration. But In 2015, I returned with Porsche and actually made it to the podium. Not long after, my race team won a competition in Japan. That felt pretty special. Now, I’m gearing up for the legendary Panamericana with Porsche—once known as the most dangerous race in the world!

With Dempsey/Proton Racing, we want to develop younger drivers to go on and have their own careers. What’s great about working with Porsche is that the older drivers we work with stick around and remain helpful to each generation. Besides, I’ve always liked teaching people. I have two boys and I’d like to introduce them to racing, but they’re already developing that passion. We’re going to do a teen driving experience with Porsche, and I’m excited to see how they take to it. Besides, we actually use a number of the vintage cars I’ve collected on the track. I don’t want them to be just sitting there in a garage like antiques. I want my kids to feel like they can interact with the cars I have.

Patrick Dempsey at 24 Hours of Le Mans, 2009. By Bryn Lennon.

I own an eclectic range of cars. Most of them have been European. Many Porsche. The 72 911, Targa 350z…and Porsche’s tractor—I love that! But my Mercedes 280se is the family beach car. When people see it, they greet you in a really open manner, which is something I love. I’m no different. My eyes light up when I see a car I like. That sense of having a shared passion removes barriers, and I appreciate a good conversation with other car people.

I loved working with Michael Mann on the Ferrari film. I’ve been following the movie’s production journey for fifteen years, and I had been pulling for Michael to finally make it. I already have a lot of track experience, but the other actors really got into it too. We had a week of training, and they really lit up at the opportunity—especially Jack O’Connell. My character Piero Taruffi doesn’t get the attention he deserves because he survived the race in the film. He had a long career, won championships…but he was also a polymath, a genius engineer. I learned so much about him, and the discipline and wisdom he brought to Ferrari. I would love to go back and race in the period the film is set in.

Each era had its own technology, but the fifties and sixties were that romantic—albeit deadly—time in racing, thanks to the materials of the cars, the design of the circuits, and the speeds. There were incredible drivers. Juan Manuel Fangio. Taruffi, of course. You had to be fearless. We got a feel of that when we were doing the driving sequences in the film. The cars had no roll cage, and had any of us made a mistake, we would’ve been taken out and it could have been fatal—particularly in the wet. So we learned that anxiety first-hand, and it gave us all a great appreciation…even someone like myself, who has experienced high-level competition. Back then, it must’ve taken a lot just to step in the car, knowing it could be your last day. So I’m grateful we were able to understand the mentality of the drivers we were playing better.

Patrick Dempsey at the Ferrari Red Carpet, 2023. The International
Venice Film Festival. By Pascal Le Segretain.