Actor Patrick Dempsey is seen in the stand of the Porsche Dempsey-Del Piero Proton team during the free practice session of the 90th 24-hour Le Mans endurance race in western France Wednesday. AP photo.
The only all-American lineup at the 24 Hours of Le Mans might very well be the one that draws the most interest from non-racing fans.
The No. 77 Dempsey Del Piero-Proton Porsche will be headlined by Patrick Dempsey — you know, “McDreamy” of “Grey’s Anatomy” fame. He is joining co-drivers Joe Foster and Patrick Long in the GTE Am division and driving a Porsche 911 GT3 RSR.
“I think anybody who’s a road racer wants to race here,” Dempsey said. “Having done it in the past and coming back and doing it with an all-American driver lineup with Patrick Long and Joe Foster with a great team at Proton-Dempsey-Del Piero, it’s a tremendous honor. It means everything to us, and it’s humbling, it’s exciting, it’s inspirational, and it’s so moving to be a part of this event. It’s a dream come true to come back here.”
It will be the actor’s second time competing in the endurance race in Le Mans, France, but this time he appears to have a legitimate shot at a class victory.
The 47-year-old Dempsey shared a Ferrari at Le Mans in 2009 with Foster, his motorsports business partner. New to the entry this year is Long, a two-time Le Mans winner making his 10th start in the race. Long turned the third-fastest lap in class during the one-day Le Mans pre-test earlier this month.
The team was also buoyed by its second-place result at Laguna Seca last month in Dempsey’s last outing. The team appeared poised to win until co-driver Andy Lally was passed for the class lead following a restart on the final lap of the four-hour race.
To be considered a contender has Dempsey on the cusp of what once seemed to be an unreachable goal.
“We would sit around the kitchen or in the trailer dreaming about when we’d go to Le Mans and getting on the podium,” he said. “This has always been a dream and a goal. So to come back here — it was a dream come true and a turning point in my life to have done it in 2009, and I haven’t had a win yet, and I would love to if I could get my first win to be at Le Mans. It would just be so, so special. It would be deeply moving certainly. I know the drivers on the team can do it.”
It will be Long’s first race teaming with Dempsey and Foster. He was a late addition to the team in place of Dempsey Del Piero team principal Michael Avenatti, whose business commitments outside of racing prevented him from competing at Le Mans. But it didn’t take him long to feel comfortable with the team assembled.
“Once Patrick and Joe got in the car and picked it up really quickly, I started to feel really positive about our chances,” Long said. “That was sort of capped off by the test that we had just two weeks ago.”
Dempsey has been an active participant in sports car racing now for nearly a decade, and Long has been impressed by his progress.
“He definitely is underrated,” Long said. “I’ve watched him and Joe partner up and go very seriously at racing a little bit from a distance. Working alongside him has certainly been a different experience. He’s a very intense competitor, very focused. What I underestimated was his fitness. We went testing in (in Italy) and the team was worn out. They were looking at me. I’ve run with them previously over here in Europe and they were like, ‘We’re out of tires; we’re out of fuel.’ I’m like, ‘This guy still wants to drive and he’s here to put the numbers up and not just show up and look the part.’”
DOUBLE DUTY: Brian Vickers has a lot of road in front of him this weekend as the only driver attempting double duty in the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series races.
Vickers is scheduled to run the Nationwide race on Saturday at Road America for Joe Gibbs Racing before heading West to Sonoma, Calif., for the Cup race in a Michael Waltrip Racing entry on Sunday.
“I’m looking forward to both of them,” said Vickers. “It’s going to take a little different mentality and technique going from Road America which is a little bit faster place to Sonoma which is a slower, more technical road race, but I’m up for the challenge and excited.”
In the past, most Cup drivers have spent the majority of their time in Sonoma and flew to the Nationwide race just in time for the start. Vickers, though, will spend most of the weekend in Wisconsin with JGR as he focuses on his Nationwide effort. He’s currently 10th in the championship race, 100 points behind leader Regan Smith.
Jason Bowles will drive MWR’s No. 55 for him at Sonoma in practice and qualifying, and Vickers will have to start at the back of the field when he arrives Sunday. Vickers was able to find a silver lining in knowing he’ll start at the back.
“I think there’s opportunities at Sonoma to get to do a little bit different pit strategy,” he said. “Knowing that you don’t really have track position to protect kind of can create opportunities. We’ve been there in the past where we’ve had either bad qualifying or something happened during the race and we had to come in and pit or penalties on pit road, like last year we had the penalty on pit road and had to go to the back and we worked our way back up to fourth, but as much as it hurt us, it also created opportunities.”
It’s been a rough few weeks for Gustavo Yacaman, the Grand-AM Series driver who was placed on two-race probation by series officials for “his involvement in various incidents” during the June 1 race in Detroit.
His first stint back on the track since the hand-slapping couldn’t have gone any worse.
The Colombian started eighth at Mid-Ohio on Saturday and was trying to make a pass on Memo Rojas — the same driver he wrecked at Detroit — when the two made contact. It led to a flat tire for Yacaman, who drove off the track and through a gravel trap, which ruptured the oil line.
The Michael Shank Racing entry then burst into flames, causing significant damage to the No. 6 Ford-Riley. It also led to harsh criticism of Yacaman from racers from various series, many who instantly took to social media to lambast the 22-year-old.
Among those showing zero sympathy was Scott Pruett, Rojas’ co-driver who never got a chance to drive at Detroit because of the accident with Yacaman.
“I feel really bad for Mike Shank, but not the driver,” Pruett said. “It will be interesting to see what Grand-Am does, since he’s on probation.”
Shank on Sunday supported his driver through a series of tweets, saying Yacaman drives for the team this season and “that is not changing” while acknowledging he “has made bad decisions and I promise u that we will correct this path.”
Shank said the team has obligations to the sponsor and the 10 employees that work on the car, and tweeted, “Our focus is now on the massive rebuild effort to try and get the 6 car to Watkins.”
All wasn’t lost at Mid-Ohio for the Shank organization. Ozz Negri marked his return to the No. 60 with a fourth-place finish with co-driver John Pew. The car had to come back from significant damage of its own suffered in Detroit, and Negri had missed three races while he continued to recover from an offseason training injury to his leg.
“It’s great having Ozz back, it’s like a missing family member that’s finally back,” Pew said. “The whole team is excited that he’s back. The guys did a tremendous job getting the car back from Detroit. Right down to the last nut and bolt it rolled off the trailer just about perfect. It was an awesome car. It’s too bad we couldn’t get a podium, but I’m pretty happy with a fourth place.”