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It’s highly likely that many viewers will be tuning in to Discovery’s automobile-focused channel Velocity for the first time to watch Patrick Dempsey: Racing Le Mans solely because of Patrick Dempsey. The impulse is not wrong. The 47-year-old star of longtime ABC nighttime soap Grey’s Anatomy is more handsome than ever just being himself: a race car enthusiast who has lost his passion for acting but continues the “hobby” (as one colleague put it) as a means to continue racing. But besides that wind-swept mane and “McDreamy” persona, there’s plenty else that should appeal to viewers, including to Velocity’s more regular audience.
The four-part miniseries follows Dempsey and his Porsche racing team as they hope to fulfill a dream to make it to the daunting and historic Le Mans, a 24-hour grueling endurance race. For the uninitiated, it is Formula racing’s Kentucky Derby: a historic and storied affair. One thing that Racing Le Mans does so well is help orient the uninitiated to the world of Formula racing, while still keeping plenty of things as insider-baseball (which does occasionally mean that some of the more lengthy discussions about racing specifics and car parts can lead to light dozing for those without a true passion for it).
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However, the show is resoundingly successful regarding its human subject. Dempsey is never anything but candid and forthright. He talks openly about how he feels at home with racing in a way he never did with acting, and how much more comfortable he is with the clear logic of driving success, which is so unlike the hit and miss of Hollywood. He even appears in one of the interviews with Steve McQueen‘s first wife, laughing along with her as an interviewer, a colleague and a fan. While some might initially raise an eyebrow at the comparisons to Steve McQueen, Paul Newman and James Garner (all actors-turned-drivers), Dempsey proves himself even just in the first episode as a man who is truly dedicated to the sport yet who is not afraid to show he still has plenty of mistakes to make.
One of the best moments in that first episode comes when Dempsey is in Florida traveling on a sponsor tour. Unlike some wealthy beginner drivers who just write checks and then burn out quickly in the unimaginably expensive world of racing, Dempsey and his business partner, Joe Foster, built their team slowly and with the help of sponsors. At one point, Dempsey is asked to go onstage and talk about solar power, a business that he says “the bottom fell out of” in racing. The crowd is uninterested, yet he must still — for the sake of his sponsor — hock the solar wares to a group that, as he says to them at the time, “doesn’t give a shit.” The frustration, embarrassment and ultimate acquiescence that Dempsey embodies in the short segment highlights one of the series’ greatest successes: It feels like a true documentary.
Dempsey’s road to Le Mans is fraught with genuine disappointments, setbacks and some well-earned triumphs, none of which feel trumped up or manufactured. There aren’t hysterics and profanity-laced tirades. It’s just a few men trying to figure out how to keep their business in hand so that they are able to, in 15 short months, achieve their racing dream. Race fans will know (and spoiler hounds can know) how Team Dempsey did at Le Mans, which occurred in late June. And while it does make for an interesting epilogue, it doesn’t affect the stylish ride the show gives viewers. With its fast-paced editing, superb integration of archival footage (both audio and visual), and an emotional soundtrack, the series truly does fire on all cylinders, with a passionate, honest — and, of course, dreamy — Dempsey at the helm.
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