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McWinner: Top TV doc Dempsey trades in 'Grey's' for shot at racing at 24 Hours of Le Mans

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Patrick Dempsey has long proved his love of racing was no act.

He put starring in big-budget blockbusters on hold for now, riding the hope that his next boffo weekend smash is a podium finish in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Dempsey's love affair with sports-car racing was always more than a frivolous dalliance. He's as dedicated on the track as he is on the set, and placed his sights — from the eyes of one of People magazine's sexiest men alive — on contending in the most prestigious road race on the sports car circuit.

His team came so close last year to earning that coveted spot on the podium. Dempsey and teammate Patrick Long led the overnight portion of the race before settling for a fourth-place finish in their class.

"We want to win this race," Dempsey said Friday by phone from Le Mans, France. "We were like a minute 30 from being on the podium last year and to come so close, it's a bit frustrating."

The 48-year-old Dempsey gets another shot at a top-three finish when the 82nd race starts on Saturday. He'll share the No. 77 Dempsey Racing-Proton Porsche 911 RSR with long-time motorsports business partner Joe Foster (also competing in his third Le Mans 24) and Long. They are competing in the GTE Am class.

"We're very optimistic. We have a great team," Dempsey said. "Patrick has won this race before so he knows how to win it. Joe has a tremendous amount of experience, as well. We have a very solid lineup the way it's structured. We have a strong enough package to make this work."

Long will start the race, Dempsey follows with a shift he said could last from 45 minutes to 2 hours, and Foster goes third before the rotation begins again.

They are the only all-American driver lineup in this year's race.

"We have tremendous support from back home," Dempsey said.

The "Grey's Anatomy" star is hardly a novice. He formed Dempsey Racing in 2002 and had his first competitive driving experience in 2004. He made his debut in the GT series in 2007, and ever since has tried to balance the commitment of racing weekends with an active acting career that included movie roles in "Made of Honor," and "Transformers: Dark of the Moon."

He's at Le Mans for the third time (2009, 2013) and still considers competing on the famed course as a big a thrill as there is in endurance racing.

"Le Mans is the first one and the greatest one," he said. "Every one has its own characteristics and history that you like. For me, Le Mans is my favourite without question. But I really love Sebring. I think it's an incredibly challenging circuit."

Dempsey's full-time ride this season is in the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship. He co-drives the No. 27 Dempsey Racing Porsche 911 GT America with Andrew Davis. Foster joins the team for endurance races, such as the June 29 Six Hours of The Glen.

Dempsey — who has nabbed a podium finish in the Rolex 24 at Daytona — has kept busy in France, juggling a schedule stuffed with qualifying, practice, autograph sessions and a parade. And the actor known as "McDreamy" in his day job has been flooded with media requests to promote the race. That's just fine with the seasoned star, who wants to assist the series, and keep the race in the American spotlight in a stuffed sports weekend.

"The race begins long before the race actually begins," Dempsey said. "Everything is changing. There's a lot of obligation toward dealing with the press, obligation with your sponsors, and there's other stuff we have to take care of here."

Stuff like his keeping his body in Hollywood hunk shape for his return to "Grey's" in July.

"I've got to stay away from all the bread that's here," Dempsey said, laughing.

Dempsey's Le Mans run last year was chronicled in the documentary "Patrick Dempsey" Racing Le Mans," which showed the actor ditching the glitz of TV royalty for sharpening his skills in desert off-road racing in Nevada.

"I loved the archival footage in the documentary. That was the fun part for me to work on," Dempsey said. "Being in front of the camera and documenting the journey, not so much. But I thought it was good to give it an honest portrayal of what it takes to road race."

There are no camera crews trailing him this season, though scoring the best finish of his Le Mans career would certainly be added to the highlight reel.

"We surprised a lot of people with that result," last year, he said. "When you get that close, you certainly want to be on the podium and you want to win. You can taste that. It's a little bittersweet, but at the same time, we were really proud with the result we had."

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