The Love of Cars stars Le Mans podium finishers Allan McNish and Patrick Dempsey
The Love of Cars returns to pit row from last week’s discussion of the larger automotive and creative industries. Hosts Justin Bell and Tommy Kendall welcome not one, but two podium finishers at Le Mans: Allan McNish and Patrick Dempsey, both of whom share a passion for the event and an open mind about the sport’s online future.
The first-ever virtual 24 Hours of Le Mans was held just this past weekend, June 13–14, so it’s a natural starting point for the discussion between Bell, Kendall, and McNish. While McNish is a three-time winner of the infamous 24-hour race, he didn’t sit behind a steering wheel—at-home rig or actual racecar—for this running, participating instead as an expert analyst.
“I was surprised at how well it went—the feeling, the emotion of it,” McNish says. He especially loved the chance to watch drivers’ faces during the race, captured on live feeds without the obstruction of their helmets.
How legitimate did the virtual Le Mans running prove in the eyes of the larger motorsports community? As a team principal of Audi’s Formula E team, McNish is particularly qualified to answer. “I think it was a game-changer,” he says. “It’s taking e-racing and putting it in to be a sport.” The staff ran the virtual event just as seriously as the in-person one, according to McNish—rulebook, driving standards, drivers’ briefing, and all. “They treated it with the same level of importance as the real Le Mans, and [with the] same level of professionalism they wanted everyone to go at it with.”
Based on his own experience in developing race cars, McNish also gives helpful context to what it’s really like to spend all day in a racing simulator. Though the physical loads are minimal in sim racing, he says the mental load is intense—possibly, even more than on a real track. Scratching your head at that one? Consider that the drivers rely on every sense to process and anticipate their car’s behavior. In a simulator, “you’ve lost your backside movement sensor,” McNish explains; drivers must focus even harder to scrounge that missing sensory information from other gauges, statistics, and readings.
“A day on the sim was definitely harder, mentally, than a day on the track,” he sums it up.
McNish also gives full respect to the virtual event’s overall winner, Nick Tandy. Even though Tandy has also won the in-person Le Mans, there’s no conflict in McNish’s mind: Tandy deserves the trophy. “If you win a 24-hour race at the level of competition that was there, you deserve it.”
What’s the future role of virtual racing? “It won’t replace motorsports,” McNish is quick to assert, “but it will be part of it in the future.”
McNish traces his own love of cars to his childhood, growing up around his father, who sold high-end used cars. When a young McNish saw a Rolls-Royce at his father’s dealership, he begged his father for a ride—only to return after school to discover his father had already sold the Rolls. The disappointment taught McNish something about his father—and about himself. “I realized that, for my father, cars were a way to put bread on the table.” For his son, however, cars would grow to become an expression of a person, not just a piece of metal sitting in the corner.
“The day I go away in a box is the day I’ll stop loving cars,” McNish says. We couldn’t agree more.
The show’s second endurance-racing guest is likely a familiar face—but not primarily because of his Le Mans appearances. Patrick Dempsey was a fixture in eleven seasons of Grey’s Anatomy, but somehow found time to develop his passion for racing and train himself to be a truly world-class driver.
Like McNish, Dempsey says he loved “the humanity behind the wheel,” in the words of Justin Bell, revealed by the virtual 24 Hours of Le Mans. “We’re living in a new era, that’s for sure,” he says.
Dempsey recalls his first trip to Le Mans as a participant, which was in 2009. On top of his rookie status, Dempsey also faced the additional pressure generated by his acting career—dozens of cameras followed him, and Bell remembers that, during the traditional Le Mans drivers parade, Dempsey caused quite a stir.
Though he acknowledges the challenge of pacing oneself up to and including the race day, Dempsey says everything fit into place when he was behind the wheel of his car. As if his rookie rating and high visibility weren’t enough, the third driver on Dempsey’s team fell sick, forcing Dempsey and his remaining teammate to pick up the extra shifts. “I’ve never felt more pressure or nerves in my life,” he laughs.
However, Dempsey’s verdict about Le Mans remains: “It’s a magical experience. We finished the race, that’s the greatest thing—the sense of satisfaction. To be in that world and be able to compete was life-changing.”
How did it all start? Like his son today, Dempsey’s father was a team owner. “Every Friday, he would bring me back a Matchbox,” Dempsey recalls. He paints a vivid picture of the moment when the automobile first captured his imagination. Dempsey grew up in a small town in Maine, through which ran Route 4.
“In the summer, I would sit on the hillside on weekends and watch all these vintage cars drive by. I remember the first time I say a Jag 120 in person—and I was blown away. [There was this] beautiful woman driving it, and I had never seen anything like that in my life. Breathtaking. And that’s where it started.”
Dempsey’s current role as team owner reflects his decision to step away from the track to focus on his family, investing in his children, and helping them pursue their passions. “Nothing replaces racing,” though, and so, with the support of his wife and children, he’s getting back into the car. Under the current circumstances, his exact plans remain unclear: “If I were a young man, starting my career over again—Super Cup racing, that’s where I’d go,” he says.
This episode represents the final installment of The Love of Cars, presented by Hagerty and featuring Justin Bell and Tommy Kendall from The Torque Show. Enjoyed this one? The show may be over for now, but you can always catch up on previous episodes including this one, starring Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason. You never know in what unexpected community you may find a fellow—though, possibly, much more famous—car lover.