SCi Interview: Peter Dempsey

Peter Dempsey hails from the town of Ashbourne, County Meath in Ireland, but for the past three years he has focused on establishing himself as a professional racer in the United States. Earlier in his career, he dominated the Irish and UK Formula Ford championships, but soon found that the funds needed to progress further in Europe were just not there. In 2009, Dempsey finished a close second in the Star Mazda single-seater series, but the 24-year-old has now made his first foray into sportscar racing, sharing the wheel of the Libra Racing Radical SR9 with Harry Toivonen and Andrew Prendiville at this year’s Petit Le Mans. Although the car was an early retirement, Dempsey enjoyed his first taste of the endurance world and hopes to be back for more in 2011…

Errity: Was this your first time driving a closed-wheel racing car in competition? What did you think were the car’s key strengths and weaknesses, and in what ways did it differ from the open-wheelers you’re used to?

Dempsey: Yes, it was my first time driving a closed-wheel car in competition. The Radical SR9 is a car that has huge potential. The car is very well built and mechanically it’s reliable, which is important in endurance racing. Libra Racing and the team put the car together extremely well. The weakness is that the car hasn’t really been developed since its introduction. All the other manufacturers have been developing their projects over a number of years, and we haven’t had the same opportunity. The car is very similar to driving any racecar. The size of the car is bigger and heavier than the open-wheel cars. Also, sitting off to one side was quite strange at first. There are also carbon brakes and power steering, which were new for me. This gave me a feeling from the car I had never experienced before. The car had a lot more downforce compared to the Formula car I was driving so it was a lot of fun trying to find the limit!”

Errity: How did you find driving under darkness for the first time?

Dempsey: Driving at night was something I had wanted to do ever since the first American race I attended, which was the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona in 2008. I have watched the ALMS at Sebring and Road Atlanta for the past two years, and this year was my chance to actually compete in the ALMS at RA! When the team sent me out for my first laps at night, I was really nervous. It was my first real time in the car the whole weekend due to our engine trouble. I knew we needed to get in our official number of laps so that we would qualify to take part in the race. Knowing the track so well was a great advantage to me. Even though the lights were not working very well it didn’t bother me whatsoever. When my teammates said that the lights were really bad, my reply was, “I have never used lights before, so I didn’t really notice if they were working or not.” That got a good laugh from the guys! I cannot wait to drive at night again.”

Errity: Were you disappointed to be slower than nearly all the GT2 cars in qualifying, or was this in line with the team’s expectations?

Dempsey: Of course, we were disappointed with our starting position. Being stuck in the middle of probably one of the most competitive GT2 classes I have ever seen was far from ideal. The main reason for this was that we had had so little track time due to the engine issues. We were extremely lucky to even make it out for qualifying. Andrew got in the car after the guys had worked really hard and got us into the race. We were happy with that considering we only made the last few minutes of the session. I feel if we had more track time we would have placed the car between the LMP2 cars and the LMC cars, which was our aim.

Errity: Did you stay at the track after the early retirement? Did you have any discussions about potential deals for next year with any teams?

Dempsey: Yes, I did stay at the track after the retirement. It is one of the best events of the year, and there was no way I was leaving no matter what happened. I talked with the team after the race about the future and 2011. It was hard to talk to any other teams really, as they were all focused on their own race. I really hope I can carry on my working relationship with Libra Racing for 2011

Errity: Was this your first time attending an ALMS event? Did you get any sense of the atmosphere that goes along with endurance racing? Is this something that a driver notices at a race weekend or are you exclusively focused on what’s happening on track?

Dempsey: Coming from the Star Mazda Series, which supports a lot of the ALMS events, has allowed me to experience the weekends over the past two years. I always knew that the race weekends have an amazing atmosphere. The fans of the series play a huge part in this and really make the weekends as special as they are. Once you are racing, you have to be focused on your job and really do the best job you can, so unfortunately I didn’t get to see everything that was happening at the track.

Errity: Are you keen to move into the ALMS full-time next year? Do you see your future in sportscars or are you still pursuing single-seater opportunities?

Dempsey: It would be great to have the chance to make the step into ALMS full-time in 2011. I have a lot to learn about endurance racing, but I really feel it has a place for me. Even though it’s a great series that I would love to drive in one day, coming to the USA was not always about trying to make it to IndyCar. It was about becoming a professional racecar driver. If that chance is to come about in the ALMS, I will make sure to grab it with both hands.

Errity: What would you be happy to have achieved in five years’ time?

Dempsey: In five years, I would be happy to have established myself as one of the most professional racecar drivers in the US. I also want to carry on driver coaching the young talent in America and helping them reach their full potential. I never want to have any regrets, and I want to be the best I can possibly be. I know I am meant to be behind the wheel of a racecar, and if in five years’ time I am still racing, I will be a very happy guy.

Errity: How did you find the experience of sharing a car and compromising on setup, after years of setting cars up to your exact preference?

Dempsey: The sharing and compromising was never going to be an issue for me. For my entire career, I have been sharing my ideas and setups with engineers and teammates on the different teams I have been a part of. It is very rare that you ever have the exact car you want, so you always have to compromise somewhere on the track. I am also used to jumping in and out of different cars that don’t have the right seat, pedals, etc. I think at the end of the day it is about getting in and driving the car to the best of your ability, no matter what way the car is set up. You have to look at it from a team’s point of view. If you have to drive a car that may not be perfect for you but is better for the end result, then you just get in and do the best job you can.

Errity: Single-seater budgets in Europe have increased greatly in the past couple of years, especially since the introduction of GP2, and we have seen a lot of UK and European drivers head across the Atlantic to continue their career. Do you think more needs to be done to help young European drivers progress to F1, or at least to paid drives in Europe?

Dempsey: It’s very difficult in Europe to raise the money to compete in any series above Formula Ford. What I think needs to be done is to have the teams at the top level come and support the feeder series more. The junior formulas need a real end-of-season prize, not just an ‘F1 test’ like you see in a lot of the lower-level classes. They need to have a fully-funded seat for the following year at the next level, similar to what Formula Atlantic was to ChampCar a few years ago. I also feel it is important not to just reward the winner of a series, but try to spread the prize fund over more positions. This will keep the number of entries up, as people have more to fight for.

Errity: Are you satisfied at the level of recognition you got back in Ireland for your achievements in Star Mazda?

Dempsey: It’s always difficult for people who are racing on the other side of the world to get the recognition they deserve. If I was to win races in F3 in Britain, I am sure a lot more people would stand up and take notice of that more than they would of Star Mazda. In 2009, my winning races against well-established talent from the UK did open some people’s eyes and make them take notice of what I have achieved.

Errity: Coming from a European road-racing background, how did you find getting to grips with oval racing?

Dempsey: Oval racing was one style of racing I was really looking forward to when I came over to the USA. My first oval experience was the most daunting experience of my racing career. It was in Star Mazda in 2009 with Juncos Racing. I had just changed teams from AIM Autosport, and I had missed all four of the official tests due to lack of sponsorship. My first ever time to race on an oval was on the Milwaukee Mile with only two 30-minute practice sessions before the race! Everyone else had done the test but me! It was crazy. I started ninth for the race, made my way to second, and then the engine lost power, so I ended up finishing fourth with the fastest race lap! After that, I went on to win the next oval race at Iowa from pole. So, I think I adapted pretty quickly!

Errity: You’re now working as a driver coach for Juncos Racing. Do you find that helping another driver to improve and progress is as satisfying an achievement as improving and progressing yourself?

Dempsey: Working with Juncos Racing this year has been a great experience for me. I have gotten to work with a great group of drivers and also learned a lot myself from working with them. It is great to see a driver progress through a season and work their way up to the front, and knowing that I have helped them get there is very satisfying. However, it’s not the same as improving and progressing yourself. When it’s your own racing, you are constantly working on improving yourself, on and off the track, and when you see all the effort that you have personally put in pay off, you feel like you really have achieved your goals.

For more on Peter Dempsey, see

« The DTM coming to the U.S. and other NASCAR topics of note. | Main | Test Drive: 2010 Porsche Cayman »