Driver Profile: Peter Dempsey

(photo: Phil Burridge)

Peter Dempsey was born on March 31, 1986 in Dublin, Ireland. Racing was in his blood long before he decided to pursue a career in motorsports. His father, Cliff Dempsey began racing in 1977 in the Mini 7 series---nine years before Peter’s birth. Cliff had a fairly successful driving career in his own right, which included winning the 1986 Crossle Championship. It wasn’t until 1989 that Cliff started his own racing team; Cliff Dempsey Racing. At the time, Peter was only 3 years old, but the seed had been planted. He grew up following in the footsteps of his older brother, Keith Dempsey, who competed in karts, Formula Opel (where he became the youngest champion at 16 years old), and Formula Renault (Europe and UK). Despite being nearly 3 years younger than Keith, Peter was always willing to try and keep up with his older brother, even if it meant crashing.

Peter’s first chance to showcase his speed came at a mere 7 years of age. Keith was testing a go kart in County Cork when Cliff decided to give young Peter a taste of speed. Without hesitation, Peter jumped into the go kart and proceeded to do 3-laps. Everything was going perfectly until a faster kart passed him. Determined to stick with the faster kart, Peter followed the driver deep into turn-1 and proceeded to slam into the back of the front runner on entry which caused Peter’s kart to flip. This was his first karting experience.

Despite a disappointing preliminary experience as a racer, Peter spent the next few years developing his craft full-time in a 60cc go kart, running in the cadet class. Away from karting, he and his brother would spend countless hours driving a Subaru Justy 4x4 around a D-shaped oval in the middle of a field. They could be found in that field every Sunday, pounding laps and learning to drive. One day, they found the seatbelts had been chewed out of the car by Keith’s friend’s dog. After a few minutes of analyzing the situation, they decided to throw their helmets on anyway and keep running laps.

In addition to keeping busy with his driving duties, Peter always helped his dad maintain the race cars. He has been helping his dad’s race team since he was six years old. It didn’t matter what the task was, Peter was just happy to be working on a race car. The experience helped him understand the commitment and hard work involved with being a race car driver. He learned to study data and observed the drivers, even offering his own insight once in awhile. But that wasn’t the only thing he learned by working for Cliff Dempsey Racing. He also learned to drive a manual transmission van at the age of ten. One of Cliff’s drivers decided that it would be a good time to teach Peter to drive, so the duo placed a briefcase on the seat to help Peter see over the dash. From that point on, Peter became the chauffeur of the paddock, moving cars for anyone who needed a car moved. He was happy to do it and he usually got it done very quickly---if you catch my drift.

In 1998, Peter began to put more focus on his own driving (pictured on the right, #27). That season, he attempted to run in the Cadet class, the Junior Restricted class and JICA (Junior ICA). Unfortunately, the race stewards didn’t like the idea of him running more than one junior class, so he decided to focus strictly on the Junior Restricted class. In 1999, he made the jump to the ultra competitive JICA class full time. The season was highlighted by a race win at Mondello Park. Peter started the event in 11th, on a drying track, but managed to close enough ground on the leader to make a pass for the lead with two laps remaining. It was the biggest win of his career (at that point). That race was televised, which added to the prestige of winning. In 2000, at age 14, Peter decided to continue his efforts in the JICA class. This was his final year running karts full-time. The season was highlighted by a last corner, last lap pass at Mondello Park to win the “Race of Champions”. The margin of victory was 0.01 seconds. During this time, Keith was making the transition to car racing and Peter balanced his time between karting and working with the team on Keith’s car.

In 2001, Peter had his first opportunity to sample a single-seater race car. Keith was testing his Formula Renault car in Kirkistown, Northern Ireland. Despite the track being wet, Cliff decided it might be a good opportunity to let Peter go out and run a few laps in the car as the day came to a conclusion. Recalling Peter’s first experience in a go-kart, Cliff told Peter to have fun, but warned him not to crash the car. Peter was so excited to sample the car, he jumped in and ran 3-laps only to crash in Fisherman’s corner. It’s important to note that he did make two successful laps in the car, which is sort of ironic considering he made two successful laps during his inaugural go-kart experience as well prior to crashing. Sometimes history does repeat itself.

At the end of the 2001 season, Cliff offered Peter his first official race car test, in the team’s Formula Renault car. The test took place at Gaudix in Southern Spain. It was a bit intimidating at first for Peter… as all the top teams were in attendance. That being said, his competitive nature welcomed the opportunity. In fact, he and Carl Breeze (who won the 2001 UK Formula Renault 2.0 championship) decided to make a bet on whether or not Peter could run a lap in the eighteen second range. Those in attendance decided to get involved and egg Peter on, by writing rude comments on the pit-board and making gestures. Unfazed, the 15-year-old Irishman continued to put his head down and run laps. On his last lap he managed to turn an 18.7 second lap. The lap time was only one second off the quickest time reported all week. Everyone in attendance began to realize that Peter was the real deal.

During the 2002 and 2003 racing seasons, Peter continued to work for the family-run team. Balancing his time between the shop and school, Peter continued to learn more about race car componentry by helping his dad build cars. When time permitted he did a few Formula Renault tests and even ran a few Formula Renault Libre races in 2003. Peter’s mom, Michelle, was always very supportive of Peter and Keith’s racing, but emphasized that education is important too. She oversees Cliff Dempsey Racing and offers administrative support for the team to this day.

In 2004, after Peter finished school, his parents decided to sell the Formula Renault car and look for a car that offered similar racing opportunities at a lesser budget. They ended up purchasing a 1992 Swift chassis. Peter was quick to note that his mom paid for the car. His first test and race occurred at Kirkistown, Northern Ireland. He qualified 5th and was running 2nd until contact with another competitor prematurely ended the race under red flag conditions. Regardless of the outcome, Peter had proven his speed. The next race weekend offered a double header opportunity at Brands Hatch. Peter swept both races and once again impressed everyone in attendance. In fact, after dominating the weekend he was offered the chance to make a one-off appearance in a Formula BMW car at the Croft Circuit in England. The one-off opportunity turned into a nine-race deal with Team SWR Pioneer. He had limited success but used his time in the series as a learning experience. Away from his Formula BMW efforts, he continued his Formula Ford career.

In 2005, Peter’s talent began to really stand out. His success that year was monumental; he won 76.7% of his races. He won 33 races that year, set 33 fast laps, and qualified on pole 18 times. He won the MSV UK Formula Ford 1600 Championship as well as the Brands Formula Ford Championship and the Northern Ireland Formula Ford series. This was truly a breakthrough year for Peter. In addition to the above mentioned success, he won the BRDC Golden Helmet, the Castle Combe Carnival, and the prestigious Motorsport Ireland Young Driver of the Year award with Cliff Dempsey Racing---which helped fund his racing in 2006.

In 2006, Peter ran in the ultra competitive British Formula Ford Duratec Championship. He finished 3rd in the final standings with 4 wins and 10 podiums in 18 events. The year was highlighted by winning the prestigious Walter Hayes Trophy.

Despite struggling for funding, Peter managed to gather enough support to have another outstanding season in 2007. He repeated as the Walter Hayes Trophy winner, the second driver in history to win the race in consecutive years. He also won the Formula Ford 1600- Leinster Trophy (pictured left), he won the BRDC Golden Helmet for a second time, and added the Martin Donnelly Trophy to his showcase. His success in a Formula Ford car earned him worldwide attention. He was named runner-up for the Dunlop Motorsport Ireland Young Driver of the Year.

With the funding low, Peter and his family decided to look at some different options for 2008. Late in 2007, Peter contacted Dan Andersen of Andersen Racing and the duo scheduled a two-day test at the Andersen Race Park in Palmetto, Florida. The test went so well that they decided to schedule another test in January of 2008 at Sebring. With the exchange rate being so good at the time, Peter decided to commit to the Star Mazda championship for 2008. Despite a continual struggle to find the necessary funding, Peter completed the 2008 season in 3rd place. He won 4 races and found his way to the podium 7 times in 12 races. He finished inside the top-five in 75% of his race starts. The year was concluded with Peter winning the prized Dunlop Motorsport Ireland Young Driver of the Year award--- which put him back in a car for 2009.

This brings us to the current season. Using the prize money from the Motorsport Ireland award, Peter decided to pursue the championship that slipped away in the final two races of 2008. He is currently back in the United States and running in the 2009 Star Mazda championship. You can see a bit of a different driver in the car this year as Peter knows that consistency wins championships. He has finished every race (to date) inside the top-ten.

This has been a tough year for Peter as he has reached the ‘now-or-never’ point of his career--- a point that every aspiring driver dreads. Due to dwindling finances, Peter has been taking this year on a race-by-race basis. In fact, he has sat out numerous test days and pre-event practice sessions to save money. It’s tough to watch a kid with this much talent and promise sitting on the sidelines during official test days. This kind of driver doesn’t come along often and it would be a shame to see him sitting home in 2010.


Peter Dempsey Q & A

Junior Open Wheel Talent

JOWT: First of all, congratulations on your recent success in the Star Mazda Series.

You spent most of your youth in karts, but chose to move to cars rather than run senior karting classes. Are you still involved in karting when time permits?

PD: Mostly, I work with go-karting teams rather than racing myself. If I have the time and the opportunity, I will obviously jump in the kart myself, but unfortunately it doesn't happen too often! The last go-kart race I ran was in 2007; I had the biggest crash of my life and ended up upside down. I was very lucky to come out all right!

JOWT: In our correspondence, you are always quick to contribute your success to family and friends. What was it like racing with a team owner as a father?

PD: It was extremely exciting and nerve-racking at the same time. For some reason, when I was winning, it was always perfect. As soon as I'd make a mistake or something went wrong, it was tough. I have a lot of great memories both racing and working with my dad's team. When I'm at home, I still help out with the team as much as possible.

JOWT: You’ve mentioned Anthony Murray on several occasions. How has he helped your racing career?

PD: Anthony Murray is a very good friend of the family. My dad met him through racing, they became very good friends, and he actually bought his first Formula Ford from Anthony. Basically, after the Sebring race in 2008, Anthony came into my kitchen and told me he'd find a way to help me out with funding for the rest of the season. He became like another father figure to me by advising me on race weekends and during difficult times. He has always been extremely supportive of me and my career.

JOWT: You’ve won the Walter Hayes Trophy twice. I believe the only driver to win it three times is Joey Foster. Are you planning to run again this season?

PD: I actually competed in the Walter Hayes Trophy last year. I was working with my dad's team on Saturday and managed to talk my way into a car for the races on Sunday. I had to start 136th, but I worked my way through the qualifying races and into the final, finishing 4th overall! Conor Daly won the race for my dad's team, but they were worried that I was going to take their glory! If the opportunity comes to compete in the race again, I'd take it, but it would just be for fun. Although, if I finished 1st, I'd say “Happy days!”

JOWT: In 2007, when you started evaluating different junior formula options here in the United States, how did you decide on Star Mazda?

PD: Over the past few years, I've seen the Star Mazda series broadcast on Sky Sports in Ireland, and I've always thought the cars looked exciting to drive. I could tell that the series has extremely strong grids out of the 40 or so cars, and it also has the MazdaSpeed Motorsports Development program which is an awesome prize for winning the championship.

JOWT: Last year, you unexpectedly jumped in an F2000 car for qualifying at Road Atlanta without any track experience or seat time in the car…. yet, you managed to qualify 3rd. What can you tell me about that experience?

PD: I went from a Star Mazda test to a F2000 race at Road Atlanta in May last year to help do some mechanic work on Doug Prendeville's car with Andersen Racing. After the test day, one of the drivers decided to quit just before qualifying because he thought there was something wrong with the car. I managed to talk the team into letting me drive the car for qualifying. I had no gear with me so I had to borrow Cole Morgan's helmet and ear plugs, Anders Krohn's spare suit, and Johnny Baker's gloves. I didn't have any racing boots either, so I wore my trainers! I got fitted into the car just before qualifying and made it out in time. After 15 minutes I was lying in P2 ahead of all my teammates. This was both my first time at Road Atlanta and my first time driving an F2000 car. The team thought I had to have been under the weight limit, so I stopped driving halfway through the session and ended up P3. We weighed the car afterwards and found out that we were 15 lbs over! I could have been on pole if I had stayed out!

JOWT: After winning the 2008 Motorsport Ireland Young Driver of the Year award… you were offered a test in an A1GP car. Any chance we will see you on the grid in an A1 car next season?

PD: First of all, I'm extremely grateful for even being given the opportunity to test in A1GP. It's a great opportunity for me to get the experience of driving the Ireland A1GP car. The test will take place at Silverstone in September, and for me, it will be about doing a professional job as a driver and not making any mistakes. Hopefully, I can do a good job and impress the team enough that they would consider me for the main seat.

JOWT: What are your long term racing goals?

PD: My main aim is to try to get a seat in Indy Car. I think the series is getting stronger every year, and I feel if I'm given the right chance, I would be capable of competing at the front of the field. At the end of the day, if this opportunity never occurs, I would be quite happy racing anywhere in the world where I can earn a living doing what I love.

JOWT: This has been a financially chaotic year for you in Star Mazda. Is it true that you used practice tires that other teams had discarded…. Just so you could get seat time?

PD: Yes! I've been very fortunate that the other teams on the grid want to see me driving. They have given me their old, used tires to get me out in the practice sessions. If it wasn't for them, I wouldn't have had any tires to run on. I'd better not mention the teams involved, but I'd like to thank them for all their support this year!

JOWT: Is there anyone else that you would like to thank?

PD: I'd like to thank Motorsport Ireland, Irish Sports Council, Anthony Murray, my mam and dad, LotusWorks for their support last year, and everybody else that has helped me get to this point in my career. If I was to thank everyone individually, this interview would be another two pages long!

JOWT: Thank you for taking the time to do this interview. I wish you the best in 2009 and beyond.



Ian Sweeney said...

Great interview and summary of Peter's career to date. His brother Keith is also a phenominal driver who I guess has retired at this point due to lack of funding.

Hopefully the Juncos deal secures Peter's future until the end of the year. Should be just enough time to clinch the championnship and an Atlantic Ride!

Go on the Irish!

Michelle said...

Great piece - thank you JOWT.

Proud Mum x