Of all the rookies to grace Firestone Indy Lights in 2011, Peter Dempsey may be the most polished. A native of Dublin Ireland, the 25-year-old is one of the elder statesmen of the Lights paddock. And, with O2 Racing Technology providing the equipment for him, he could be legitimate title contender.
After coming up through the Formula Ford ranks in Ireland and Great Britain, during which he claimed the prestigious Walter Hayes trophy in 2007, Dempsey relocated to the U.S. in 2008 after seeing difficulties in progressing higher up the European ladder. “I took a year out in 2007 and focused on putting a Star Mazda program together for 2008, mainly because the currency rate made it a lot cheaper to come over and race in the U.S. at that stage,” explained Dempsey. “I really felt that Star Mazda was the right career choice for me to come over and establish myself in the U.S. “
Star Mazda proved to be much more than “the right choice.” His two-year conquest there resulted in nine total wins, more than any other driver in Star Mazda’s long history. Still, he acknowledges that it wasn’t quite as easy as it may have seemed. “It was challenging. Obviously it was the first time I travelled abroad on my own,” he added. “I had raced for my Dad’s team, Clint Dempsey Racing, all my life. Coming over here was definitely a challenging experience for me personally and on the racing side. It was a steep learning curve, but all in all, I think everything’s going really well.”
Though a championship eluded him in those years, it was more than apparent that he had the necessary skills to move up to Firestone Indy Lights in 2010. However, like so many before him, finances put a stop to the effort. “We all thought we were going to get the chance to go on and race in the Firestone Indy Lights Series in 2010,” he recalled. “I talked to a lot of teams and tried to test, but it was financial reasons that really halted me from taking that next step.”
Without a full-time program in place, Dempsey had to resort to other measures to keep his name out there. Fortunately, Juncos Racing, with whom he had been so dominant in Star Mazda, offered him a solution that would keep him involved. “I had a great team in Star Mazda with Juncos Racing and they wanted to keep me onboard as a driver coach and test driver,” Dempsey remembered. “We also tried to run a couple of races with them, but the sponsorship never came through to enable us to do it.”
In coaching Conor Daly to the 2011 title, Dempsey held an integral role in the effort, and a stint in the American Le Mans Series made sure that no one would forget him as the off season neared. “I think working alongside Conor Daly with Juncos Racing definitely helped me a lot because people knew I was there coaching him, making sure he was performing at 100%, and helping him to win the championship,” he said. “That gave me a lot more credit over here because (other people) knew how much I helped him. I tried to do select races in the American Le Mans Series and at the Petit Le Mans race at the end of the year. That got my name out there at the right time of the year, just at the end of the season, so people knew I was still around.”
With the silly season now firmly under way, Dempsey began fielding offers for Indy Lights seats. One in particular, though, stood out. “Mark Olson and O2 Racing Technology have been pretty big fans of mine from the Star Mazda days, so we tried to get something going,” exclaimed Dempsey. “Fortunately for both us, the team generated some good sponsorship and team backing from Pulse (and other sponsors Cell Safety, Brandwidth, Quamtel Inc., Micro Biology International, Datajack, and Racing for Mexico) that enabled us to get a deal together and get a car ready for St. Pete. Now it looks like the deal is going for the remainder of the season.”
With a full-time seat finally in place, the focus now shifts to learning the car and the series, including the presence of ovals, a relatively new experience for Dempsey. “Obviously, being in the Firestone Indy Lights Series, it’s going to be at a higher level on the ovals with a lot more experienced drivers. So it’s going to be tough, but I think the team and myself are ready for the challenge.” Still, with a fourth at Milwaukee and a win at Iowa in the 2009 Star Mazda campaign, Dempsey is more than capable to mastering the ovals.
In terms of fighting for a championship, despite not being with either powerhouse of Sam Schmidt Motorsports or Andretti Autosport, Dempsey is plenty confident that O2 can give them a real run for their money. Though he acknowledges there is still much to learn, he believes the pieces are in place. “For us, we’re not a new team but we have a new bunch of guys and we’re trying to learn each other,” he said humbly. “We’re going to be improving with every single lap we do on track, whether it’s on a street course, road course, or an oval. We definitely have the capability to push (Schmidt and Andretti). If we race smart, there’s no reason we can’t put it up to them. We’re all there to win races and that’s our aim for the season.”
With consecutive third-place finishes to start the season, Dempsey and O2 Racing Technology are well within the thick of the title fight, only 10 points behind leader Josef Newgarden. “We need to be very smart in our approach to the races,” he went on. “At Barber Motorsports Park, I knew I wasn’t feeling well all weekend, so I went into the race just wanting to keep the car out of trouble and bring it home. We went from eighth place to a podium finish. If we keep racing smartly, wait for our days to come to us, and take race wins when we have the opportunity, we definitely have a strong chance of clinching a championship this year. If we can knock off teams like Andretti Autosport and Sam Schmidt Motorsports, it’s going to be very good for the series and obviously very good for the team.”
Even though it hasn’t always been smooth, Dempsey’s career is looking up. And, though the Mazda Road to Indy Program is only in its infancy at one-and-a-half years old, he believes it is enormously helpful to the young drivers working their up the junior ranks. “They’re just teaching us the right way to do it,” Dempsey finished. “Even being an older driver, I still went to (the Road to Indy seminars) and learned a huge amount. For the young kids coming up, 16, 17, and 18-year olds, they gain that experience at an entry level and are in a much stronger position going forward as they go up the ladder to secure funding, which they need to do now nowadays, unfortunately. I think (the Road to Indy) is the best thing that’s happened to junior open wheel racing in America. I really feel it’s going to make the junior series much stronger, especially now with a t.v. package in place for Indy Lights.“
The season for Dempsey, and the rest of the Firestone Indy Lights drivers, continues this weekend in Long Beach, California.