The roller coaster ride that has comprised Peter Dempsey’s career in American open wheel racing is well-known to most Mazda Road to Indy fans. There was the stint with O2 Racing Technology, cut unfortunately short. There was the brief, strong association with Andretti Autosport, and the worrisome, story two races with the short-lived Younessi Racing. Finally, there was the move to Belardi Auto Racing, a team, like Dempsey, looking to rise to the top of Firestone Indy Lights.
For the casual fan, Dempsey is likely best known for his incredible victory at this year’s Firestone Freedom 100 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where his come-from-behind, last-second win certainly rates among the greatest finishes ever at the World’s Greatest Race Course. Still, one moment does not always a career make, and the jury of public opinion seems divided as to whether or not Dempsey is ready for the “big cars”.
In my mind, there is little doubt the young Irish driver is ready. At 27 years of age, he has more experience than just about anyone current in the Mazda Road to Indy ladder. He’s labored for good teams and bad; he’s shown he can grab podiums and a win even when arrayed against powerhouse Lights teams such as Andretti and Schmidt. His aggression has been tempered and refined--without losing its edge--while making him a more careful racer overall.
Detractors will point to him being outside the main Lights title fight (though technically still alive in P5), but here, the statistics mislead. Belardi hasn’t always given Dempsey a car that can win this year, but he’s been tenacious on track, pushing those in front of him, and finishing as runner-up on three different occasions. If you’re looking at the current crop of INDYCAR prospects, Dempsey stands out as one of the only ones well-polished on both ovals and street courses.
Of course, the other question is whether or not there is a vacancy for Dempsey in IndyCar next year. Dale Coyne’s second car could again feature several part-time drivers, and seats at KV Racing, Andretti Autosport, and elsewhere remain in question. The first step would likely be Dempsey testing with a team, and it sounds as if he’s certainly been working hard on that account. The funding needs to be there for Dempsey, but he should be good enough that there’s the possibility of a team working with him on funding to give him a shot. Will it be for a predetermined part of the schedule, only a couple of races, or perhaps even a one-off at Indy? That all remains to be seen. But if Dempsey works as hard outside the car as he has inside of it, I like his chances.
The IZOD IndyCar Series is looking at a rookie bottleneck, with drivers like Carlos Munoz, Jack Hawksworth, Sage Karam, and Gabby Chaves all looking to move up into IndyCar in the next year or two. Competing with them are Lights graduates fighting for seat time such as Stefan Wilson and James Davison. That doesn’t even take into account Pro Mazda drivers that will soon be moving up, such as racing scion Matthew Brabham. It’s a tough field, but it sounds like Dempsey is cognizant of the challenge, and is doing what he can to meet it.
Peter Dempsey’s time in the Mazda Road to Indy ladder dates back to INDYCAR’s reunification; in a time when drivers are continually pushed and pressured to “move up now!”, he has been a curiosity, a driver, whom, by a mix of bad luck and necessity, has had to take the long approach to the top of the mountain. But Dempsey is perhaps the better for it; he has seen the best and worst of open wheel; both crushing disappointment and improbable victory. He has the experiences of being a fill-in driver, of trying to string together races when and where he can, of competing in subpar cars and in good ones, as well.
Perhaps more than any other IndyCar prospect, Peter Dempsey has experienced the full rigors of this sport. That, combined with his talent, should serve him well as he seeks a well-deserved promotion to the top echelon in 2014. It is time for Peter Demspey to move up to the IZOD IndyCar Series; let’s hope he gets his long-awaited chance.
Zachary Houghton runs www.indycaradvocate.com, which features regularly-updated INDYCAR, IZOD IndyCar Series, and Mazda Road to Indy interviews, commentary, and more. You can find him on Twitter at @indycaradvocate, or drop him a line at mail.rpgblog(at)gmail.com.