Peter Dempsey started out the 2011 Firestone Indy Lights season with O2 Racing Technology, and got off to a great start finding the podium in the first two races and leading for a time at Long Beach. If you’re a regular reader here at OpenPaddock, or a regular listener of our podcast, you already know what happened to Peter and his team during the David Hobbs 100 at the Milwaukee Mile. Peter had already sat out of the entire 2010 racing season here in the US after becoming the winningest driver in Star Mazda history with nine total wins over the 2008 and 2009 season. He certainly wasn’t ready to sit out the remainder of 2011 as well. Being a driver coach for Juncos Racing’s Star Mazda team kept him visible around the paddock and that lead to a one-race deal (for now) with Andretti Autosport to race the #26 machine this weekend on the Streets of Toronto. We had time to ask a few short questions of Dempsey about his work to secure the ride with Andretti Autosport, what we can expect at Toronto, and his outlook for the remainder of the season.
Doug Patterson: Your Firestone Indy Lights season with O2 Racing Technologies was starting out so strong. P3 on the streets of St. Petersburg and at Barber Motorsports Park, and leading several laps at Long Beach before being caught out by the bumps. When did you first start suspecting that your season was going to take the tragic turn that it did?
Peter Dempsey: O2 Racing did a fantastic job for me at the start of the season. We started the season with two podium finishes, which was great. Unfortunately due to circumstances out of my control and the team’s control, we were unable to make the race in Milwaukee. It’s disappointing it ended the way it did, but when you have a smaller team with a tight budget, making a full season happen is always going to be tough.
DP: It seems that drivers now days have to spend just as much time in a business suit as they do in a fire suit. Explain to us the work that you went through to get this deal with Andretti Autosport put together, especially on such short notice.
Dempsey: I realized it was very important for me as a driver to get back in a car as soon as possible. I was working with a Star Mazda team in Iowa, so I just went and spoke to Blair [Perschbacher], an Andretti engineer, about their open seat. I eventually reached J-F [Thormann, executive vice president and chief operating officer] and fortunately the deal came together between my sponsors and Andretti Autosport. It was a matter of everything aligning at the right time and place really.
DP: Toronto will be a new circuit to you, if I’m not mistaken. What do you do to prepare for a new circuit?
Dempsey: It’s definitely a little bit more difficult being my first time here in Toronto. It’s a lot of studying in-car video to get a feel for the track before practice starts. Since Andretti Autosport has race here in Lights before, the engineers are able to give me pointers and go over data from past years.
DP: One of the aspects of having a successful weekend at the track is having good communication with your engineer. Being brand new to Andretti Autosport, how do you and your engineer develop that level of comfort and communication needed within the few short days you have before the race?
Dempsey: I had a chance to meet the engineers during my seat fit at Andretti Autosport, so we had the opportunity to go over data, compare data from my Long Beach race. This helped them determine my driving style too.
DP: What are your expectations this weekend?
Dempsey: It’s important for me to put out a strong performance for the team. We’re hoping for two podium finishes, and we’re working as hard as we can to make it a strong possibility. We’re definitely headed in the right direction. Two podiums would be a successful weekend.
DP: This current deal is for Toronto only. What are the chances that we get to see you on-track beyond this weekend?
Dempsey: At the moment, I’m really focusing on this weekend and then we’ll see where it goes from there. I would love to stay at Andretti Autosport for the rest of the season, but for now, I’ll make sure I do the best job I can for the team in Toronto.
We do appreciate how stretched Peter’s time must be right now working with a new team during a race weekend, and we’d like to thank him for taking time out to speak with us. The first practice session for the Firestone Indy Lights Series in Toronto took place this morning, and Peter put in a fast time of 1:06:6555. That was good enough for fifth overall on the time sheet and put him within a second of his teammate, Stefan Wilson, who posted the fastest time of the session with a 1:05.6385.
Free Practice 2 begins bright and early tomorrow morning at 0800 EDT, and Qualifying begins at 1145 EDT. You can follow the action via IndyCar.com’s live timing and scoring at http://racecontrol.indycar.com/.