Patrick Dempsey during the media day for the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on April 6, 2010.
Patrick Dempsey during the media day for the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on April 6, 2010. (Jeff Gritchen / Staff Photographer)

It's a competition of speed, mental toughness and maneuverability in the midst of a controlled danger. With just a driver, a crew and the open road, it's a pure rush of adrenalin, addicting even for celebrities.

It's no surprise to Jim Michaelian, president and CEO of the Grand Prix Association of Long Beach, that those who experience the thrill of being behind the wheel of a race car catch the "racing bug. "

For more than 30 years the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach has given the country's biggest celebrities the chance to be a race car driver for the weekend. Many of these drivers, however, don't retire the suit and helmet after Long Beach's seaside race, which takes place April 19-21.

Instead, they "get the itch" and pursue racing as a professional driver.

In the race's 37-year history, over 20 drivers have used the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach Pro/Celebrity race to launch a racing career, including Josh Brolin, Sean Patrick Flanery, Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Gene Hackman and Jesse James.

"We are very excited about seeing people who recognize the whole spirit and energy generated by racing and discover it while they are on the track in Long Beach," Michaelian said.

Patrick Dempsey, star of "Grey's Anatomy," is one of the newest celebrities to turn professional. Though Dempsey didn't get his start in the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, he is the most accomplished celebrity to ever run the Pro/Celebrity race, Michaelian said.

In an interview, Dempsey said he caught the racing bug at an early age, in large part due to his father's influence. But it wasn't until his wife, Jillian, got tired of him sitting on the couch watching the SPEED channel that Dempsey's professional racing career took off.

She purchased him a three-day Skip Barber racing course in 2004 as a gift, and he said he was "hooked immediately. "

The actor's team is Dempsey Del Piero Racing, and sitting behind the wheel of the car - Tully's Prosche 911 GT3 - is Dempsey, and successful drivers Andy Lally and Joe Foster.

"I can't not race," he said. "It is has been an incredible experience, and a very enjoyable break from Hollywood. At the same time, it is a real challenge and people don't realize the physical, mental and financial challenges that come with racing. I have tremendous respect for the sport, the drivers and the racing community. "

Other celebrities to find success include Steve McQueen, who won the 12 Hours of Sebring in 1970, and Paul Newman, who won races across several circuits.

Frankie Muniz, the most recent celebrity turned pro, got his start on the 1.97-mile Long Beach course.

"It is every guy's dream to be a race car driver," Muniz said in an interview. "But most never have the opportunity to get behind the wheel. "

Muniz, commonly known for his role as "Malcolm" in the popular Fox show "Malcolm in the Middle," won the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach Pro/Celebrity race in 2005.

"I knew from the minute I got in the car that that is what I wanted to do - it is just an incredible feeling," he said. "Everyone thinks they can drive, everything thinks that they are fast, but it is way more than being fast, it is the technique that makes racing what it is. "



Muniz said that not everyone can break into the next level.

"You either have it or you don't," he said. "You can learn some aspects of racing, but in order to be a race car driver, a lot of it has to come naturally. That is what separates the race car drivers from just a person driving a car. "

Other actors and entertainers have tried racing, but only a select few have succeeded and earned the respect of their peers. One such driver, who kicked off his career at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach Pro/Celebrity race, is Bruce Jenner.

Jenner, who won the Gold Medal in 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, said when he first got into the car he knew it wouldn't be the last time.

"I was invited to the race, got in the car, kicked butt, won the race and that was that," he said in an interview. "Shortly thereafter I bought some go-karts signed a deal with Ford Motor Company and just kept racing. "

Michaelian said Jenner has had the most distinguished career when looking at drivers who actually got their start in Long Beach.

Jenner, who is on the realty show "Keeping Up With the Kardashians," said he was able to pursue racing aggressively in the 1980s because he was single with time on his hands.

"I had a great time and won some big races," he said. "Then I met my wife (Kris Jenner), picked up more kids, I'm now up to eight and I stopped racing professional, though I still go out, run cars and have a great time on the track. I love racing - it's truly a great sport. "

Jenner's son, Brody Jenner (of MTV's "Laguna Beach" and "The Hills") , competed in last year's Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach Pro/Celebrity race, but was taken out in a crash midway through the race. Bruce Jenner said he hopes to see his son behind the wheel in Long Beach again.

This year, Jesse Metcalfe (of TNT's "Dallas") said he also has officially "caught the bug. "

"I have learned that I definitely have a need for speed and this has been an absolute blast," said Metcalfe, who will race in the April 19 Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach Pro/Celebrity race. "This is something that I definitely want to continue to pursue. I can't imagine this being my only race. "

But it's Dempsey's love for racing that sets him apart, and his commitment to the sport has made him a driver first, actor second.

Dempsey, who is known by the female population as "McDreamy," is humble about his racing career, but that doesn't mean he isn't a rising star in the sport.

Competing in the oldest off-road race in North America, Dempsey and teammate Lally, took a trip to Victory Lane in the General Tire Mint 400 on March 24. The week prior, in the team's season debut, the Dempsey Del Piero Racing team brought the pole-winning No. 27 car to a sixth place finish and the No. 10 car to a seventh place finish.

In only his fourth full season of GRAND-AM Rolex Sports Car Series GT class competition, the lead driver and owner of Dempsey Racing is quite possibly the most talked about newby in sports car racing.

"Racing is always expecting the unexpected," he said. "It is exhilarating and challenging and I love it. "

Dempsey's advice to celebrities who want to transition into professional racing: "Respect the sport. "

"You have to have a tremendous respect for the sport, the drivers and the community, and doors will open," he said. "You have to work hard and race as much as possible - racing professionally is a real challenge and takes time and commitment, and I can't stress enough the respect you have to have for the sport and those that are in it. "

Michaelian said it is great to see so may individuals leave the streets of Long Beach forever changed.

"Personally, I have experienced the racing itch for many years," he said. "There are a lot of people who come to this event and thought they were 'racers' but they realize there is so much in terms of the technical and mental (know-how) that they need to achieve to be a race car driver. But catching the bug is easy, there really is nothing not to love about this sport. "