BUT BEFORE HE GOES much further, it's perhaps wise to consider once more where he has been. You see, Patrick Dempsey may have dropped off your map for a while, but he was never one of those struggling actors who take jobs just to pay the rent, just to make ends meet while seeking career resurrection. The man has expensive hobbies. As it turns out, Can't Buy Me Love actually can buy you a lot of things - chiefly, farmland in Texas and Maine. Not to mention $100,000 race cars made by hand in a small factory outside Atlanta, where Dempsey spends much of his time when he's not flying to Los Angeles, where he lives with his Texas-born wife, Jill Fink, and their three-year-old daughter, Tallulah; or to a farm outside Tyler, Texas; or to his spread in Portland, Maine.

"Culturally, going from Los Angeles to Maine to Texas to Atlanta, you really get a sense of America," Dempsey says. "There's a huge diversity of people's points of view and ethics and belief systems. It's fascinating to me. I love Portland, Maine, where I'm from, and I have a farm there. Going to the farm is the only real place where I feel relaxed and at home. That's where the roots are. It was a dream to have a farm on the coast of Maine when I was growing up. To realize that was a major turning point in my life, personally. That was great. But Atlanta has been a home away from home for me because I go down there to race. My race team is based there and I have a lot of friends in the Atlanta area. I've worked there a number of times. It's a really comfortable town to be in."

Yes, that's absolutely right: Patrick Dempsey is a professional race-car driver - has been since his wife got him a Skip Barber Racing School package for Christmas several years ago, which so whet his appetite, he's been gorging ever since. It is, he says, "an addiction." But he didn't take to the track seriously until three years ago, when he was invited to participate in a fund-raising event for Dare to Share, an Atlanta-based charity founded in 2001 by Francine Boudewijn and her fellow residents at the astoundingly exclusive winery, resort, and spa called Château Élan, where some 2,000 homes, none costing less than $400,000, sit on 3,500 acres and a 63-hole golf course. And for all of this, he has to thank actor Ivan Sergei, best known for the film The Opposite of Sex and the series Crossing Jordan, who invited Dempsey to appear in a film.

"Ivan was doing a short film, and he called and said, 'Hey, do you want to help me out on this?'?" Dempsey recalls. "I was like, 'Sure, what's the premise?' He said, 'There's a car chase,' and I said, 'Oh, I love cars. I would love to do something like that; it'd be fun.' So we did this little short, and his mother and father came out. They said, 'You should come to Atlanta. If you're into car racing, you should come down and check out one of the races.' And then I got an invitation to be a part of this fund-raiser, and that started everything off. And it was unbelievable, like it was meant to be. Everything opened up for me in that area."

When he got to Atlanta, Dempsey was introduced to Don and Dan Panoz, the ­father-and-son team whose 16-year-old company, Panoz Auto Development Company, manufactures some of the most elegant and ­expensive cars in the United States. Located about 40 miles northeast of Atlanta,­ in the town of Hoschton, the company was founded­ in 1989 in a converted 2,000-square-foot Department of Transportation salt-storage shed. Panoz makes six different cars, each as sleek as a wet bullet and just as fast; not one has a maximum speed of under 155 miles per hour. They're precisely the kinds of cars that look like they ought to be driven by movie stars; the ghosts of Steve McQueen and James Dean probably own a dozen, in varying shades of gunmetal gray.

Don and Dan also run the Panoz Racing School in nearby Braselton, at the 2.54-mile, 12-turn Grand Prix course called Road Atlanta - which sits on 700 acres, making it a sort of theme park for racers. The school is, in fact, the home track for the American Le Mans Series. Dempsey takes part in a support race, the Panoz GT Pro series.

"I met Don and Dan and got a factory tour, and ultimately I bought one of the cars, because I really loved the notion that these guys were producing hand-built cars the old-­fashioned European way in America," Dempsey says. "They were very accommodating and good people. I had an opportunity to go racing. It sort of all just fell into place. I just got back from Le Mans with a factory team, which was fun. That was an extraordinary experience. The camaraderie is great; I love the challenge of it. It's a great way to get away from Hollywood and to challenge yourself physically and emotionally. For me, it's the best way to keep in shape, because I have something I'm training for, as opposed to, 'I've got to stay in shape for the show.' That's not enough. This is good mentally, and the camaraderie is great."

Dempsey figures he goes to Atlanta at least once a month, sometimes more if he's prepping for a race or attending a Dare to Share event. And when he goes, he stays not at a hotel - how slow-lane, after all - but at the Barnsley Gardens Resort, situated on 1,300 acres in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, about an hour north of Atlanta, in Adairsville. The way Dempsey describes it, the place sounds like heaven on earth - and its Web site, www.barnsley­resort.com, does nothing to disabuse you of that notion. According to the site, Barnsley Gardens Resort was once the property of Godfrey Barnsley, an Englishman who came to Savannah in 1824 and became one of the South's most prosperous cotton traders; about two decades after his arrival here, he bought 4,000 acres of land in northwest Georgia. But the Civil War claimed much of Barnsley's money, and a tornado in the early 1900s claimed much of the mansion built on the land; by 1942, the place had begun to crumble and nearly disappeared altogether, back into the wilderness. Seventeen years ago, Prince Hubertus Fugger-Babenhausen of Germany bought the property and began restoring it, turning it into one of those resorts only people in movies visit on regular occasions, usually while driving $100,000 sports cars.

"It's a hotel but set up like a little English village, and there are wild bison," Dempsey says of the Georgia retreat. "It's really a magical spot! It's like you step back in time. It also has a great restaurant. [Barnsley] had realized the American dream right before the Civil War. He moved his wife out to this area and lived the American dream; the war came along and devastated everything; his wife dies ... it's this tragic Civil War thing, and the history behind the land is fascinating to me. The centerpiece of the hotel - or this complex - is this ruin of the mansion, and you can rent it out and have a candlelight dinner there. It's beautiful. The roof is gone, everything is falling apart, but it's in a magical little piece of property that I just fell in love with. And we ended up having a wonderful party in the ruins one night.

"Coming from Maine, I never really understood the Civil War until I went to the South, especially in that area, and got a real taste of what happened and what was going on there. And it sort of ignited my whole curiosity of that period. When I travel, I really like to read up on where I'm going or what I'm experiencing. Getting a sense of the history. That's been part of the joy of traveling. I had such a profound time there during the shooting of Sweet Home Alabama that I often wish I could get down there more. I love the whole notion of what it was about and the story behind it."

Dempsey doesn't stay there as often as he'd like because these days he's crashing with racing pals - which isn't to say he's sleeping on a musty couch in some one-bedroom apartment. It's a tough choice, actually: Stay at Barnsley Gardens or at Château Élan, which bills itself as a cross between "French Provincial and Southern hospitality" on 3,500 acres just 40 minutes north of Atlanta and which is close to the Panoz facilities.

In addition to its own planned community (of very, very rich folks), Château Élan is also a resort, with a 277-room inn and a 42,000-square-foot winery that resembles a 16th-century French château and is surrounded by 75 acres of vinifera French and French-American hybrid grapes producing some 22 varietals. No wonder they needed to build houses around the joint; why visit when you can live there?

"I think there is something in and around Georgia - the land speaks to me more than the city does in a lot of respects, because of the lushness of it," Dempsey says of his love for the area. "It's slowly getting developed, which is a tragedy because of all these beautiful farms and things like that. There's enough if you seek out and seek to be in the land. To be able to look at the stars - that's church to me. That's a religious experience. Something about that, especially if you have kids and do that with your family, is an amazing experience. I think that's the appeal in getting out to the country."

But what of the racing, his reason for even being there in the first place? Doesn't he worry that movie studios and production companies will ask him to quit, given that it makes him an insurance risk?

"We haven't crossed that bridge as of yet," he says, laughing. "I don't think it's helping my case by talking about it in the press, but we'll see. And it's road racing. I'm not oval racing, like in the IRL [Indy Racing League]. That's probably the most dangerous form of racing you could possibly do. I go to a lot of races, and I know a lot of the drivers, but that's not my career objective. I just want to go and race and be competitive. I finally got on the podium in the Panoz­ ­series. That was a huge thing. It's just a sport that reminds me of ski racing, which I did as a kid and won Maine championships. A lot of that goes back to my childhood and time spent with my father, who passed away a number of years ago, and I think it rekindles that kind of competitive spirit.

"And it's fulfilling, because when I come back from a race weekend, I really appreciate my day job much more. I've been in this business so long - it's too much to have your whole life based on that. It's not possible. It's not healthy, number one. Thank God for my family, which gives me the grounding and stability to go off and do the other things. Your family is the most important aspect of it. And I find around the racing community, that that's true, as well: It's about your family."