Move to television lets Letarte put family first
January 10, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- It wasn't easy for Steve Letarte to walk into Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s motorhome in October at Charlotte, amid rumors that he might eventually leave the No. 88 team for television. It was painful for the crew chief to sit across a desk from team owner Rick Hendrick, Letarte's employer since he was 16 years old, and tell him he was trading the pit box for the broadcast booth. After all, these people were like his family.
His second family. And his first family comes first.
That much was made clear Friday, when Letarte detailed why he'll exchange his headset for a microphone when he leaves Earnhardt's team after this season to join the NBC Sports broadcast team. The crew chief who engineered the performance turnaround of NASCAR's most popular driver was hired by NBC executive producer Sam Flood to be a race analyst beginning with the 2015 campaign, where Letarte will work alongside 21-time race winner Jeff Burton and announcer Rick Allen in a three-man booth.
"Really when it comes down to it, probably the No. 1 thing is, I have an 8- and a 10-year-old child, and I know the commitment it takes to be a top-level crew chief. I don't know firsthand the commitment it takes to be great on television ... but in my conversations with Sam, I don't think it's quite the same time commitment and travel commitment," Letarte, wearing a new NBC polo shirt, said at Daytona International Speedway.
"When it comes down to it, the list is very, very long, but that would have to go to the top of the list. I've always said, and I don't think I've ever hid it from anyone, that my family has always been my No. 1 priority. It comes down to, if I'm going to be unsuccessful at anything I do, being a father shouldn't be on the list. So I'm going to put that one first. This allows me to put that one first."
Letarte is no stranger to a microphone, having done occasional radio and television work in addition to his crew chief's duties. Flood said the idea of hiring Letarte as an analyst came from listening to the crew chief's guest spots on SiriusXM satellite radio, which "made me aware how important it was to try and add him to this group," he said. NBC and NBC Sports Network will air the final 20 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series events of the season beginning in 2015, a schedule that clearly appealed to a 34-year-old crew chief with two kids at home.
"It was hard because we are such good friends, and I really do enjoy working with him a lot," Earnhardt said. "But at the same time, I'm happy for him because it gives him the opportunity to spend time with his family. It's something that's really important to him, and the way these races are broadcast and how they're presented to the fans is a big part of how the sport remains healthy, and I think that he's going to be incredible in that role."
First, though, comes the matter of the 2014 season, and Letarte's final run at the helm of the No. 88 team. Although he and Earnhardt have won just one race together -- at Michigan, in the summer of 2012 -- the program has shown steady growth since Hendrick paired the duo in a personnel shuffle before the 2011 campaign. Earnhardt was coming off consecutive 25th- and 21st-place finishes in Sprint Cup points, but Letarte's positivity lifted him to a seventh-place result the next year. Last season's fifth-place finish was the driver's best since 2006, and his heyday at Dale Earnhardt Inc.
Letarte knows any misstep this season will lead to howls from Junior Nation that he's distracted, that his head is already in the broadcast booth. But the crew chief and driver are close -- Earnhardt was the second person Letarte said he told of his pending move, after his wife Tricia -- and it's clear there's a mission to make this final campaign together a memorable one.
"I think what makes this situation unique compared to any driver situation I can remember is, I'm not going to crew chief for another organization, so when I go to Charlotte with Dale Jr., it's going to be our last trip together to Charlotte. ... I'm not working on being a broadcaster in 2014, I'm working on filling a trophy case, and to do that we have to win our first race," Letarte said.
"Dale and I have had that conversation, and he said it the best, that this will give us an opportunity to really cherish those races and those opportunities, and I think if anything, it might allow us to be better at our jobs, because frustration sets in for everyone in the garage area. It's a tough sport. If it doesn't set in, you don't care enough about your job. And I think this is one more thing that could maybe drag us out of frustration, because you know there's a time stamp on the end of it. So do you really want to throw away your last trip to Sonoma together? Do you want to put personal feelings in the way of trying to win the Brickyard?"
The television job will present a different kind of opportunity, and NBC's booth will clearly have a contemporary take on issues given that its analysts come straight from the garage area. Flood said Letarte and Burton will meet with NBC's veteran NFL analyst Cris Collinsworth about broadcast preparation, something he doesn't believe either of his new hires will have trouble with.
"We aren't retiring," added Burton, who is running a partial slate this year for Michael Waltrip Racing. "We're taking another position in the sport. I think that needs to be noted. We're not walking away from work. We're accepting a new challenge. Steve and I have talked a lot about this. We want to outwork everybody. This isn't a right to do this. We've earned it, now we've got to go earn it every single day, and that's what he's done as a crew chief. That's what I feel like I've done as a driver. We hope to bring that to the broadcast, as well."
It will clearly be a transition for Letarte, who's worked only at Hendrick since he started part-time sweeping the floors when he was in high school. After winning 11 races -- 10 of them in a successful six-year stint with Jeff Gordon -- as a Sprint Cup crew chief, he sees the move to television as the next step in his career. But he'll still be around the garage area, still be able to maintain the relationships he made over nearly two decades at Hendrick, and still have one more season to chase race victories with Earnhardt.
"We're very involved in each other's lives, and I hope for that to continue past the end of 2014," Letarte said. "But we still have a year to go, and this opportunity will really let me cherish that year like I would hope where when I come down here in a few weeks, this will be my last shot as a crew chief for a Daytona 500 pole, for a 150s win. I've never won a Daytona 500 as a crew chief. Those opportunities, I think, will make me really enjoy and cherish and put the right foot forward for the next season."