A Matter of Trust
Crew Chief Steve Letarte knows how to build a team
By Mike Savicki
For the last seven years, Steve Letarte has run nearly every lap of every NASCAR Sprint Cup race. He knows what it takes to win and he knows how it feels to come up short. Yet Letarte has never traded paint with the likes of Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon or Mark Martin, and you won’t see his name listed in the results after the checkered flag falls.
Steve Letarte is the crew chief of Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s No. 88 AMP Energy/National Guard Chevrolet, and his primary job is to run the team and position his driver to get to the winner’s circle.
“To the non-race fan, you could say I am like the head coach and general manager,” Steve Letarte begins. “I think the job is a little different with every race team, but here at Hendrick Motorsports, I’m in charge of the personnel, I’m in charge of the cars, I’m in charge of the talent and I coordinate all the day to day operations. The responsibility starts and stops on my desk.”
During the week, the Cornelius resident coordinates the operations of a team he says is as tight as family, and on the weekend, his focus shifts. Trust in the team permeates every decision he makes.
Letarte explains, “NASCAR is a gigantic team sport, and there are twenty-two people on the team who deserve credit for what they do at the track every week. But because the dynamics of the sport put the driver and crew chief on camera, some people think we are the only ones who make things happen. This entire race team has sweat equity in how we do, and everyone out there will tell you our bond is as tight as family. We trust each other, and I know how hard they work at their jobs.
“On race day, my one-to-one relationship is with Dale, and my biggest responsibility shifts to managing the race with my driver. We have to put our trust in each other because you never know what might happen in a race. Fans sometimes picture the car like a video game where if you push a certain button then something happens, but that’s not the case at all. There are mechanical things in the car we just can’t control, and when unforseen things happen, managing the human aspect becomes even more important.”
When your driver just happens to be NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver, the pressure is tremendous.
“Dale is such a superstar that anyone around him has an opinion on how things should be done,” Letarte says. “But I purposely came in to this season with a truly blank slate because I didn’t want to let any thoughts or preconceived ideas get in the way of us building a relationship. We take it one day at a time, we let honesty drive the relationship and we focus on trust.”
Letarte says leading the team through the inherent performance peaks and valleys that occur during the ten-month season is also a key component of his job.
“I feel my number one responsibility is to keep the roller coaster as flat as possible,” he offers. “It’s obvious that when things go badly, people look to me to lift up the team; but if you let the peaks get out of control, they can be just as painful, too. A lot of great people like Mr. Hendrick have taught me that a peak that gets too high is usually followed by a deep valley, and that is something we want to avoid.”
Letarte concludes, “While emotion is a requirement in sports, if you let it get too much out of whack, good or bad, then things get more difficult to manage. It’s when you put trust in each other that things work how they should.”
This article was originally published in the November 2011 edition of Currents Magazine.