Steve Letarte is making it perfectly clear for his role during this upcoming weekend’s Dixie Vodka 400 (3:30 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN) at the Homestead-Miami Speedway – he’s in more of a race management role and not necessarily a crew chief position on Sunday.
But, this role is all about the future too. What kind of a future? Well, keep reading.
For the first time since the season finale at Homestead in 2014, Letarte is going to come back to pit road and work for a race team.
Letarte, 41, has been an NBC Sports analyst for their NASCAR coverage since 2015. He essentially went from the pit box to the broadcast booth. But, due to NBC Sports not starting their NASCAR coverage until the second half of the year and Corey LaJoie’s crew chief, Ryan Sparks, coming down with COVID, Letarte will now be the crew chief on the No. 7 Chevrolet for Sunday’s race.
Some may wonder, how did this all come about? After six years, why do this now? Well, to get to that answer, you first have to peel back the first layer. Call this opportunity more of returning a favor than anything else.
That’s because, on top of his NBC Sports duties, Letarte is a competition consultant for Spire Motorsports too. This is his first year of doing so at that. Well, when Sparks tested positive for COVID after Daytona last weekend, the team knew that they needed a new crew chief replacement for the upcoming race at Homestead. Jeff Dickerson called in his old pal Letarte to see if he would be willing to fill in.
Letarte, says that this was the first step and it was all about repaying a favor for Dickerson who Letarte had to call in last minute a few times to be a spotter in a pinch. Now, Dickerson returned the favor from years past and Letarte obliged. Well, first he had to call his employer NBC Sports to ensure that it was okay. They naturally agreed since this actually helps Letarte’s role as an analyst for when their broadcast takes over this summer. What better way to bring information to the fans than actually fulfilling a role from earlier in the season.
That’s part of the second layer. This helps his TV role too.
“This is a chance to throw myself into the fire,” Letarte said. “I love my job at NBC. I love analyzing what happens on and off the track. I’m thankful NBC let me do this. It’s kind of a win-win opportunity. I’m very proud of my role as an on-air analyst.
“I have a contract with NBC and I’m excited to return to the booth. This is purely me trying to help two friends trying to run a race team.”
In saying that, some former stick-and-ball coaches say that they can bring a lot to a broadcasting role since they lived it. Then, when they go back to the sidelines, they take a lot of what they’ve learned from the booth back down to the field. It helps both ways and can help both parts of their careers.
Does the same ring true in NASCAR?
Letarte says that he hasn’t been on the pit box in well over 200 races, 218 to be exact. How much has he learned over the last six years while being in the broadcast booth that he can take down with him to the pit box since he’s had a different perspective the since 2015?
“I learned that the ability in the booth is easier because you have no responsibility to one driver and you get to watch all 40 cars,” Letarte told me. “It’s very easy to say that this guy is doing this and this guy is doing this. I don’t believe I’m going to carry a lot of knowledge from the booth down to the pit box but what I’m really looking forward to, to be 100% honest, is that everything that I’m reminded or learned that I can now carry from the pit box back to the booth. I think that’s the direction the information will flow.”
The third layer is the timing of this nature. Letarte also said that the one-day show further helps this decision as he’s not having to massage a car all weekend between practice and qualifying to get it ready for a race. While it could have its detriment in the sense that he’s going from no pit box action for 218 races straight into a race in the COVID era, Letarte says that the one day show actually helped make his decision too.
“Totally, that’s a great question,” Letarte said. “I’ve been out of it for 6 years. Do I think that I could come in on a Friday and run practice and get through qualifying and all the decision that had to be made? I would be nothing more than a voice on the radio.
“What these guys and the men and women on all of the teams that develop all of this speed, I mean we see the cars, they’re engineered. They’re amazing. The speed that they produce is amazing. I don’t have any claim to feel like I can go back in there and run a weekend of practice or anything. The fact that it’s a one day show, I’m really there, well you can call me whatever title you want, but what I’m really there as is calling a race for the 7 and executing Ryan Sparks’ plan.”
Also, Letarte says that his race day role is going to be just not to make headlines. He’s just managing the race for LaJoie and that Homestead is a pretty straightforward track in the sense that pit strategy is out the window with any time there’s a yellow you pit and take on four tires.
He noted that he and Sparks will be in communication on the live chat throughout the race and that he’d lean on him as need be. He does understand that there could be some last minute decisions that he’d need to make as he sees fit too though.
“Ryan Sparks is in charge and this is his race car,” he reiterated. “He’s the only one I’m asking for opinions on what his concerns are. The rest just needs to come as it goes.
“I think my goal is to do nothing that gives you fine media folks such as myself reasons to talk about us. It’s going to be great to remind myself what it was like 6 years ago and the current nuances.”