After finishing up a morning schedule of classes in high school, a 16-year-old Steve Letarte reported for work around noon each day at the Hendrick Motorsports shop outside Charlotte, NC, where his father, Don, built race car chassis.
There, the teenager cleaned air conditioning ducts, dusted ceiling fans, scrubbed the tops of cabinets, washed company vans, inventoried car parts and then enthusiastically asked, “What’s next?”
It sure beat his previous job — mowing neighbor Ray Evernham’s yard. At Hendrick Motorsports, Letarte quickly realized sweeping floors is Motorsports 101.
The broom and dustpan have famously launched the career of several of Hendrick’s biggest success stories, including the team’s president, Marshall Carlson.
It worked for Letarte, too, who’s capitalized on what seems like a “Leave It to Beaver” lesson in good ol’-fashioned work ethic and extreme loyalty.
As the crew chief on Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s No. 88 National Guard/AMP Energy Chevy, Letarte has guided NASCAR’s most popular driver to his best statistical start in 13 Sprint Cup seasons. Earnhardt and teammate Jimmie Johnson are tied with a series-best seven top-10 finishes in the first nine races. Plus, Junior sits second in the Sprint Cup Series championship standings, a don’t-look-now five points behind leader Greg Biffle as the circuit heads this weekend to Earnhardt’s personal playground, Talladega Superspeedway.
“It’s hard to believe how young Steve is, because it seems like he’s been here forever,’’ team owner Rick Hendrick said this week.
“I remember when he started in high school, sweeping floors and just doing anything and everything possible to be around the team. When you see a guy at that age with that kind of attitude and work ethic, it leaves an impression on you.’’
After working on the crew for all four of Jeff Gordon’s championships, and spending the past eight years as a crew chief in the Hendrick organization — Letarte is leaving an impression on the sport as well.
“Stephen, even as a 14-year-old kid, was way above his years, always polite, very buttoned-up, always did well in school, just a model kid,’’ said Gordon’s championship crew chief Evernham, who still unfailingly refers to his former employee and neighbor as “Stephen.”
“When he became 15 we offered him a part-time job sweeping floors in the 24 car (Gordon) shop, and he just continued to grow and push and learn on his own. He’s been the same since he was 15 years old. He was 15 going on 25 the whole time.
“Stephen was one of those guys you knew would be successful at whatever he chose to do. I honestly thought he would end up being something highly intellectual — a doctor, a lawyer, a rocket scientist — and he chose to be a crew chief, so it’s neat he’s doing so well.’’
Letarte, who eventually followed Evernham as Gordon’s crew chief from 2006 to 2010, recognizes that his career path is both unconventional and unlikely by today’s standards, but it’s hard to argue with the results.
And he wouldn’t change a thing.
“I’m in the office I am right now because of Jeff and Rick,’’ Letarte explained, “because Rick believed in me and Jeff believed in me enough to let me crew chief for him at a point in his career when he really needed success.
“I’m probably one of the last in a wave of crew chiefs that don’t have an engineering degree or college degree, but I feel like I went to HMS University and am still here.
“I had an opportunity to go to several colleges, but I was convinced I was already on the career path that I wanted to be on in racing. I had unbelievable opportunities and even in today’s economy, I think people see college degrees don’t necessarily open doors for everyone.
“The door was always kinda cracked half-open for me, and I didn’t dare take a chance on seeing it shut. There were a lot of opportunities and a lot of sacrifices.’’
Missing senior proms and homecoming dances isn’t uncommon among up-and-coming drivers and crew members who typically spend their Friday and Saturday nights at local short tracks trying to get noticed.
It was a similar story of teenage sacrifice for Letarte, whose family moved to Charlotte from Maine when he was only 14. Except in this case, Letarte’s hard work was rewarded with a full-time job that meant his weekends were spent on the road working on the car driven by America’s newest racing superstar in Gordon.
The shop work and overtime grind didn’t start out as glamorous, but Letarte was dedicated and all-in at that point. And it has paid off.
It’s a work ethic he shares with Earnhardt, who will remind you that he wasn’t born with a silver steering wheel in his hand. Even the namesake son of the late, seven-time champ Dale Earnhardt held a broom for many years, sweeping the floors at his father’s car dealership.
“There’s not a job you could imagine at the race shop that I didn’t do at some point,’’ Letarte said. “It really makes me appreciate the people doing it now.’’
His own humble entry into the sport and this ability to relate at all levels with his team and driver are what distinguish Letarte, say those who know him best.
“Every crew chief is a little bit different, and I would say Stephen has a really good understanding of the race car," Evernham said. "He’s very intelligent on his race calls and race strategy and things like that, but his strength is probably in how he deals with people.
“I absolutely think Steve’s personality has a lot to do with the success he and Junior are having now.
“People always ask, ‘What’s the chemistry? What’s the combination?’ It’s trust, honesty and respect — you have to have all those things, and I think Dale and Steve have that with each other.’’
Hendrick calls it the “fit factor.’’
“Before the (crew chief) changes (at the end of 2010), we really looked at all of the personalities — drivers, crew chiefs, teams — and put people where we thought they’d be most successful,’’ Hendrick explained of his high-profile crew chief swap that brought Letarte from Gordon’s team to Earnhardt’s.
“Steve’s won races, and he’s never missed the Chase, so his talent is through the roof. The main thing was him meshing with Dale Jr. from a relationship standpoint, but Steve was excited, and they hit it off from the very beginning.’’
So much so, the bachelor Earnhardt has even been known to spend an off day accompanying Letarte and his 6-year-old daughter on a shopping trip to the mall for a little driver-crew chief bonding.
“My wife tells me we’re just made for one another because we’re both just weird,’’ Letarte laughed. “The two of us laugh at jokes no one else gets, and she just says we make one another.
“There’s a comfort level there. I respect his ability, his position in the sport and him personally. And he respects everyone on the race team. He trusts that we believe in him and that I trust his feedback in what he’s telling me. I never doubt his effort.
“Dale and I, fortunately or unfortunately, are at the same point in our careers. When we got together we had a lot in common: two guys and a whole race team that was ready to prove something.
“I’m just a small-town kid from Maine who lives a dream job. It’s important to me that people realize everybody gets opportunities, but it’s what you make of the opportunities that will define your career and life.’’