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Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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Gordon's new guy is the old guy
Steve Letarte, in his first full season as crew chief, goes far enough back with the driver to say: "He's just Jeff."
By BRANT JAMES
Published February 11, 2006
DAYTONA BEACH - Jeff Gordon was striding through the garage area during lunch break at Daytona International Speedway when he spied his ghosts of crew chiefs past and present standing in a tight scrum ahead of him. Gordon, conspicuous in a loud red, blue and yellow fire suit and matching hat, slinked in unnoticed for a minute as his former partner, Robbie Loomis, finished a punch line. His new crew chief, Steve Letarte, laughed appropriately hard.
"Remember that girl in Phoenix in the yellow dress?" Loomis queried, elbowing each.
Then Letarte picked up the conversation and took his turn cracking them up. Picked it up just like he has one of the most pressure-filled jobs in NASCAR, that as crew chief of a four-time Nextel Cup champion, the series' active wins leader, and a driver who is coming off the most disappointing points finish of his 14-year career. Anxiety should radiate from the 26-year-old. But it doesn't. He exudes a self-effacing confidence, a sense of belonging, perhaps because a challenge those outside of Hendrick Motorsports consider daunting is just another role for the only team that's ever written him a paycheck. He knows the inside jokes already, and everybody knows him. He knows the expectations. And he knows he has the resources to meet them.
"I don't know if I'm the guy," he smiled. "But I'm the guy they chose."
Twelve years ago, Letarte started his career sweeping floors at Hendrick Motorsports' sprawling 100-acre campus while he attended high school. After graduating, he returned and worked up through the system: mechanic, tire specialist, then car chief in 2002. When Loomis left to take an executive job at Petty Enterprises with 10 races left last season, Letarte was promoted to his first crew chief position for Gordon's No. 24 Chevrolet and tasked with tidying the mess of Gordon's 2005 season and retrenching for 2006. He and Gordon won in their sixth race together at Martinsville.
"I'm the kind of guy where there is nothing I want more than for somebody to say, "Here, make a decision,"' Letarte said. "I'm really not that confident, but you have to lead with confidence. And when you make a decision, make it. Right, wrong, or indifferent, make a decision and move on."
Letarte's security comes from knowing the inner workings of every part of his team, that he has earned his way up. Having a four-time champion behind the wheel provides a certain comfort, too. He won't be intimidated by Gordon's credentials. They don't speak much during the week because they know they don't need to. And if they do, well, there's cell phones.
"A lot of people ask me what it's like to work with Jeff, but, heck, he's the only driver I've ever worked with," Letarte said. "He's just Jeff. I respect his accomplishments and I respect the success he's had and I don't take that away from him, but at the same time when I talk to him, I don't talk to him any different than what I talk to you or anyone else."
Letarte is the latest in the Ray Evernham lineage at Hendrick. He and Chad Knaus, now crew chief for Hendrick's Jimmie Johnson, served under Evernham as part of Gordon's 1997 "Rainbow Warriors" championship teams. Though Gordon could have had any number of crew chiefs, he agreed on Letarte because he possessed strong abilities to lead and organize, Gordon said.
"We didn't pick Steve because he was the next guy in line," he said. "We picked Steve because he was the right guy for the job."
Gordon and Letarte's backgrounds also seem to mesh without overlapping. Gordon is 34, Letarte, 26. Gordon has a wealth of experience handling the scrutiny that comes with his status. Letarte stays on the periphery. Gordon dates supermodels, Letarte is married with two kids.
"I think that's a perfect match," Knaus said. "Jeff's at the point where he can lead someone along. Steve needs a little bit of coaching, and I think Jeff can help him with that."
After waiting so long, Letarte would have been forgiven obsessing over team-owner Rick Hendrick's decision last fall. But Letarte said he didn't. That was a lesson learned from another of his predecessors, he said.
"I'm only 26," he said. "I think Robbie Loomis, some of the best advice he ever gave me is sometimes you want things to come slowly. The slower they come, the longer they last."