HOMESTEAD, Fla. – The exchange happens often, but it still “tears apart” Jeff Gordon’s crew chief, Steve Letarte.
“My little boy,” Letarte said, “he’ll ask, ‘Daddy are you going to the shop or to the track?’ and I said, ‘Why do you ask that?' And he said, ‘When you go to the shop you come home every night.' " With the NASCAR season ending, those conversations should occur with less frequency. Through the course of the 38-week, 36-race NASCAR Cup schedule, life is a constant balancing act for the crew chiefs. They are away from home about four days a week, and at the race shop they routinely put in long hours, often 10 to 12 hours a day.
“We’re spoiled brats,” Team Red Bull driver A.J. Allmendinger said. “These are the real working guys, they sacrifice more.”
Making it work
Letarte, 28, is in his 12th year at Hendrick after working his way up from sweeping the floors. He said by the time he is 40 he no longer will be a crew chief, or have a job in the garage that requires him to travel extensively. For now, he tries to make things work by sticking to a routine. He usually picks two nights a week to escape from work and one is family night, the other is date night with his wife.
Letarte is married and has a 3-year-old son, Tyler, and 1-year-old daughter, Ashley. At the Hendrick Motorsport shop shared with reigning champion Jimmie Johnson’s crew chief, Chad Knaus, Letarte helps oversee more than 80 employees and is responsible for making sure Gordon’s race cars are prepared for race weekend in addition to administrative work such as approving time cards. At the track, he directs and guides the crew team, must keep Gordon pleased with his cars and calls the shots from the pit box on pit road.
“You have to set boundaries and stay within them because if you work night and day you might be successful in the garage but over time you’re going to burn out,” Letarte said
Some crew chiefs said they do not want their lifestyles to put an irrevocable strain on their family.
Crew chief Michael “Fatback” McSwain announced earlier this season that this would be his last as a Cup crew chief. It was a bold move because in a cutthroat industry where top jobs are difficult to attain, he decided he had enough. He stepped down as crew chief of the No. 21 Ford at Wood Brothers last month and is working in the team shop pondering his next move. McSwain and wife Deanna have a 5-month-old son, Wyatt, and 2-year-old daughter, Makayla.
“My biggest nightmare has always been that I would come home from I don’t know ... Phoenix ... crawl into bed and my wife would tap me on the shoulder and say, ‘Hey we have got to get Makayla a car today because she turns 16 in two weeks.’ I think if you surveyed 100 people in here, 75 percent of them have had that discussion.”
“I don’t know what the percentage is, but most of the people in this garage have either had an issue with a wife or spouse or a child that would have never happened if they would have been home.”
Brian Whitesell is the team manager for Kyle Busch and Casey Mear’s Cup teams and part of his job is to try to monitor burnout. He said in the 15 years he has been in the sport the schedule has become longer, but team airplanes and technology such as laptops and cell phones make it easier for crew chiefs to maintain communication with their families. He said schedules in the shop are more forgiving.
“In the years I’ve been involved we went from a holiday being nothing, it was a day you went to work ... and vacation, maybe you got the vacation. We got to the point where we had someone come in to do haircuts at the shop.”
This season has been unforgiving to Allmendinger’s first-year Cup crew chief, Ricky Viers. He has lost about 18 pounds and his hair turned gray. Allmendinger’s team has had to qualify on speed all season because it is not in the top 35.
“I was prepared, but I had no idea it was going to be this difficult,” Viers said, adding that he gets by on lots of Tums and Advil.
Life on the road
On the road, some crew chiefs have their own motorcoaches, while others stay with the rest of the team at a hotel. Reed Sorenson’s crew chief, Jimmy Elledge, said this season put his priorities in perspective. In the span of 36 hours his wife, Kelley Earnhardt Elledge – the sister of Dale Earnhardt Jr. – had surgery to remove a benign tumor on her pancreas, and his grandmother succumbed to lung cancer. In between it all, he managed to be there for his wife’s procedure and preside over his team on race day.
“Should I be doing this still?” Elledge asks.
But through it all there is one thing that several crew chiefs said keeps them going.
“It’s a lot of politics, a lot of stuff I really don’t like, but there are three or four hours Sunday, there’s nothing better,” Letarte said. “That’s what we live for.”