Ray Evernham shows off his collection for NASCAR Illustrated
Q&A with brother of NASCAR Sprint Cup driver Kasey Kahne RELATED: Subscribe to NASCAR Illustrated Hometown: "Enumclaw, Washington, is a great place to live. You are so close to the mountains and the ocean, it makes for lots of very fun activities such as fishing, great seafood, skiing, sledding. It's just a small town at the edge of the foothills. It was really nice to grow up in a small city with not much crime and no gangs." Being a sprint car crew chief: "It's an awesome job. There are lots of things to do and think about. It's a wild life out here, but the feeling I get when we win makes it all worth it. It's very hard to have a good race car every night because all the tracks are different, but that is the challenge and it's what makes it so exciting. One minute I feel happy and proud and the next minute I am depressed and mad. Just lots of emotions in this sport -- good and bad." Life on the road: "It's good when you are racing good, and it's bad when you're not. It's always hard to be away from my wife and my family. But it's part of the job. I love this job and my family understands it." Getting married: "It was the best thing that happened to me. My wife, Michelle, is the greatest person in the world and makes me a better person every day. Can't believe she chose me. Now she is pregnant with our first child, a girl. We can't wait until she is born. We are so excited and can't wait to be great parents." Favorite midnight snack: "I hate eating late at night but if I had to choose, I would say peanuts or beef jerky helps me drive late at night." Favorite app: " 'Race Monitor.' It's how we see our lap times and who finished where in our races." Music that moves me: "I like alternative, rock and some hip-hop. I don't like much country. It just makes me tired and doesn't get me excited. I like music that gets me going in the morning and all day." Favorite websites: "Mostly racing sites and ESPN. I love most sports and like to see what is going on in the sports world. My favorite sports are racing, football, fishing and basketball -- in that order." Travel: "I really like going on vacations with my wife, family and friends. I like to go to the mountains and go skiing, snowmobiling and sledding. I also like warm weather and the beach, hanging by the pool and fishing." Habit I'd like to kick: "I chew my fingernails all the time. It's worse when I'm nervous but it's all the time." Biggest influence in my life: "My parents for many reasons, but most of all how they raised us right and made us into great people. They always tried to do family things like vacations, or races, or even just dinner at home. We always ate dinner together. I can only hope Michelle and I raise our kids as well as our parents raised us." SUBSCRIBE NOW!
Photographer catches the eye of Earnhardt Jr.'s girlfriend
The 2014 K&N Pro Series East champion talks about his promising future
Get to know the No. 51 HScott Motorsports over-the-wall gang
Crew chief of the No. 31 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet RELATED: Subscribe to NASCAR Illustrated Editor's note: Photo by Elmer Kappell October 2, 1982 Born in Mount Airy, North Carolina. "My dad is a car guy. He's always been into racing. He would take me to races, car shows – anything that involved cars. That’s where the passion began." 2001 Graduated from Mount Airy High School. 2005 Graduated from North Carolina State University with a B.S. in mechanical engineering. "When I went to college, I wanted to become a crew chief or a race car driver. And the driving career was a longshot. "I spent the second half of my senior year on a design project that was sponsored by Caterpillar. We designed a granular material spreader for a skid steer loader. I was on the winning team and actually got a job offer from Caterpillar but I was set on racing." 2005-2008 Junior Engineer, Richard Childress Racing. "That job had me doing data acquisition one day then the next, rating a chassis or helping on the seven-post and doing special projects." 2008-2011 Race Engineer, No. 31 RCR Chevy. July 2011 Interim Crew Chief, No. 31 RCR Chevy. Lambert, 28, took over halfway through the season. "I really wanted to be a crew chief and I had set a goal – thinking, 'Man, if I could be a crew chief by the age of 30, that would be awesome.' Obviously, that wasn't in my control. I worked hard for it like a lot of people in this sport do but I just felt blessed to have the opportunity and that it was my responsibility to make the most of it. It was something that was a bit overwhelming but it was exciting." 2012 Crew Chief, No. 2 RCR Chevy Nationwide Series. "(Leaving the Cup team) was bittersweet. I was excited about the opportunity but I was somewhat disappointed not to stay in Cup. In hindsight, it was one of the greatest opportunities I've had in my career." Won first NASCAR race at spring 2012 Phoenix race. "We were fast in practice and I felt like we had a shot. Elliott (Sadler) had typically struggled at that track but we were really fast. We were talking after practice and he was like, 'Man, I'm feeling really good about the car but I'm just nervous because this has not been a great track for me.' And I was like, 'Well, I feel like we're going to make it a good track for you.' " 2013-present Crew Chief, No. 31 RCR Chevy. "For me, to come back to the No. 31 with a lot of the core group still on the team was exciting because it helped me feel like I was coming back home to the team that I had kind of come into the sport with. "I felt like myself and Ryan (Newman) got to know each other pretty rapidly and he gelled with the race team pretty rapidly. It's been a good start to the year. As the year has gone by, I think we've done a good job as a group getting to know each other." SUBSCRIBE NOW!
At 35, in the prime of his career, Steve Letarte is leaving. Why? "The Tuesday after Homestead in 2010, we had our competition meeting and Mr. H was there after, and we thought that was a little odd," Letarte said. "He gave me the, 'Hey, Stevie, I need to see you for a minute.' And I literally stood up (from) the table and had to walk the length of the room. And as I walked down the room, I mentally went through what teams are hiring? Who can I call? Because in my mind, yeah, why wouldn't they let me go? Why wouldn't they make a change?" Four years removed from that winless season as crew chief for Jeff Gordon , Letarte is not only employed at Hendrick Motorsports, he's atop the pit box for the sport's biggest star. But his days are numbered. Even though he's nearly at the peak of his professional career, Letarte, 35, will leave the only family he's ever known in NASCAR at season's end. Letarte's decision to join NBC Sports as an analyst next year after two decades with Hendrick was made with his real family in mind. For the betterment of one, he chose to leave the other -- and a large amount of money on the table -- in the process. "Yeah, without a doubt," Letarte said of the discrepancy in salaries. "Crew chiefing is like being a head coach. You're paid for your time and it takes a lot of time. So my equation would be that I'm paid for my time in television but it should take a whole lot less time. I don’t think you can put a dollar sign, I know you can't put a dollar sign on my little boy will only turn 11 once, he’ll only have his first go-kart race once. My little girl only has her first communion once -- and I missed that. "So all of those 'onces’ are lining up and I've missed 10 years' worth since I've had children, not to mention the things that I missed with my wife before that." Some vestiges of Letarte's unheralded beginning remain at the Hendrick Motorsports campus. These are found mostly in museum displays because HMS was a different place in May of 1995. Hendrick had not yet won any of its 11 Cup championships when 16-year-old Letarte arrived after being hired by neighbor Ray Evernham to handle odd jobs around the No. 24 team shop. His father, Don, who'd moved the family from Maine to North Carolina the year before, helped build the cars that would carry Gordon to his first title. Letarte might have been the proverbial younger brother in the No. 24 shop, but Evernham never worried about him. "Some of the guys -- and this was a group of young guys -- were very competitive (with) the egos and the girls and whatnot," Evernham said. "For all the guys that were 21, 22 and 23, Steven would have no problem stealing the girls at 16 or 17. Whatever they had, Steven had the talk. He had the best sales pitch." Despite his age, he impressed Evernham and his boss Michael Landis with his diligence in performing the smallest of tasks: tracking down parts, servicing vehicles or cleaning the shop. Landis, another one of Evernham's transplanted Northeasterners, now reports to Letarte in his current role. "We chose hardworking, good work ethic and loyalty over experienced know-it-alls, maybe," Landis said. "You remember the sport back then. People would jump around for $25 and they'd promise you A-Z and they can do it all. Then six months into it you realize you hired the wrong guy. ... "Back then he worked for me and today I work for him but it's been a smooth transition. Steve is easygoing and he's easy to get along with and he's very fair. When he needs to hold you accountable, he does but he does it in a manner of almost putting his arm around you. He doesn't manage by intimidation." HMS Vice President of Competition Ken Howes has been with the company even longer than Letarte -- "I've been here so long that one day maybe they'll tell me to go away" -- and he's watched him grow through the years. "It's probably not too different from raising a child in a sense," he said. "You realize that somebody's a smart, young worker, you help them along the way and do what you can when opportunities come up. For awhile, perhaps you consider yourself a mentor and then at some point, they mature and learn and make mistakes and you help them out and then they take another level where they don't need you anymore." The arc of Letarte's career dovetails with the driver who has made the No. 24 one of the most revered numbers in the sport's history. While Gordon captured his four Cup titles between 1995-2001, Letarte was enjoying his own meteoric rise. Shop boy. Full-time mechanic. Tire specialist. Rear tire carrier. During the 2002 season, he was elevated to the role of car chief and later, Gordon handpicked him to be crew chief late in 2005. "Steve and I go so far back because of him growing up at Hendrick and coming up through the ranks so far," said Gordon, also reflecting on his first 20 years in the sport. "Never have I seen anybody that started at the level that he did at such a young age and grow into being a top crew chief. I'm very proud of him." With the hum of Tuesday morning activity buzzing outside his office window, Letarte recalled the end of their working relationship on that fateful Tuesday after the 2010 season finale at Homestead. Certain that he was going to be fired, Letarte listened to Hendrick with a sense of relief and disbelief when the boss asked him to be Dale Earnhardt Jr .'s crew chief. "He said, 'This is the challenge, this is what I need your help with' -- he didn't tell me what I was doing, he asked me to do something for him," Letarte said. "That day is when I learned that I'm gonna be given maybe not a second chance but that he believed in me. I think when I took Dale on as driver and he took me on as a crew chief, we kind of had a lot to prove together." Earnhardt's sagging fortunes after the much-ballyhooed move to Hendrick were weighing heavily on him. He was coming off consecutive winless seasons with points finishes in the 20s and was, frankly, miserable. He decided to place his trust in Letarte. "I felt like, for me, that he was my last resort," Earnhardt said. "I hate to say that because people take that and run with it. But for me personally, I didn't know whether I could handle the disappointment if he didn't work, if this didn't work, I didn't know how I would face the reality of more failure with a new crew chief." Letarte, for his part, is loath to take credit for revitalizing Earnhardt's career. "I'm glad I was able to be a part of when he revitalized his career because I don't think I did it. I think he did it. I can make the argument that he revitalized mine," he said. Using his persuasive blend of leadership, cajoling and cheerleading when necessary, the gamble paid off. Earnhardt described it as "linear" success with the No. 88 team making progress in each season under Letarte's guidance. With three wins already this year, and a championship-caliber performance for much of it, Earnhardt and Letarte have a legitimate chance of winning their first Cup titles together. "I don't go by the adage that it had to be Steve or that only Steve could have done it but I think that I damn sure wouldn't have enjoyed it as much as I have," Earnhardt said. "He made me not only a better driver but I've got to where I'm having the best time I've had driving cars and loving it. I had really gotten a bad taste in my mouth with what I was doing and how racing was going for me and (what) professional life was like. I wasn't having any fun and it had become a hard place to go to. "He helped me become just an easier guy to be around. I had become hard to handle or hard to deal with and he helped me see those things and correct them as best as I could." Letarte and Earnhardt resemble college roommates that meet freshman year and become close in a relatively short period of time. They've worked and also vacationed together, and as much as Earnhardt will miss the crew chief Letarte has become, he'll miss having his friend of four years around on a regular basis. "He's probably one of my favorite people to bounce off personal questions and advice with things just happening in my life," Earnhardt said. "He's got a real good head on his shoulders, a great family man, and so he's the kind of person I can go to and say, 'Hey man, this is what happened to me this week, what should I do?' or 'Am I making the right choice here?' or 'Did I say the right thing, did I handle this correctly?' He likes that role and he helps me out, just as a friend, he's the kind of guy I can lean on. I'll be able to reach out and find him but he won't be so easily available once he changes his job and I'm gonna miss that." Earnhardt noted that their bond pales compared with many of his teammates on the No. 88 crew including car chief Jason Burdett. "All the people he's worked with for the first five, 10 or 15 years, these are guys that he's got strong relationships with," Earnhardt said. "I believe it's going to be super emotional for Burdett and all the guys because Steve brought all these guys together. I think it'll definitely be emotional for me and him but I think the whole team is gonna hurt and (we'll) run into that head on as soon as we cross the finish line at Homestead. It's gonna be pretty tough." The time of Letarte's exit is drawing near. The business at hand helps push that reality mostly to the back of his mind for now. It is impossible to keep those thoughts from pervading on occasion, however. "There's two fears," he said. "There's the fear of losing the camaraderie of the guys and the second family that you've always had. This group of guys that I've been able to work with for all these years, when you spend as much time together as we do, they do kind of become your second family. We've grown up together as a group. When you spend that much time with anyone, I think you become somewhat attached to them, and it's going to be difficult not to see them every day. "The second big fear is the competition side. All I think about every hour of every day when I'm at work is to win." Evernham knows from experience that it will be difficult to say goodbye on many levels. When he left Hendrick to start his own Dodge-backed team in the late 1990s, Letarte's response in particular left a lasting impression on him. "I remember the day I said I was leaving, how upset Steven was and that still touches me that it meant that much to him," Evernham said. "I look at those guys as part of my family. He knows what he has to do is the right thing for him and for his family but it's still very hard to leave. When I left that day, it was very, very hard." Evernham, who now assists Hendrick Motorsports management in a consultant role, also took his turn in the television booth with ESPN. He can lend some advice to his former protégé on that transition, as well. "Just be himself and just be aware that no matter how good you are at TV, you're never going to get the accolades that you do as Dale Earnhardt Jr .'s crew chief or Jeff Gordon 's crew chief," Evernham said. "It is a different life. It's not the same. You're not going to get that same feeling at a race that you do now. When you're in that race, and that adrenaline's flowing and you're part of that and all of a sudden you're not, it's a different feeling." The only way Letarte will know the feeling is to experience it -- "Those four hours on Sunday, I don't have any idea what it's gonna be like not to be a part of that yet" — because his entire adult life up to this point has been focused on performing in that special window of time. Leaving that behind, and in the prime of his professional career, Letarte insisted there will be no lingering doubts in the wake of his decision. "I don't have any worries about what-ifs," he said. "If I passed away tomorrow and 'great crew chief' made the headstone then I was pretty disappointing that's the big enough thing I've done in life to make the headstone. I want to be a good dad, a good husband, and a good role model. There are a lot of things that I want to do other than try to race as a crew chief." That includes his upcoming TV gig, too. "I'm excited for television. I like to talk, I like to communicate with people and I love the sport," Letarte said. SUBSCRIBE NOW!
Danica Patrick's crew chief tweets he'll be back 'for the extended future'
Sunoco Rookie of the Year frontrunner talks racing, upcoming fatherhood
Danica: 'I really like Mark and I wish it would have worked out' RELATED: Subscribe to NASCAR Illustrated Danica Patrick recently sat down with NASCAR ILLUSTRATED to talk breast cancer awareness and the Go Pink campaign that she and sponsor GoDaddy have championed the past couple years. At the end of our interview, though, the conversation steered toward Mark Martin. Martin, who will serve in a driver development role next year at Roush Fenway Racing , was poised to play a part in Patrick's professional growth in 2014. "He was supposed to be my driver coach this year and he wasn't," she said with a laugh. Let the record reflect that Martin didn’t back away from the challenge, according to Patrick, who revealed it was a back injury the fitness enthusiast suffered that kept him out. "He was supposed to do it and then he got hurt, and I was like, 'Is Mark gonna come to the track?' " Patrick said. "…His back hurt. I feel bad for him, obviously racing and working out is everything to him and then to be hurt and not be able to do…to retire and not be able to do the other, I know it's been a tough 2014 for him. "I really like Mark and I wish it would have worked out but it was circumstantial. But he was up for the job." Patrick had some involvement -- "not a ton," she said -- with Martin acting in a mentoring role. Asked to describe Martin's coaching style based on the limited interaction she had with him, Patrick detailed the plan devised for her at Stewart-Haas Racing . "Our sort of motivation and mission together was a lot less about turn in earlier or brake harder or deeper, it was more about the communication side of things, just how to translate the information from me to the crew chief in a beneficial way, in a productive way," she said. "And then kind of be the eyes and ears around a little bit and maybe (see) his side of things of what needs to be worked on to make things go better." Martin, whose legendary driving career included 96 wins across all three of NASCAR's major touring series, will tutor Patrick's boyfriend Ricky Stenhouse Jr. , among others, next season. "I think he has a good understanding that every driver is a little different and you can't just go tell him what to do," Patrick said. "We had a good plan. Just didn't see it through the way that I thought, but Mark is great guy and I know he would have done a good job." SUBSCRIBE NOW!