Should commentators be involved with racing teams in the series they cover?
We just can’t have nice things, apparently.
Steve Letarte, a former race-winning crew chief for Hendrick Motorsports, took a job this offseason as a consultant for Spire Motorsports. This might be just a little bit of a problem, because Letarte is also a broadcast analyst/commentator for NBC’s coverage of the NASCAR Cup Series.
Now, at the time of the consultant gig’s reveal, Letarte was adamant that he wasn’t an employee of the team or had any kind of role beyond that of an advisor. This changed on Wednesday (Feb. 24), when Ryan Sparks, crew chief of the No. 7 Chevrolet for Corey LaJoie, went into quarantine due to COVID-19 protocols.
Official Statement from Spire Motorsports. pic.twitter.com/cXnlZlfazD
— Spire Motorsports (@SpireMotorsport) February 24, 2021
This led to Letarte being called on to make a one-time substitute cameo this weekend on the No. 7’s pit box, his first time serving as a crew chief since 2014. Once again, Letarte has been clear that his role this weekend will mostly be that of a figurehead and has no idea about anything the team is doing setup-wise.
Steve Letarte returns atop the pit box Sunday at Homestead but will have Corey LaJoie crew chief Ryan Sparks (at home because of COVID protocols) on a chat. How Letarte views his role Sunday and whether he ever wants to return to the crew chief job: pic.twitter.com/2FqauKoK53
— Bob Pockrass (@bobpockrass) February 25, 2021
That being said, this is all just a tad bit ridiculous. Letarte is far, far from being alone when it comes to NASCAR broadcasters with interests in certain teams, but actively serving as the crew chief on a car in a series that he covers is not kosher.
Of course, none of this compares to the NASCAR on Fox booth being populated by Jeff Gordon. Gordon has a vested ownership interest in Hendrick Motorsports by direct virtue of being a longtime co-owner of both the Nos. 48 and 24 Chevrolets. He has been tabbed by Rick Hendrick himself to take over the operation eventually. The guy even came out of retirement to help the team out when Dale Earnhardt Jr. took time off in 2016. And we’re supposed to take anything he says about Chase Elliott seriously?
But what about drivers who join the booth during endurance racing series and family members calling races their kin are in?
Those are two completely different scenarios. The driver in that example is going to make it very obvious where his interests lie. Endurance racing in general is also a very unique situation, in that it’s upward of 24 hours of continuous live coverage and commentators have to be rotated in and out. The driver can also give unique feedback to the viewer because, well, they’ve actually raced on the track in that event.
Family members are different. It’s not fair to the driver or to the media member for one or the other to quit. And broadcasters have usually been pretty good about being fair — Ned Jarrett and Benny Parsons usually called balls and strikes for their relatives.
Sometimes, the emotion family members can bring to a broadcast can really help elevate it. The Dale and Dale show of 1993 wouldn’t be nearly as memorable without Jarrett’s emotional call of the final lap. If it wasn’t for the death of Dale Earnhardt, Darrell Waltrip calling his brother to his very first victory in the sport’s biggest race would be remembered as a highlight of that era. And unlike substitutes or consultants or actual team ownership, there’s no changing who you’re related to.
Getting people with very obvious interests out of coverage of racing would actually get the industry in line with every other sport. Imagine if, say, Troy Aikman decided to take a job as the quarterbacks coach for the Dallas Cowboys but held on to his Fox job when he wasn’t busy in Dallas. Nobody would take him seriously as a commentator anymore. But this kind of stuff happens in NASCAR all of the time just because.
It can also put these broadcasters in tough positions. Go back and listen to Earnhardt’s coverage of Noah Gragson wrecking of Riley Herbst minutes after the start of last July’s Xfinity Series race at Texas Motor Speedway. Maybe, just maybe, NBC shouldn’t allow people with very obvious ownership stakes to take part in broadcasting a race. That shouldn’t be a controversial take, but I guess it kinda has to be? Just because.
Who is this Ferrucci guy?
This week will mark the NASCAR debut of Santino Ferrucci, the latest driver who is planning to transition from open-wheel racing to stock cars.
Ferrucci, who has a very dumb haircut, will compete in the next five NXS races as part of a partial season effort for Sam Hunt Racing. The 22-year-old driver has faced a fair amount of controversy in his young career.
Mr. Smooth was suspended for four races in Formula 2 in 2018. Now, look, we all make mistakes when we’re 19 years old. I thought owning a Toyota Corolla wasn’t a mistake, even though it was. Ferrucci’s idea of a mistake was wrecking his teammate, being fined over 60,000 weird dollars made in Europe for using a phone in his racecar, then being fired during his suspension both because he wrecked his teammate and because he stiffed the race team on money. All of this happening, of course, while he was busy having a temper tantrum on Twitter.
The guy also refused to meet with stewards after the race this entire incident occurred. Good luck trying that in NASCAR, bud.
Trident Motorsport noted in its termination statement that Ferrucci’s excuse for not paying the team money was because sponsors defaulted on him, even though Ferrucci had more than enough money to fly back to America and make his NTT IndyCar Series debut during that period.
All of this would be forgivable if Ferrucci had shown, you know, any kind of remorse or apology. But he didn’t. Never has. He’s deleted tweets on the subject, because as we all know, that changes history. He has said he has no regrets about his experience in F2. But hey, you know what? None of this matters.
Because Smooth is such a good driver. Except he isn’t. He really isn’t. He finished 13th in IndyCar points last year in a series that had about 23 cars show up every week, and that’s with finishing a season-high fourth in the double-points Indianapolis 500. At least Danica Patrick could finish on the podium in that series from time to time.
Now, thankfully there hasn’t been a lot of smoke out of IndyCar as far as Ferrucci being, well, Ferrucci. At least as much as he used to be. But it’s important that people in the NASCAR industry are at least aware of a slice of this guy’s past instead of just the weird, fluffy persona that NBC’s coverage of IndyCar has portrayed him to be the last couple of years. Especially considering that Ferrucci has shown no remorse for what happened over in Europe and instead just pretends nothing bad happened. Because bad did happen, beyond just the haircut.
Who will win the Cup Series race at Homestead-Miami Speedway?
Kyle Larson. That’s it for this weekend.
Homestead really plays into the strengths of drivers with dirt sprint car backgrounds. Larson, Christopher Bell and Chase Briscoe should all have strong runs on Sunday, and Larson has the best chance of all three drivers to get into victory lane. Outside of a hiccup in the closing laps of the Daytona International Speedway road course, the Californian really hasn’t seemed to miss a beat in his return to NASCAR.
It also helps that Larson’s third race back is Homestead and not his first race back. Any potential hiccups from not being in a Cup car for 10 months should be cleared up now.
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