With former driver and two-time Daytona 500 champion Dale Earnhardt Jr. as the newest addition to its broadcast team, and his former crew chief Steve Letarte calling races from the Peacock Pit Box starting with the Daytona broadcasts last weekend, NBC Sports has amped up its NASCAR coverage to allow viewers even more unique views and access to information during its broadcasts.
For four seasons, Earnhardt Jr. and Letarte teamed up on the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, and once again the two are linked together, but this time they’ve traded in their fire suits for jackets and ties in the broadcasting industry. Earnhardt Jr. joined the NASCAR on NBC team after retiring in 2017, while Letarte is in his fourth season.
“It’s been nice,” said Earnhardt Jr. “I’ve got nothing negative to say about it. Even if I try to think of something on the negative side, everything has been positive. I’d be watching the races anyway and want to be at the track, so NBC is sending me to all the tracks, and they’re going to pay me to talk about it. It’s a dream come true. I’m going to try hard to do a great job. I’m asking a lot of questions and trying to deliver and play my role in the booth.”
Despite a positive reaction, he knows there is a learning curve.
“The produced segment is the most nerve-wracking part,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “Rehearsals help knock off the nerves, but I think the hardest things for me to do are those structured, produced segments. Anytime you’re not on camera watching the action on the track, it’s easy to react to that. When you’re on camera either at the start of the show and at the close it’s the toughest part because you’re having to sum up your opinion of how the race is going to start, what to look for or your reaction of the race afterwards.”
While Earnhardt Jr. admits he’s having fun and always trying to learn, his former crew chief couldn’t hide his excitement about working with the 15-time Most Popular Driver again.
“I knew it was going to be a lot of fun working with Dale Jr. again,” Letarte said. “It really is no different than sitting down with a beer and watching racing. In my opinion, a great broadcast should be one where you feel like you’re just hanging out with your buddies and having a good time. That’s what we’re trying to do with Dale Jr.
“Hearing Dale describe what the drivers are trying to do helps bring things to a new level. He’s a guy who was the most popular driver and a successful driver, but he’s also a huge historian of the sport. He understands all the different decades of the sport — ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s — that helps him because he can relate to all the fans and viewers.”
This season, Letarte has spent time on the Peacock Pit Box, which was officially unveiled earlier in the year. The new, state-of-the-art pit box is a remote studio situated along pit road, bringing viewers even closer to the heart-pounding on-track action during the 2018 season.
“In the broadcast booth, while it’s a great view, you’re somewhat removed from the action, often times six, seven, eight stories up, and you lose some of the intensity that the fans can experience themselves,” Letarte said. “What the pit box does is put me back where I lived (as a crew chief) on pit road for many years. Taking the fan to the action is the key. There is nothing like being in the action and that’s what the Peacock Pit Box does. We hope the sound, the feel, the noise, the things that make TV difficult but being a fan awesome really play into the pit box.”
The Peacock Pit Box is located in an empty pit box along pit road but is often times sandwiched between a pit box used by a team during a race, allowing Letarte to tell viewers even more about the different scenes and emotions that arise during a race.
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“I covered qualifying at Chicagoland from the Peacock Pit Box and being able to see the emotion on team members’ faces adds another layer of coverage,” Letarte said. “Having Dale Jr. join (the team) allowed me to take a different location. With all the talent we have, we have the opportunity to cover every race differently.”
With Letarte on the Peacock Pit Box and Dale Jr. in the booth, NBC Sports has certainly enhanced its coverage, but in the end, it’s all about telling NASCAR fans the most pressing stories.
“Those 40 drivers that strap the helmets on, they are the ones that tell the stories,” Letarte said. “Our job as broadcasters is simply to bring this awesome sport home to the NASCAR fan base.”