Howie Lettow, a respected and successful crew chief in the old ASA National Tour, passed away Thursday after a valiant battle with cancer.
Few individuals had the credentials of Lettow and his outstanding ability to mold and work with some of the finest short track stock car drivers in the country. As much attention is paid to drivers in racing, an impressive list of drivers, to a man, will credit much of their success to working with Lettow.
He worked primarily in the ASA National Tour with the potent teams of Baker Enterprises, All-Star Racing, Herzog Motorsports and WalTom Racing as a crew chief and team manager since the late 1970’s.
The first of the impressive list of drivers Lettow guided to ASA Rookie of the Year honors was his good friend and fellow Watertown, Wisconsin resident Pat Schauer. Schauer was tragically killed in a racing accident at Winchester Speedway in Indiana in 1981, his rookie season in ASA. The top rookie award was given to Schauer posthumously that season, and from that year forward, the awared was named in Schauer’s honor.
When Stan and Randy Herzog wanted to make the move to stock car racing to develop their young off-road racer’s stock car talents, they didn’t lure Lettow to St. Joseph, Missouri, they did what every other team owner that wanted to have Howie guide their team – they bought a shop in southeast Wisconsin to be with Lettow. That driver was Jimmie Johnson. Until hooking up with Lettow for two years in ASA in 1998 and 1999, Johnson had competed in only six stock car races in his life. Johnson worked side-by-side with Lettow in the team’s Milwaukee area race shop and together. Together, they won the 1998 ASA Pat Schauer Memorial Rookie Title.
Drivers who worked with Lettow and earned Rookie of the Year Titles in ASA included Ken Lund, Ted Musgrave, Scott Hansen, Steve Holzhausen, Steve Carlson, Jimmie Johnson, Ricky Johnson and David Stremme. Other drivers who benefitted of having Lettow call the shots for them in ASA included Bobby Dotter, Mark Dismore, Jr. and Toby Porter.
Often, Lettow would also prep Super Late Model race cars that raced in some of the biggest special events in the country, including winning races at Phoenix International Raceway with Hansen and Musgrave.
The satisfaction Lettow received was not from the spotlight, but from the on-track results built on the strength of his communication with his driver and loyal crewmembers. While other ASA teams had six or more full-time employees, Lettow has been able to achieve great success with one or two employees working alongside him in the shop. Lettow was never one to over-spend, and treated the owners’ money like it was his own.
Lettow won just one ASA National Tour championship as a crew chief, in 1996. His shop was the two work bays attached to the gas station team owner Terry Baker operated in Milwaukee. Driver Tony Raines and one other crew member worked on the two race cars in the shop, at a time when other teams had half a dozen full-time employees and multiple cars and engines to work with.
He also guided WalTom Racing into the ASA Late Model Series, winning the Challenge Division championship in 2005 with driver Stephen Leicht and in 2006 with Kelly Bires. TD Racing Development purchased the team, and with Howie Lettow calling the shots from the same shop, won the 2007 championship with Travis Dassow.
Howie will long be remembered for his quiet, studious approach to every aspect of what he did. Nothing too trick, nothing too elaborate, but always well-prepared and fast. He also was willing to spend time with anyone who asked, whether it be mid-week phone call about gear ratios from a competitor, or for a few minutes talking to a dad toting his teenage son through the pits, Howie always gave of his time…even with TV reporters at the most inopportune times.
Most notable among the crew members that have worked with Lettow that have ventured south is Ron Malec, who has been with Johnson since they were on the same ASA team and remains Johnson’s Car Chief for Hendrick Motorsports.
Lettow was universally respected and revered by his competitors. He turned down several offers to move to Charlotte and work in NASCAR to stay in Wisconsin, to enjoy fishing and time with his family.
He was a quiet, mild-mannered man who had a great sense of humor. He was honest and kind. On a personal note, I’m thankful I had the chance to chat with him and watch him in action at the end of June in Oregon, Wis. at an ASA Midwest Tour event, at which he was helping out Kelly Bires in a one-off effort. When Kelly pulled his car in to the pits between practices, down went the window net, and, just like he had always done, Howie popped off his headset as he knelt down next to the driver door to lean in to the cockpit to discuss how to get their car faster, just as he had thousands of times before.