Remembering Walter Payton
Remembering Super Bowl Champion Turned Professional Racer Walter Payton
While fans gather around the TV this Sunday for the biggest football game of the year, Lime Rock Park remembers its NFL and Super Bowl ties.
NFL Running Back Walter Payton traded in one helmet for another as he retired from football in 1987 and turned to professional auto racing.
Before leaving the NFL, Payton won the 1977 AP NFL MVP Award, earned a championship ring with the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XX (1985), was presented with the NFL Man of the Year award and retired as the then NFL leading career rusher.
Payton began his racing career in 1989 with SCCA after driving in a pair of Toyota celebrity races at the Long Beach Grand Prix in 1988 and 1989. After winning the SCCA GT-1 championship during the 1990 June Sprints, Payton decided to make the move from amateur racing to the professional SCCA Trans-Am Series in 1991.
Payton drove at Lime Rock for the first time in 1992 during a test with Connecticut-native Paul Newman. Payton’s car was fitted with a passenger seat to allow Newman a chance to coach the NFL star straight from the cockpit. Payton nearly spun the car in the first turn, leaving Newman riding the rest of the way with his feet pressed against the dashboard.
On July 24, 1993, a week before he was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame, Payton took the green for the first time at Lime Rock Park with the SCCA Trans-Am Series, driving for Team 34 in the Budweiser Ford Mustang. Though he knocked seconds off his lap time from his previous test with Newman, Payton only qualified 21st out of 22 cars. After going off course three times, dirt stung Payton’s eyes and he retired the competition in the same place he started, 21st.
Payton had more trouble passing other drivers than he did putting linebackers behind him, with his eighth place being his best professional racing finish. Instead, he gave up driving in 1994 and bought into Dale Coyne’s IndyCar team, which became Payton-Coyne Racing.
Payton lost his battle with cancer in 1999.
The Trans Am Memorial Day Classic returns to Lime Rock Park with more big names May 27-30. Tickets are available at: Memorial Day Classic | Lime Rock Park