Yesterday was one of the most important days on the automobile racing calendar: the 60th running of the "Super Bowl of Stock Car Racing," otherwise known as the Daytona 500. The season-opener for the NASCAR Cup circuit is considered to be one of the crown jewel events in all of motorsports, on par with events such as the Indianapolis 500, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and the Grand Prix of Monaco. The 200-lap event held on the high banks of Daytona International Speedway is one of the very first events on the yearly motor racing schedule, thus making the anticipation even more palpable as the green flag approaches.
Speaking of auto sport, for a time in the late nineties and early aughts, Cubs baseball and Bears football were supplanted in my heart by race cars and racing cards. I would binge watch off road racing and rallycross events on the Speed Channel, attend as many races as I could afford at the local tracks, and play NASCAR Thunder on my XBox until my eyes were ready to fall out. My collecting habits were reflected accordingly, as trips to my LCS were focused exclusively on packs of the latest Press Pass products. Diamonds and gridirons were old hat.
However, at that same card shop, there was one football card that caught my attention:
Long gone Double Play Sports Cards decorated their walls with their most eye-catching merchandise. I vividly remember taking a trip there with my father and seeing the above card mounted just above the cash register. Standing there confused and probably with my mouth agape, my dear old dad explained to me that the greatest running back of all-time and Windy City God, Walter Payton, once moonlighted as a race car driver. My mind instantly shattered into a thousand pieces and I knew I had to have that card.
Unfortunately, that shop was unaware that the junk wax bubble had burst and the hometown markup was strong, so it took me another fifteen or so years to finally acquire it. Thanks, Jeff!
After he retired from the NFL, Payton was invited to drive in Toyota celebrity races in 1988 and 1989, events which whetted his racing appetite. Shortly thereafter, "Sweetness" officially became a two-sport athlete and formed NFL Team 34. With his race team, the football legend raced at various levels in the Sports Car Club of America, winning a pair of races and even won the SCCA GT-1 championship during the 1990 June Sprints. As you can see, Payton was just as speedy on the track as he was at Soldier Field.
For 1992, Walter moved up the Trans-Am series, then the uppermost level of the SCCA, racing for Paul Newman and road racing legend Tom Gloy. The learning curve was steep, and in 18 events, Payton finished no higher than 8th place. Then, at Elkhart Lake in 1993, the former Bear flipped his Ford Mustang several times and it burst into flames; luckily, he was able to escape with only minor burns, but he was sufficiently rattled. Soon thereafter, Payton stepped out from behind the wheel permanently, and instead opted to pursue his second love as a team owner.
Payton wheeling a Mustang for NFL Team 34
Walter then bought into Daly Coyne's racing team, a Plainfield, IL-based CART (Indy Car) entry, forming Payton-Coyne Racing. Right up until his sickness forced him to step away in 1999, Walter was a familiar sight in the pits and he never missed watching his drivers on the track, according to one race official. Some of those more notable drivers included Johnny Unser, Robbie Buhl, Roberto Moreno, and eventual '96 Indy 500 winner, Buddy Lazier. However, unfortunately, victory lane eluded the team at this time.
Despite the relative lack of success, Payton's influence was felt across the garage area, as all the cars which competed in the 1999 CART season opener carried a decal, reading, "Get Well, Sweetness." This decal also featured a football helmet with No. 34 in the Chicago Bear colors.
18 years later, Coyne driver, Ed Jones, sported a special helmet for his team's former co-owner.
And that is the story behind Walter Payton's second sporting career. I'm curious, how aware of this bid of sports trivia were you aware of? Were you as shocked and impressed as wide-eyed, pre-teen Tony was?
Walter Payton may not have competed in NASCAR; however, the day of the Daytona 500 still seemed like an appropriate time to share this story. It's just too bad that I forgot to do just that, yesterday afternoon. I was far too caught up in Austin Dillon, a third generation racer, outlasting the field in a crash-filled contest, taking the iconic number "3" car to victory lane twenty years after the legendary Dale Earnhardt did so in 1998. I think the folks at NASCAR were quite happy with the result. Sorry, Walter.
Of course, from everything I've read, I think it's safe to say that Mr. Payton would probably have been just as enthralled with the race as I was!