The tears rolled down Walter Payton's cheeks like the tributaries of a river, flowing across the wide flood plain that his face has become since he retired from the Chicago Bears five years ago as the NFL's alltime leading rusher. Large flecks of dirt were turning to mud in his eyes, and now Payton stood helpless in the resulting torrent, alternately opening one eye and then the other, like the intermittent beacon of a lighthouse.
Payton's eyes stung because the Ford Mustang Cobra he had driven in last Saturday's Trans-Am race at Lime Rock ( Conn.) Park had veered off the track three times, churning dirt and grass into the cockpit. Anybody who thought Franco Harris ran out of bounds a lot should sec Walter Payton drive a race car. It looks as if Payton learned everything he knows about driving from Elvis Presley's performance in Viva Las Vegas.
Payton's other early racing influence was Paul Newman, the spaghetti-sauce and salad-dressing king who is also a highly seasoned driver. Newman rode shotgun the first time Payton drove at Lime Rock, in practice, last year. Payton's car had been fitted with a passenger seat to allow Newman a chance to offer the novice some pointers, but Payton was so intimidated by Newman that when Newman gestured innocently during the first turn, Payton nearly spun the car. Newman rode the rest of the way with his feet pressed against the dashboard, those famous baby blues "as big as silver dollars," says Payton. The two are teammates now, and last week Newman gave Payton a tip that knocked half a second off his lap times.
The third of Payton's off-road excursions at Lime Rock last week knocked half the bodywork off his car. As a Camaro tried to pass him, it knocked into him, the impact ripping off the entire back half of Payton's Mustang. When he resumed, his car was little more than a roll cage on wheels, the racing version of a naked reverse. Payton had qualified 21st on Friday, and that's just where he wound up Saturday—next to last among the cars that finished. "I'm learning," he said afterward. "A lot of the guys I'm racing have been doing this a long time. I don't care if they take me seriously. I am. If they don't, they'll be behind me."
Payton squirted most of the contents of a bottle of eye drops into his eyes, as if he were trying to douse a fire. Someone asked him if he was excited about the next weekend, when he would be inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. "No, we don't race next weekend," he said, his eyes suddenly going cold.
Payton's 12-year-old son, Jarrett, will introduce him at the ceremonies on Saturday. "That's the only part of it that is exciting for me," said Payton. "How would you like it if you had wanted a certain present for Christmas all year, but two months before Christmas your mom handed it to you and said, 'There's your present,' then she put some paper on it and stuck it under the tree? That's how I feel about the Hall of Fame ceremony. How am I supposed to get excited about it now?"
Another large, round teardrop rolled down Payton's face. Then he turned and walked away.