Following in Walter Payton’s footsteps is never a bad thing, and that’s exactly what former NFL receiver Willie Gault is doing in the 39th Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach Pro/Celebrity race on Saturday.
Gault is the second former Bears player to participate in the notable charity race, which is part of the 41st annual Toyota Grand Prix. Payton was the first. Other former NFL players, including Hall of Fame quarterbacks John Elway, Joe Montana and Jim Kelly, have taken part in the event.
“Walter was one of the first ones to do it and I think he did really well,” Gault said in a phone interview. “But he had a Lamborghini. He was a fast driver anyway.”
Bears running back Walter Payton on his race car. (Toyota Racing)
Gault, the Bears’ leading receiver during their Super Bowl season in 1985, said he’s always been a racing fan, coming from Georgia. He grew up 20 minutes away from the Atlanta Motor Speedway. Gault later became friends with driver Danny Sullivan, who won the Indianapolis 500 in 1985.
He’s got plenty of respect for race car drivers.
“The bottom line is that these guys are athletes,” Gault said. “They are trained different on the track than on the football field. But to do what they do for 500 miles or 400 miles or sometimes they’re racing off the country, it takes its toll on the body. They lose a lot of weight because in the car they’re sweating. It’s hard and you’ve got to change gear and you’ve got to hold the steering wheel. You have to have upper-body strength and coordination.”
Gault has spent the past four weeks training for the race, consistently hitting speeds around 100 mph. He is one of 17 celebrity drivers participating in the event, which features 210-horsepower Scion FR-S race-prepped cars.
The celebrity race benefits the “Racing for Kids” program, which assists children’s hospitals across the country. Gault said helping charities that aid children is one of his passions.
“I’ve learned more in these last four weeks of training than I have after driving for 20 years,” Gault said. “It’s also for a great cause.”
The Bears always are on Gault’s mind. He’s hoping for a quick turnaround under general manager Ryan Pace and coach John Fox, but didn’t quite agree with trading receiver Brandon Marshall.
“They’ve gone through their rough times the last couple years and I can’t believe they got rid of Marshall, but it’s one of their difficult positions,” said Gault, who played for the Bears from 1983 to 1987 before joining the Raiders. “From what I saw, he was a great receiver. But they’re rebuilding.”
It’s been a long time since Payton and the ’85 Bears.
But, “Chicago is amazing,” Gault said. “It’s probably the best city in America.”
Adam L. Jahns