Breakdown: Walter’s only daughter, Brittney was just TK when her father died in 1999. In the ensuing years, she went on to graduate from DePaul University and now works as a TV host in Chicago. Significantly less dynamic than Jarrett, her older brother, Brittney looks very much like her father, what with the high cheeks and blinding smile.
Pearlman’s take: I sat down for lunch with Brittney during one of my visits to Chicago. We probably spent two hours together, and she was very cooperative and engaging. However, unlike Jarrett, Brittney doesn’t feel the need to say everything that enters her mind. As an interviewee she’s guarded and careful, and the day after we were done I received a call from one of her cohorts, complaining that Brittney thought I’d crossed a line when I asked whether she recalled what her father was wearing during his final days (I apologized profusely—even though I don’t think it was entirely inappropriate, sometimes a person can go too far in the pursuit of details).
This is sort of a guess, but I don’t get the feeling Brittney is as comfortable talking about her late father as Jarrett is.
From Sweetness: On August 20, 1993, Walter had eight-year-old Brittney accompany him to Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, to watch a qualifying round at Road America. When Walter went off to drive he left his daughter in the company of the track officials. “We were on a golf cart,” she said. “Me and a bunch of people I didn’t know.”
Strapped into his blue Ford Mustang Cobra (No. 34 painted across the hood), Payton lined up with the other drivers, taking off with the wave of a flag. It was an otherwise normal qualifying run— Payton hanging back, waiting to make some sort of move, preparing to transition from a straightaway to a curve. Running directly in front of Payton was Dick Danielson, a Hartford, Wisconsin, native with twenty- three years of racing to his credit.
As his Camaro steadied for the turn, Danielson shifted into fourth gear and lost all power.
“Walter is preparing to pass him, but it’s like following a car on the freeway and the car in front of you stops,” said Tom Gloy, owner of the Tom Gloy Racing Team. “Walter was pretty much helpless.” Payton’s Ford somehow eluded Danielson, but its front right tire nicked Danielson’s left rear tire.
At 130 mph, tiny collisions mean big trouble. Payton’s car swerved off to the side, hit the guardrail, somersaulted, flew thirty feet into the air, traveled a hundred feet, bounced four times, and finally, bounded off the guardrail and over a fence. “The fence!” said Jack Baldwin, a driver. “I’d never seen anyone clear that thing before.” The fi nal impact cut open the rear of the
vehicle and sliced through a fuel cell. The car was engulfed by fire. Payton, knocked unconscious for a brief spell, regained his senses and leapt from the damage. “When I finally stopped I was looking upside down and there were flames,” he said afterward. “All I could think of at that point was that I had to get out of there.”
Riding in the golf cart, Brittney heard the call over the radio from Donald Sak, a driver who had witnessed the crash. “Get someone out here!” he screamed. “We have a terrible situation!” She was rushed to a tent situated alongside an ambulance. Her father was lying on the table, his eyes bloodshot from gasoline, bandages covering the burns on his neck. Jerry Clinton, a fellow driver, described Payton as resembling, “a big frog with his eyes bugged out.” Brittney took one look and began to cry, which snapped Payton from his silence. “It’s OK, Britt,” he said. “It’s OK. Daddy’s fine. Daddy’s fine.”
“Oh, I was terrified,” she said. “I thought my dad was Superman. I never saw him hurt, never saw him sick. I don’t even remember him having a cold. Now here I was, without my mother or brother, and my father was on a stretcher.