This article is special to Frontstretch.
Some fans love the film so much they’re still quoting lines, 20 years after its release.
Others claim it’s an embarrassment to the sport. Racecars simply are not built on a dirt floor in a barn in the middle of nowhere.
Say what you will about Days of Thunder, but one fact is irrefutable: the project was all Tom Cruise from conception to the wrap. And two decades later, the Hollywood mega-star remains a NASCAR fan still frequently spotted on pit road.
Growing up, Cruise had always been attracted to muscle cars. In fact, after hitting it big with Risky Business, the young actor on the edge of superstardom didn’t buy an expensive house or fancy clothes. He only wanted a fast car.
As Cruise’s movie career was taking off in the late 1980s, he landed a big break in working with on The Color of Money with Paul Newman, a serious professional racecar driver who regaled his protégé with romantic racing tales. Through Newman, Cruise met NASCAR team owner Rick Hendrick driving in the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) Showroom Stock Series. Cruise would spend time at Hendrick’s North Carolina lake house, tagging along when Hendrick Motorsports drivers tested at different tracks.
“We’d pick a track for a test and would ask Tom if he wanted to come play,” Hendrick said. “Many times, he did.”
Sports cars were fun, but Cruise wanted a bigger, broader canvas. In NASCAR, Cruise saw a sport tiptoeing out of the Southeast, and he ran to it.
One day, the actor hatched a compelling idea – to make a movie about stock car racing based around a cocky outsider coming in to rile the rank and file. Of course, he’d play the brash young buck, Cole Trickle, turning the sport on its head. His friend Rick Hendrick would be the model for Cole’s team owner and Hendrick’s Winston Cup Series crew chief, Harry Hyde, the prototype for the crew chief in the film, Harry Hogge.
“We were testing at Daytona, and Tom was out there playing around in one of my Busch Series cars,” Hendrick said. “He pulls into the pits, pops out all excited and says, ‘Man, we need to make a movie!”
As NASCAR was expanding in the U.S., Cruise wanted to capture the sport’s earlier bare bones: good ol’ boys, period.
“You know, it’s just America,” Cruise said. “It’s something about driving in a car. I came up with the idea to make this movie about NASCAR, and these icons in the beginning who created this sport. (Through NASCAR) you just see our history through time, our love affair with the automobile. It’s a very unique kind of racing that feels very American. Rubbin’s racin’, you know.”
Cruise was so determined to make Days of Thunder, the crew dubbed him “laserhead.” Just as he had spent weeks in a wheelchair alongside paraplegic veteran Ron Kovic to get ready for his previous film, Born on the Fourth of July, Cruise immersed himself in NASCAR to learn how drivers spoke and treated one another.
The impression the actor left on Dr. Jerry Punch, a South Carolina emergency room physician during the week and ESPN pit announcer on weekends, as well as NASCAR drivers like Rusty Wallace, whose race shop he visited for a tutorial, and Greg Sacks, who, in a two-seater at Volusia Speedway taught Cruise the finer points of handling 800-horsepower Cup-level stock cars, was that of a perfectionist hell bent on understanding every detail of the sport.
“What seemed to me to be merely a movie was for him a passion to get it right,” said Dr. Punch, who became a technical consultant on the film. “He got in the racecar and actually drove it, running some hard laps. He knew the more they let him drive the car, the more realistic the film would be.”
“Oh, Tom could drive a car,” Rick Hendrick said. “He’s got a lot of talent and absolutely no fear. He’d always drive over his head, whether it was a stock car, a street car or a boat on the lake. He enjoys speed.”
Many characteristics of the flamboyant, good-looking, and immensely talented driver Tim Richmond fed the development of Cruise’s character, Cole Trickle. He went by the nickname of “Hollywood,” lived on a sleek Miami Vice-style boat in Ft. Lauderdale and wore his long hair and thick-trimmed beard like Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees. No one enjoyed splashing beer and squeezing tight next to Miss Winston in victory lane more than Tim, who once said in a TV interview, “I was put on earth to succeed in the fun department.”
Like Cruise’s character, Richmond, who learned to drive a car under Harry Hyde’s tutelage, was a flashy young hotshot long on talent and short on experience.
“Tim had no idea what made the car fast and loose,” Dr. Punch said. “He could just get in the car and drive it.” Richmond was fearless, and a natural behind the wheel. He won the most races in 1986, but Dale Earnhardt had a better all-around season and took the Winston Cup title. He got sick with double pneumonia during the offseason, but came back to win several races in the summer of 1987. The comeback was unfortunately short-lived; Richmond got sicker and had to retire. Hendrick said he would certainly have won many races and a few championships had his life not been cut short from AIDS, just as he was coming into his own as a driver.
As soon as Paramount rolled the film into thousands of theaters across the country, debates began about the film’s accuracy and which parts represented the “real” NASCAR. According to driver Kyle Petty, “Well, we both drive cars around tracks… and that’s about it.”
As much as Cruise wanted perfection, his best laid plans went astray in the editing suite. Dirty cars became clean around the next bend. Cole Trickle jumps into the car wearing black shoes and emerges with white ones. Cars magically switch positions in the running order. Harry Hogge’s cap changes logos mid-scene. Most famously, at one point, Nicole Kidman’s character — the doctor who falls in love with the banged up driver — turns to Cole and calls him, “Tom.” (Heck, they were falling for each other in real life and would soon marry.)
On the heels of Cruise and director Tony Scott’s runaway success with Top Gun, racing purists derisively called the film “Top Car.” They took umbrage at fantastic scenes like drivers threatening one another over the radio, or when Cole spins out at Daytona but is able to get back to speed and pass other cars in only few laps.
“Hollywood has to make it into a compelling story where boy meets girl,” Dr. Punch said. “You can’t have all racing in that kind of film. For me, it’s a lovable, campy look at our sport that gets more entertaining every year.”
Filmgoers were drawn to a hefty share of fireworks that might not have reflected the real NASCAR but were nonetheless revolutionary at the time. The demolition crew put behind the drivers a sawed-off telephone pole attached to a half-stick of dynamite. The explosives would blow the pole into the ground, launching the car into an end-over-end barrel roll. Stunt drivers, who Rick Hendrick calls “absolutely crazy,” would on the director’s command hit a switch to deploy the bombs, making their cars go airborne. A sticker on the cars’ dashboards read: “PRESS BUTTON, TURN LEFT AND GOOD LUCK”.
Most NASCAR fans view Days, with its careening barrages of twisting metal and unmistakable Winston Cup engine noise, as good-old mindless, shut-off-your-brain entertainment. Scott’s car-mounted cameras shot the fierce racing action so intimately, fans can practically smell the danger.
“My favorite part of the movie is how they got the smoke to look in the corners,” said Wallace, NASCAR’s champion the year before filming began. “Going into the corner after someone’s blown an engine, it’s a wall of smoke. They captured on screen exactly how that looks to a driver.”
In theaters, some fans rose from their seats when seeing Days’ old-school, put-up or shut-up, get-in-your-car-and-drive-the-wheels-off-it racing. Plus, the sound simply rocks; the movie was nominated for an Oscar for “best sound.”
What do we make of it now, fresh on the heels of its 20th anniversary? While Cruise’s film wasn’t the ideal racing movie the NASCAR community wanted, it was closer than what the sport had in a long while. There was no riding around; the steel-smacking racing was absolutely fierce. And the relationship between upstart Cole Trickle and veteran Rowdy Burns captured the influx of fresh-faced drivers from different parts of the country about to change the sport.
By the way, Tom Cruise remains a good friend of Rick Hendrick, attending over a half-dozen races the past two seasons. Some are whispering Days of Thunder II could be in the works.
With the boys of NASCAR having at ’em once again, maybe that’s not such a bad idea.
Andrew Giangola is a recent racing author. For the full story of Tom Cruise’s love affair with NASCAR and the making of Days of Thunder, along with stories of other remarkable fans, you can buy his book, The Weekend Starts On Wednesday, at a 20% discount by clicking here.