Thirty years ago this Saturday, a little movie called Days of Thunder premiered on Wednesday, June 27 at theaters across the country. Its only new competition at the box office was the forgettable Ghost Dad, as well as – notably – the action-packed Arnold Schwarzenegger feature Total Recall and the star-filled Dick Tracy.
The latter two movies were on their way out, and Ghost Dad barely made back its budget amid critical panning and an eventual 6% on Rotten Tomatoes.
Meanwhile, Days of Thunder came out on top in its opening week, grossing more than $15 million ($5 million more than the closest competitor) in its only week on top. It was quickly taken over by Die Hard 2 and Ghost, but the racing film continues to live on three decades after its debut.
The Tom Cruise film made back nearly three times its budget – more than $150 million – and was essentially the first movie about NASCAR that wasn’t a comedy, musical or biopic of a driver. Director Tony Scott aimed for a gritty, action-filled look at the sport, with plenty of racing scenes and a compelling main character to follow.
Scott and Cruise had previously paired up for the 1986 film Top Gun, about an aspiring navy pilot, and Days of Thunder admittedly hits the same beats as their first collaboration. The two movies certainly feel similar, but Days of Thunder feels just a bit more down-to-earth (pun intended) – and maybe that’s just because we don’t attend jet-flying events en masse every weekend.
— NASCAR Alerts (@NASCAR_Alerts) September 3, 2015
The supporting cast of the movie is incredibly prolific for a serious movie about racing – Robert Duvall (The Godfather, The Natural), and Nicole Kidman (The Others, The Killing of a Sacred Deer) co-star with Cruise, along with Randy Quaid (National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation) and Cary Elwes (The Princess Bride, Stranger Things).
Rounding out the cast are a young John C. Reilly, who would go on to co-star in another racing film, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (arguably in the top two narrative films ever made about NASCAR), and an early-career Michael Rooker. Rooker went on to appear in Guardians of the Galaxy and its sequel, as well as Tombstone and a number of other films.
The interest in making the movie primarily came from Cruise, who was introduced to racing by legendary actor Paul Newman. Newman raced on the side while working on acting projects and often stepped away to race during filming for Martin Scorsese’s The Color of Money (1986, in which he co-starred with Cruise). Cruise became interested, and Newman fed Cruise’s interest in motorsports.
Cruise plays Cole Trickle, a dirt racer from California, who’s called in for a test run at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Team owner Tim Daland (Quaid) – who owns Burns’ car – brings crew chief Harry Hogge (Duvall) out from retirement to work with the rookie, and Trickle and Rowdy Burns (Rooker) have a contentious relationship on the track until both are involved in a horrific crash at Daytona.
After the crash, Burns continues to recover while Trickle returns to NASCAR, only to find that his substitute – Russ Wheeler (Elwes), now with a full-time ride for Daland – is both successful and targeting him on-track at the same time. The tension reaches a boiling point at North Wilkesboro, where Wheeler walls Trickle on the final lap to win the race. Trickle pits, orders his crew to change the tires, and heads back out, crashing Wheeler on the cool-down lap in retaliation.
The revenge gets Trickle fired from Daland’s team. Burns asks his former rival to drive his car at the Daytona 500 for sponsorship reasons, leading to Trickle racing his way through the field and winning the prestigious race after a tooth-and-nail last-lap duel with Wheeler.
Amid the on-track action, Trickle falls in love with neurosurgeon Claire Lewicki, portrayed by Nicole Kidman. The two have a rocky start to their relationship, but the dust eventually settles with Lewicki staying to watch Trickle race (and win) at Daytona.
Cruise filmed the movie and began the 1990s on a hot streak from the decade before. His debut came as a teenager in 1981’s Endless Love in a minor role, and he went on to co-star in Risky Business, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Outsiders, Scott’s Top Gun, Martin Scorsese’s The Color of Money and Barry Levinson’s Rain Man before the decade was up. Rain Man, starring Cruise alongside Dustin Hoffman, eventually won four Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
Kidman and Cruise wound up marrying later on in 1990 after the film’s release before splitting in 2001. Cruise and Kidman co-starred again in 1999 in a very different movie, playing a married couple in Eyes Wide Shut – the legendary Stanley Kubrick’s final film.
Cameos galore pepper Days of Thunder’s runtime. On the journalistic side of things, broadcaster Bob Jenkins and reporter Dr. Jerry Punch make appearances, with Punch interviewing Trickle after his first win and Jenkins contributing his voice as a public address announcer during the race scenes. As for the drivers, Richard Petty is in a shot in the opening sequence of the movie. Few cameos are as big as The King himself, but a series of driver interviews with Harry Gant, Neil Bonnett and Rusty Wallace precede the finale at the Daytona 500. All three drivers give relatively realistic responses as if they’re answering actual questions about Trickle’s chances in the sport’s biggest race.
All of the aforementioned content works to the movie’s favor, but it also certainly has its detriments, both as a film and as a representation of NASCAR.
There’s a ton of continuity errors, goofs, editing mistakes and repeated shots or lines. The latter has several instances, the most notable of them being an overhead shot looking out over the garages before a race – it’s seen at least three times throughout the film. Additionally, Jenkins’ voiceover calling the Daytona 500 the “Super Bowl of racing” is heard twice (and the viewer only needs it once).
One of the bigger goofs comes near the movie’s conclusion at the Daytona 500. Trickle is working his way through the field when a massive wreck covers Turn 4 with wrecked cars and a cloud of smoke. As he’s preparing to drive through it, an exterior shot of the crash shows a familiar black-and-green car sliding onto the apron. As it skids sideways, the audience sees that it’s the torn-up No. 51 Mello Yello Chevrolet – Trickle’s car for the race, which is currently behind the crash and working its way through, so he obviously can’t be in two places at once.
Regarding continuity, the Daytona 500 finale, again, might hold the holy grail of continuity errors in the film. As Trickle closes in on Wheeler for the lead, Wheeler runs on the high side and Trickle dives to the middle. Running in the bottom lane is the No. 26 Quaker State car, run by Ricky Rudd in 1989 and Brett Bodine in 1990. Who’s driving it won’t matter in a moment.
As Trickle and Wheeler beat and bang, the shot of the three cars shows up again – only this time, it’s Harry Gant’s No. 33 in the bottom lane. Still a green-and-white car, but different driver and sponsor. Cutting to a front view of the cars, Wheeler again rubs fenders with Trickle, sending Trickle into the No. 26 Quaker State car (it’s back!), contact that sends the No. 26 spinning. The camera then switches to a close-up of Trickle.
“Wheeler knocked me into Gant!” Trickle shouts over the radio. “Gant spun out.”
In just a few seconds, the car switches from Rudd/Bodine to Gant, back to Rudd/Bodine and back again. It’s a bizarre little sequence that general audiences likely wouldn’t catch, but any NASCAR fan certainly would.
Among other things, some of the shots clearly bounce back and forth between tracks in the same race sequence, but feel stitched-together enough to provide some solid racing action without being terribly distracting.
Above all, though, Days of Thunder is incredibly well-shot. Ward Russell’s cinematography is absolutely gorgeous, capturing the green of the track grass, the black of the pavement and the orange of a twilight sky all in the same shot at times. The colors of the cars are vibrant, and the main racers’ cars pop, even Burns’ nearly-all-black Exxon machine. It’s one of the best-looking racing movies by a mile and holds its own against movies that went on to win awards for cinematography.
Filming for the movie mostly involved standard production, but it also encompassed actually putting cars in races to get shots of on-track action. Drivers Greg Sacks, Bobby Hamilton, Hut Stricklin and Tommy Ellis drove the five paint schemes used in the movie in several races.
— Classic Nascar (@classicnascar) January 2, 2014
According to Wikipedia, Hamilton and Ellis drove unscored entries in the Daytona 500. Sacks and Hamilton drove the City Chevrolet and Exxon cars, respectively, at Phoenix in 1989, and Sacks again drove the City machine at Darlington in 1990. Stricklin drove the Exxon car as well, also running at Darlington in 1990.
— Phoenix Raceway (@phoenixraceway) March 5, 2015
Other cars were rigged up specifically for filming, with cameras mounted on the hoods of specially prepared cars to capture realistic in-race action.
Here's one of the rigged-up cars used to film Days of Thunder, outside of the cars driven in actual races by several different drivers. The camera was mounted on the right side of the hood and footage was shot to give the audience an in-race feel. #NASCAR pic.twitter.com/iKfBUsc9Mi
— Adam Cheek (@adamncheek) June 25, 2020
The marketing for Days of Thunder was insane, too. At least three different lines of 1:64 diecasts were produced – the toy company Applause collaborated with Hardee’s, which sponsors Russ Wheeler in the movie – to make four of the five cars (excluding Burns’ Exxon entry) and presumably gave them out to patrons at the fast food chain’s locations. Matchbox stepped up to make bulkier, higher-quality replicas of all five cars, even producing haulers taken from the movie as well as semi-truck rigs that could carry the cars on bed trailers.
Not to be outdone, Racing Champions partnered with Paramount Pictures to not only manufacture metal diecasts of each major car featured in the movie, but to also package them together as a set and include a launcher and “fuel can” as well. I’ve got that set put away somewhere – reader, you can pretty much find all these on eBay, if you’re so inclined.
I rewatched the movie over the last couple of days, finishing it just before I started writing this article. It’s so clear how much the legacy of Days of Thunder has continued to live on.
Most obviously, the paint schemes have endured – including six throwbacks in the past three years. Kurt Busch first threw back to the No. 46 City Chevrolet in 2013, running the No. 1 car with the familiar yellow-and-green livery for James Finch. Busch ran the car in the summer Nationwide Series event at Daytona, finishing fourth – the best finish of any throwback to the movie.
More recently, five drivers have driven six Thunder throwbacks, encompassing all five of the movie’s iconic paint schemes.
In 2017, Cody Ware (Cup) and James Davison (Xfinity) piloted cars evocative of Cole Trickle’s Mello Yello car. The next year, B.J. McLeod (Cup) and Davison (Xfinity) drove throwbacks to the movie – McLeod at Darlington, choosing to design his car like Russ Wheeler’s Hardee’s machine, and Davison at Road America, the only throwback so far to Trickle’s pink-and-white Superflo car.
Finally, in 2019, the most recent homages to the film debuted on track, both at Darlington. Xfinity Series driver Jeremy Clements got behind the wheel of the first throwback to Rowdy Burns’ No. 51 Exxon car, the only throwback to the movie to use the correct number.
William Byron’s Cup Series throwback was to Trickle’s first car, the City Chevrolet machine, and Byron drove that car to the fastest qualifying lap to sit on pole for the race. The City Chevrolet dealership is owned by Rick Hendrick, who, of course, owns Byron’s Hendrick Motorsports car.
A throwback fit for @TomCruise! ?
— No. 24 Team (@Hendrick24Team) August 19, 2019
There’ll be more on Days of Thunder throwbacks and other movie paint schemes in “Reel Racing” in the coming weeks.
Heck, Cruise even returned to Daytona in 2009 to pay homage to the movie. He drove around a modified Car of Tomorrow, with the City Chevrolet paint scheme, and posed with Rick Hendrick and a replica of the City car on the backstretch. Cruise drove the pace car for that year’s Daytona 500, while Keith Urban – who Kidman married after she and Cruise split – held a pre-race concert for the fans.
Days of Thunder’s importance to NASCAR can’t be overstated, either. It was really the first NASCAR movie to go mainstream, as its box office earnings would suggest. Other films based around the sport, such as Stroker Ace, The Last American Hero or 43: The Richard Petty Story drew a very niche audience. However, the box-office draw of Cruise and his brand at the time pulled in fans of racing, fans of action and fans of Cruise, all of which propelled Days of Thunder to the top of the board that weekend and helped it pull in millions in home video rentals over the ensuing years. It’s really the first NASCAR blockbuster movie, and it helped promote the sport to legions of viewers who probably didn’t know much or anything about it prior to its release.
It’s certainly not a perfect movie. Very few are. But I had a huge smile on my face for a good portion of it, and there’s something to be said for that.
About the author
Adam Cheek joined Frontstretch as a contributing writer in January 2019. A 2020 graduate of VCU, he works as a producer and talent for Audacy Richmond's radio stations. In addition to motorsports journalism, Adam also covered and broadcasted numerous VCU athletics for the campus newspaper and radio station during his four years there. He's been a racing fan since the age of three, inheriting the passion from his grandfather, who raced in amateur events up and down the East Coast in the 1950s.