A-Ron’s Film Rewind Presents: “There’s nothin’ I can’t do with a race car”. A 30th anniversary celebration of “Days Of Thunder”. The 1990 Tom Cruise vehicle found him wanting “the need for speed” as he reunited with his “Top Gun” director Tony Scott and producers, Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson. Failing to deliver the sizable audience, mediocre box office numbers or inspire the devotion that “Top Gun” has had. “Days of Thunder” remains a cult favorite among Tom Cruise aficionados and racing enthusiasts. Actor and real race car driver Paul Newman helped inspire Tom Cruise to write and create the story for “Days Of Thunder”. Screenwriter of “Chinatown”, Robert Towne was brought in to form a script that never was. As lines had to either be read off the dashboard of Cruise’s stock car, or listening as Towne dictated them through a headset. “Days Of Thunder” saw constant on-set trouble from producer Don Simpson, delays in it’s production, over budget costs and hatred toward the movie from both legendary driver Dale Earnhardt and the NASCAR association. “Days Of Thunder” has a host of strong performances that complement the on-the-track visuals of director Tony Scott, in giving us a sense of the leap of faith that is required by drivers at this level of racing. Not only has it become a favorite of NASCAR aficionados and director Quentin Tarantino, but is also known for being the film where Tom Cruise met Nicole Kidman. Whether he is cruising in the skies or on the ground feeling “the need for speed”, we are still “cruising like thunder” thirty years later.
•Part 1: A Story and Idea By Tom Cruise
“Days of Thunder” was many people’s first real exposure cinematically to the high-octane, left turning world of NASCAR. The 1990 Tom Cruise vehicle reunited him with his “Top Gun” director Tony Scott (who would make “The Last Boy Scout” his next project) and producers, Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson. Just for that reason alone, the film was nicknamed “Top Car” during the pre-production stage.
While it failed to deliver the sizable audience or inspire the fervent devotion that “Top Gun” has had. “Days of Thunder” remains a minor cult favorite today among Tom Cruise aficionados and racing enthusiasts. “Days Of Thunder” is like all Tom Cruise films, as Cruise himself had a heavy involvement in the film. Including for which he co-wrote the screenplay, as well as solely writing and coming up with the story.
With Tom Cruise as the films story creator it all started with him. As legendary actor and part-time racer Paul Newman had shared his enthusiasm for motorsports with Tom Cruise when they were making Martin Scorsese’s “The Color of Money” together. The two were then introduced to NASCAR team owner Rick Hendrick, who was the inspiration for Randy Quaid’s character. Hendrick let Cruise drive a stock car himself for real and Cruise’s reaction after taking a car around the track at 175 mph: “Hey, we gotta make a movie about this!”.
“Days of Thunder” arose not just from Tom Cruise being an adrenaline junkie, but it was his wish to make another action film, that would be something along the lines of “Top Gun”. The National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing was hoping that the organisation would benefit from the association with Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, in the same way that the Navy had accrued wonderful publicity following the huge success of “Top Gun”.
Cruise himself had loved racing from the time he was sixteen. He recalled in an interview for “Days Of Thunder”, when he took his mother’s car and went drag-racing down a New Jersey street. Cruise took “Days Of Thunder” screenwriter Robert Towne to see a race at Watkins Glen, and Towne became hooked.
Cruise’s role as Cole Trickle, was said to be a tribute to NASCAR veteran Dick Trickle. Many says that not true as it was Tim Richmond, a fiery NASCAR driver and hard-partying ladies’ man, who died of AIDS in 1989. There was a driver named Dick Trickle, who made his NASCAR debut in 1989 and won the Winston Cup Rookie of the Year award at the record-setting age of 48, but apart from the last name, he had nothing in common with Cruise’s flashy playboy Cole Trickle.
Early in the shoot, NASCAR driver Hut Stricklin, who was hired as a consultant and stunt driver, told Cruise that stock cars are built to turn left. “He didn’t really know what I was talking about”, Stricklin later recalled. Cruise figured it out soon enough when he turned left without trouble, then tried going back to the right and spun out.
The car grazed a track wall, destroying an expensive camera that had been attached to the right side of the vehicle. “He understood then,” Stricklin said. “Too bad he had to kill a $100,000 camera”. Stricklin said he got paid more for the “Days of Thunder” job, for which he was a contractor and not even mentioned in the credits than he “ever thought about making for driving”.
•Part 2: Legendary Screenwriter Robert Towne
Oscar-winning writer, producer, director and actor Robert Towne is one of Hollywood’s finest screenwriters, contributing to such films as “Bonnie and Clyde”, “The Godfather” and the screenwriter of Roman Polanski’s classic “Chinatown”. In the 90s he wrote screenplays for several of the biggest blockbusters, including Tom Cruise’s “Mission: Impossible”. Towne had served as 2nd A.D. on Roger Corman’s production of “The Young Racers”, and cultivated a small taste for the track on that set.
Before that though, two other screenwriters attempted it: Warren Skaaren (who’d written “Beetlejuice” and “Batma) and Donald Stewart, a car aficionado who’d won an Academy Award for Jack Lennon’s film “Missing” and would go on to co-write the first three Jack Ryan movies (“The Hunt For Red October”, “Patriot Games” and “Clear and Present Danger”).
In Bruckheimer’s mind, Towne was “the godfather of verisimilitude”. The relationship with producers Simpson and Bruckheimer didn’t run completely smoothly for Towne, as tempers frayed when Towne left the production to do rewrites on “The Firm” (ironically, another Cruise project).
According to Variety, what really smarted the producing duo was they had just agreed to shell out over $300,000 from their Disney discretionary fund to help pay Towne the $1 million fee he was to collect, to adapt their recently acquired Paul Lindsay book “Witness to the Truth”.
But the problems encountered during production seem more the result of the studio’s need to have the film ready for a fixed deadline. When it came to filming, the script wasn’t even ready for the shoot. But the studio was desperate for a summer movie release.
“We knew the script wasn’t ready, but we needed a movie for Memorial Day. We needed to work off this tremendous overhead we were paying Don and Jerry. We had a window of availability on Tom Cruise. So suddenly we all felt more fondly about the script”. Said Lance Young, senior production executive at Paramount.
Towne wrote many scenes to order overnight and did much of the second unit coverage. And such was the chaos of production, where there was no completed written script. The actors and Cruise would be given new pages of dialogue immediately before filming or even during. For a while, Cruise had read new lines off the dashboard of his stock car, until keeping his eyes off the road caused him to crash. After that, Cruise listened to new lines as screenwriter Robert Towne dictated them through a headset.
Cruise was consistently unhappy with what script they had, which most of it wasn’t done yet when they started shooting and it kept needing rewrites. But despite the pressures under which it was written, the screenplay is a canny blend of sports psychology, personal tragedy and action. And Don Simpson openly praised Towne: “One person deserves the sole credit for the script…and that’s Robert Towne. Whatever’s on screen came out of his mind, heart and soul. He kept writing until one week before we finished. I never saw anyone that talented work that hard. Towne deserves more credit than he’s gotten, if there’s an award above an Oscar he should get it”.
•Part 3: Mega Producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer
Allegedly, the production was delayed because it was caused by Simpson and Bruckheimer’s incessant creative involvement. But to be fair, there were weather issues too, so that meant everyone had a lot of downtime. According to one unnamed crew member, the producers’ “main concern was getting laid”.
Although it was mostly Don Simpson, who was a notorious party animal, had spent studio money to build a private gym at the hotel where they were staying, with a neon sign alerting nearby beachgoers to the movie’s and thus Tom Cruise’s presence. They bought out a local club for a party for the cast and crew, who were mostly men and invited beach girls and hookers to fill out the ranks. By most accounts, Bruckheimer was the one who got the work done on the film, while Simpson had partied, slept and caroused.
Simpson even fancied himself as an actor and went around telling people he had uncredited cameos in his and Bruckheimer’s movies, which was untrue. Although he made it happen in “Days Of Thunder”, though getting Towne to write a four-page scene where Simpson, as a driver named Aldo Bennedetti, would interact with Cruise and Robert Duvall. Film editor Billy Weber, who was on-set the whole time, said Simpson’s acting was “painful. It was clear to Tony, Towne and to Don that his scenes just weren’t working… It was unusable”.
Another on-set source said it was Cruise who objected to the scene, which was unnecessary and would only exacerbate the film’s schedule problems. Eventually Simpson’s part was whittled down to one line, as his character Aldo telling an ESPN reporter, “I’m glad he’s well enough to come back, and I hope I beat him, at the same time”.
Don Simpson, Jerry Bruckheimer and sometimes Robert Towne, often started their days on-set having arguments with Tony Scott over how to shoot scenes. Meanwhile, the crew sat around getting paid, sometimes for twenty hours a day. Some later said that they had made so much overtime on the film, that they could have gone on vacation for four full months after the wrap date.
•Part 4: Relationships Formed On Track
“Days Of Thunder” was the first American film of her career. It was allegedly reported, that Robert Towne talent-spotted Nicole Kidman for the film. While other reports said that, Tom Cruise handpicked Nicole Kidman to be his love interest after seeing her performance in 1989’s “Dead Calm”.
Kidman and Cruise started dating while the movie was being shot, and were married on Christmas Eve 1990, six months after the film’s release. They made three films together, including: Ron Howard’s “Far and Away” and Stanley Kubrick’s final film “Eyes Wide Shut”. After 11 years of marriage, they decided to divorce.
Kim Basinger, Sandra Bullock, Alison Doody, Jodie Foster, Sarah Jessica Parker, Heather Locklear, Madonna, Michelle Pfeiffer, Molly Ringwald, Julia Roberts, Meg Ryan, Brooke Shields, Sharon Stone, and Ally Sheedy all turned down the role of Claire Lewicki before Kidman was officially casted.
Among Simpson’s many requests was in making screenwriter Robert Towne write a small role for Simpson’s new girlfriend, an actress named Donna Wilson. She had only one line, but it was enough of an excuse for Simpson to bring her to Daytona for the entire shoot. While there, the relationship ended because of Simpson’s drug use and Wilson ended up with director Tony Scott. She and Scott married in 1994 and were together until his Tony Scott’s death by suicide in 2012.
•Part 5: Cars Going Round & Round
Don Simpson had suspicions that the film wasn’t gluing together, as the initial cut didn’t even have Cruise reaching a checkered flag. Sid Ganis, the co-president of Paramount Pictures, admitted that “There was almost no story, and there was no ending. It was just cars going around a racetrack”.
And these fears were borne out in test screenings. As a result the finale was reshot to Tony Scott’s loud objection, though still under his direction. New scenes featuring Cole’s recovery from injury were also shot. The next version , which is the final cut of the film was a box office success. But the critical reception was hardly favourable.
Comments were that: “The racing scenes focused on spectacle and not on the narrow parameters the drivers operate within, and whatever nuances and colors Towne and Cruise worked to achieve ended up on the cutting-room floor”.
Towne works a unique alchemy. The producers’ and star’s formula – cocky kid learns to play by the rules, then tastes victory – gets a Townean makeover that turns Days into a Howard Hawks-style melodrama: Cruise’s uppity racer comes to respect a wise elder…collaborates with a onetime rival…and appreciates the balance between duty and risk. Damned if Towne doesn’t make something stirring and even shrewdly observed out of the relationships between these three swaggering archetypes.
Robert Towne said: “What everybody learned…is never to lock a film so early into an opening date ever again. The fact is, the editors had four weeks to go through two or three million feet of film”.
“Days Of Thunder” had an unusually short post-production schedule for such a big-budget, tech-heavy film, but shooting delays left Paramount with little choice. Producers Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer were constantly micromanaging Tony Scott and Towne, while they argued with each other about every little thing. The shoot went more than three months over schedule, finally ending in early May. Its original Memorial Day release, where it would have competed with “Back to the Future Part III”, had to be pushed back to June 27, where it competed with Bill Cosby’s “Ghost Dad”.
•Part 6: The Cars & Real Product Placement
Most of the cars used in this film were actually Chevrolets outfitted with special fiberglass bodies made to resemble stock cars. The vehicles routinely broke down from the strain of the racing, or had their bodies greatly damaged. At one point, half of the fleet ended up in the repair shop.
The ones used for Cole Trickle, Rowdy Burns and Russ Wheeler were provided by Hendrick Motorsports, with racers Greg Sacks, Tommy Ellis, Bobby Hamilton and Hut Stricklin as the stand-in drivers. In order to provide authentic race footage involving the cars, these cars were actually raced on three occasions.
In late 1989, Hamilton and Sacks raced at Phoenix. Hamilton officially qualified 5th and led a lap before his engine blew. In 1990, the cars were raced again at Daytona and Darlington. Sacks drove a car during the Busch Clash, while Hamilton and Ellis drove unscored entries in the Daytona 500. At Darlington, Stricklin and Sacks drove two of the cars, but both were pulled from the race early after Sacks broke a crankshaft. Cole’s first car in the film is sponsored by City Chevrolet, a real-life car dealership in Charlotte, North Carolina, owned by Rick Hendrick. At Daytona for the final race of the movie “Gentlemen Start Your Engines” is the voice of Burt Reynolds.
NASCAR teams are famous for proudly displaying their sponsors’ logos on their cars, so it wouldn’t make sense to make a NASCAR film without similar decorations on the fictional drivers’ vehicles. Naturally, the studio jumped at the chance to make a movie full of product placements that could be justified by the story. Though Mello Yello is never mentioned by name in the film, its logo appears prominently on Cole Trickle’s car and in a TV commercial tying the soda to NASCAR and the film. The next year, actual NASCAR racer Kyle Petty started driving a Mello Yello car and did so for four years. As expected, Mello Yello’s sales had surged in the mid-90s.
•Part 7: Dale Earnhardt & NASCAR Were Not Impressed
Back when “Days of Thunder” was little more than a distant rumbling in Tom Cruise’s mind. Cruise dropped by the legend himself, Dale Earnhardt’s farm in Morrisville. Cruise sat with the famous veteran stock-car driver for almost two hours, chatting eagerly about the movie he wanted to make and how it would be unlike any other racing film ever produced. ”The words out of Tom Cruise’s mouth to me were that this was going to be real, as real as racing is today,” Earnhardt recalled. ”I just don’t think they made it that way”.
Earnhardt isn’t the only one in auto racing disappointed with “Days of Thunder”; a number of stock-car drivers felt that the high-speed blockbuster had sideswiped reality and totaled the good name of their calling. Some feel they let a bunch of Hollywood smoothies talk them into cooperating with the film’s production, then were made to look ridiculous by the final product. ”I don’t think they did us justice,” fumes driver Alan Kulwicki. ”They portrayed us like we’re running bumper cars”.
The bitterness some drivers feel today toward the movie is in marked contrast to the racing community’s total support for the project while it was being planned and shot. Before production began, producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer has promised drivers that the movie would do for them what “Top Gun” had done for Navy pilots. ”We’re going to take the image of stock-car racing as most of the public perceives it and turn it around”.
Simpson had vowed this in a meeting with officials of NASCAR, while courting their cooperation. ”We’re going to show them how high tech and professional it really is”. When Simpson finished his pitch, NASCAR president Bill France Jr. was sold. France Jr told Simpson, ”I’ve had the best salesmen come through here,” he told the producer, ”but you’re a helluva kid. I like your style. I’m gonna do it”.
Eager to rid the sport of its redneck image and to expand its audience beyond the southeastern states, NASCAR offered the producers extraordinary cooperation. The racing association even allowed two movie cars (with professional drivers) to take 40 laps during 1989’s Daytona 500. What NASCAR wanted in exchange for its help was simple: they wanted a movie that depicted racing with more verisimilitude than the usual cheesy Hollywood treatments. Such as: Kirk Douglas’ “The Racers”, Elvis Presley’s “Speedway”, Burt Reynolds’ “Stroker Ace” and others.
The movie NASCAR got, were scenes of drivers deliberately ramming each other on the track and swilling moonshine off it. It left NASCAR in an awkward spot. Officially, the organization is still gung-ho on “Days Of Thunder”, hoping it will draw new spectators and sponsors to the sport. But the NASCAR representatives couldn’t help but sound slightly jilted. ”We had hoped for more authenticity,” says NASCAR spokesman Jim Foster. According to drivers, pit-crew workers, top NASCAR officials and within closed-door meetings, they have been urged to keep their “Days Of Thunder” grumblings to themselves.
Dale Earnhardt, who let loose a blistering critique after seeing a reel of the movie’s racing scenes, later turned coy. Although Earnhardt’s publicist told Entertainment Weekly “Dale has seen the movie and was upset about its distortions”. Although Earnhardt later denied having seen Thunder and says he doesn’t plan to. ”I am a big fan of Tom Cruise,” Earnhardt told AutoWeek before winning the Die Hard 500 last week. ”I don’t want to see anything that might change what I think of him”.
Perhaps racing insiders who object to the movie, take it personally because they see so much of themselves and their colleagues in it. A number of scenes and characters in the movie were drawn from real life. The Rowdy Burns character played by Michael Rooker (which Tom Cruise actually wanted Kurt Russell for the role), was the racetrack nemesis of Tom Cruise’s Cole Trickle; shares both the signature black Chevrolet Lumina that race fans associate with Dale Earnhardt and Earnhardt’s hard-driving reputation.
As mentioned before Randy Quaid’s character is similar to real-life racing team owner J.R. ”Rick” Hendrick, who supplied the cars used and largely destroyed in the movie. And Robert Duvall’s good ol’ boy car-builder Harry Hogge is a close facsimilie of stock-car legend Harry Hyde. ”The scene with the ice cream in the racing pit and where I run him around the track in the tire test are real and based on my experiences,” says Hyde. Hogge’s stormy relationship with Trickle also closely parallels Hyde’s experiences with the controversial but brilliant driver Tim Richmond, who inspired Cruise’s Cole Trickle.
Hyde was a natural model for the savvy car builder in “Days Of Thunder”. Tom Cruise, himself once explored the idea of having Hyde build him a car to race in the real Daytona 500. Hyde says “I told them, Hell no!”. Cruise had never met with Hyde before the movie, but Hyde served as a script consultant to screenwriter Robert Towne.
Those who hoped that the filmmakers’ attention to detail would help give stock-car racing a cleaner and more professional image were dismayed by the movie’s portrayal of drivers as cocky daredevils. Tommy Allison, who builds cars for his brother who was a NASCAR driver, was particularly offended by a scene, in which a driver brags that he will ram Cole Trickle right out of a race.
”Winston Cup drivers don’t have that kind of relationship,” Allison says. ”They respect each other on the track”. Dale Earnhardt says he was annoyed when he heard about the scene of a racing crew chugging moonshine out of mason jars while returning from a race. ”That irks me, it really does,” he said. Reigning NASCAR Winston Cup champion Rusty Wallace said, ”There is not that much redneck-ery in the sport these days”.
Yet Hyde did object to the movie’s suggestion that champion race cars are put together in tumbledown barns, the very sort of hick image that stock-car racing so desperately wants to shed. ”I guess they wanted to show it like it was instead of how it is,” he says. ”I’ve seen a few less-than-immaculate shops,” says Jeff Hammond, crew chief for driver Darrell Waltrip, ”but I’ve never seen a car built in a barn”.
But the drivers have expressed that, they are most upset about the films portrayal of the one thing they hold most dear: their skill behind the wheel. ”I don’t know much about movies,” said Earnhardt, ”but I know a lot about racing. And you don’t spin out and keep going. You don’t hit the wall and keep going“. NASCAR driver Alan Kulwicki: ”They portrayed us as having a crash mentality, like we were demolition derby drivers. We don’t purposely run into each other and grin about it”.
”We got as close as we could to reality while still conveying the message,” says Jerry Bruckheimer in response to the critical drivers. Not all stock-car drivers and fans found the movie offensive or even terribly inaccurate. ”The overagressive driving was overdone,” says driver Ricky Rudd, ”but I liked the way it displayed the determination that’s needed to succeed in racing.”
Barely one lap into the Pepsi 400 at the Daytona International Speedway after the film’s release. Three drivers came screaming side by side around the track, rubbing doors and trading paint, refusing to give an inch. Finally all three skidded out of control, triggering a massive 23-car pileup that sent metal and rubber spewing across the track; thankfully no drivers were injured. ”The idiots wrecked. They saw the movie, I guess,” driver Geoff Bodine said after the race. ”They started acting like the movie”.
•Part 8: Losing The Race
The ’80s were run by studios giving producers a lot of money to churn out whatever box office entertainment they could. When “Days of Thunder’s” budget ballooned from about $35 million to something like $70 million, execs at Paramount got nervous. When the film’s box office barely covered its production, marketing, and distribution costs, they got serious, severing the five year deal Simpson and Bruckheimer, had inked less than a year earlier. The film grossed $157 million in it’s theatrical run.
The film’s disappointing box-office performance was responsible for destroying the relationship between Paramount and superproducers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer. After the film under-performed in the summer of 1990, the studio angrily responded in two ways. They insisted on an impossible lowball budget for a planned third edition of the Beverly Hills Cop franchise, and asked Simpson and Bruckheimer to give Paramount $9 million of their earnings for this movie back to defray losses. The producers responded by telling Paramount they were done working there and the studio terminated their contract, which led to them taking a new production deal with Disney’s owned Hollywood Studios.
•Part 9: The Legacy Of Days Of Thunder
More than anyone in Hollywood, producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer have turned their movies into a mass narcotic. All of their films leading up to “Days Of Thunder”, including: “Beverly Hills Cop”, “Flashdance” and “Top Gun”. They invite audiences to shoot up on music, choreographed action sequences, imagery and sensation. The mega producers, have formula films down to a science.
“Days of Thunder” was directed by Tony Scott, the same man who gave Tom Cruise his “Need For Speed” by directing “Top Gun” and “Days Of Thunder”, shows the same mastery in photography of it’s fast machines. The movie knows that auto racing is a boring sport visually, as they inject action into the picture of cars crashing into each other, consisting of long shots of stock cars dashing around the track. Tony Scott has medium shots of cars trying to pass one another, while stock car drivers sideswipe their opponents and push each other into the wall.
Like “Top Gun”, the movie isn’t simply a Tom Cruise vehicle, it is a Tom Cruise vehicle. Since it assembles most of the same elements that worked for Cruise in “Top Gun”, “The Color of Money” and “Cocktail”. Cruise runs them through the formula once again and once again the Dimpled One is cast as an iconic hotshot whose swaggering antics conceal a ”troubled” soul. And once again the camera ravishes that Hollywood golden boy grin, with his eagle pure stare and his Cruiseness.
Scott has ditched “Top Gun‘s” soft, confectionery look for a grainier documentary style, that has an aesthetic rawness. “Days Of Thunder” is muscular, loud and ravishingly handsome. The movie is solidly in the same family as its predecessor, “Top Gun”. It is precisely what you’d expect from the reunion of producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, director Tony Scott and star Tom Cruise. There are enough similarities in the two films, in both plot, character and style, that “Days Of Thunder” could almost qualify as a sequel.
In tradition of Tony Scott’s films, it’s thrillingly photographed, with a high impact velocity by cinematographer Ward Russell. Starring actors giving big, generous star performances and the story by Tom Cruise and screenplay by Robert Towne, works in enough cleverness and wit.
The racing scenes are genuinely exciting: careening barrages of speed and noise and singed metal. Scott shoots nearly everything in close-up, so that we can practically smell the danger. The cars themselves have a deep, sensuous growl and Scott bombs the bass in the race scenes, filling our guts with the rumble of big engines. It’s no surprise that “Days Of Thunder” was nominated for an Oscar in the category of Best Sound.
Writer and director Quentin Tarantino said the film is his favorite big budget racing movie: “Yeah, yeah, you laugh but seriously I’m a big fan. To me Days of Thunder is the movie ‘Grand Prix’ and ‘Le Mans’ should have been. Sure, it had a big budget, big stars and a big director in Tony Scott, but it had the fun of those early movies. I just don’t think it works if you take the whole thing too seriously”.
Whether he is cruising in the skies or on the ground feeling “the need for speed”, we are still “cruising like thunder” thirty years later.