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How 'Days of Thunder' failed NASCAR

Stock-car drivers went all out to help the film’s producers, but feel the film didn’t do them justice

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Stephen Vaughn

Back when Days of Thunder was little more than a distant rumbling in his mind, Tom Cruise dropped by Dale Earnhardt’s farm in Morrisville, N.C. The famous young actor 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 recalls in his thick Southern drawl. ”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 feel that the high-speed blockbuster has 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, Thunder producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer — the team behind Flashdance (1983), Beverly Hills Cop (1984), and Top Gun (1986) — 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 in a meeting with officials of the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (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. ”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 last year’s Daytona 500 — the ultimate challenge of the stock-car world — an act of collaboration equivalent to the National Football League allowing an actor or two onto the field during the Super Bowl.

What NASCAR wanted in exchange for its help was simple: a movie that depicted racing with more verisimilitude than the usual cheesy Hollywood treatments — Kirk Douglas’ The Racers (1955), Elvis Presley’s Speedway (1968), Burt Reynolds’ Stroker Ace (1983), and others. The movie they got — with its scenes of drivers deliberately ramming each other on the track and swilling moonshine off it — left NASCAR in an awkward spot. Officially, the organization is still gung-ho on Thunder, hoping it will draw new spectators and sponsors to the sport (although the movie has fallen behind other blockbusters in the summer box-office race). But NASCAR representatives can’t help sounding slightly jilted. ”We had hoped for more authenticity,” says spokesman Jim Foster. According to drivers and pit-crew workers, top NASCAR officials, in closed-door meetings, have urged them to keep their Thunder grumblings to themselves.

NASCAR’s code of silence seems to be working, in part. Some drivers and crew members refuse to speak about the movie on the record. 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 the driver had seen the movie and was upset about its distortions, Earnhardt now denies having seen Thunder and says he doesn’t plan to. ”I am a big fan of Tom Cruise,” the driver 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.”

[pagebreak]Perhaps those racing insiders who object to Thunder take it personally because they see so much of themselves and their colleagues in it. A startling number of the scenes and characters in the movie were drawn from real life. The Rowdy Burns character (Michael Rooker) — 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. 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, the part where I run him around the track in the tire test — those are based on my experiences,” says Hyde. Hogge’s stormy relationship with Trickle closely parallels Hyde’s experiences with the controversial but brilliant driver Tim Richmond, who died of AIDS last year.

Hyde was a natural model for the savvy car builder in Thunder. Cruise — himself an aspiring race-car driver — once explored the idea of having Hyde build him a car to race in the Daytona 500. (”I told them, Hell no!” Hyde recalls.) Cruise never met with Hyde before the movie, but Hyde served as a script consultant to Thunder screenwriter Robert Towne.

Those who hoped that the filmmakers’ attention to detail would help give stock-car racing a cleaner, more professional image were dismayed by the movie’s portrayal of drivers as cocky daredevils. Tommy Allison, who builds cars for his brother Davey, 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,” he says. ”They respect each other on the track.” 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 before he clammed up about Thunder. Says reigning NASCAR Winston Cup champion Rusty Wallace, ”There is not that much redneck-ery in the sport these days.” Hyde, on the other hand, accepts those colorful moments with a chuckle: ”That moonshine was mine,” he says.

Yet Hyde did object to the movie’s suggestion that champion race cars are put together in tumbledown barns in smoky mountain hollers — 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 seem most upset about Thunder‘s portrayal of the one thing they hold most dear: their skill behind the wheel. ”I don’t know much about movies,” said Earnhardt after seeing the film’s racing scenes, ”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.” Adds driver 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.”

In Hollywood they do, but that’s show biz. ”We got as close as we could to reality while still conveying the message,” producer Jerry Bruckheimer says in response to the critical drivers. And not all stock-car people find 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.”

Still, on the NASCAR circuit, Days of Thunder has already become synonymous with reckless driving. Barely one lap into the Pepsi 400 at the Daytona International Speedway last month, 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 over the track; 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.”

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