Depending on whom you ask in Hollywood, “Days of Thunder” is either the quintessential ’80s/’90s action drama or the movie that broke the system, forever changing the way filmmaking is done. Depending on whom you ask in the NASCAR garage, “Days of Thunder” either made stock car racing look forever cool or clumsily taught an entire generation little more than how to use Sweet’N Low packets to illustrate the aerodynamic draft.
No matter where they stand when it comes to those debates, there’s a pretty good chance that if they are surfing through their cable channels this summer and “Days of Thunder” pops up, they’ll stop flipping long enough to hear Robert Duvall say, “Rubbin’, son, is racing.” Or Tom Cruise exclaim, “Hit the pace car?!” Or Nicole Kidman shout at her soon-to-be husband, “Let may outta tha cahr, Cole!”
Or, yes, to watch that scene with the Sweet’N Low packets.
In honor of the film’s 30th anniversary, we tracked down the filmmakers, actors and racers who lived those “Days of Thunder” to re-create that journey, down roads that took us into the wall at Darlington or into the haze of a late-night party in a Daytona Beach gentlemen’s club parking lot. Why? Because we know that if we go to the outside, we can hold it. Harry Hogge said so.
‘I’m dropping the hammer!’
“Days of Thunder” starts at Daytona International Speedway with a chill-bump-inducing, Hans Zimmer-scored sequence that builds from sunrise to the green flag of the 1990 edition of the Great American Race. But the story of “Days of Thunder” began across the street four years earlier in an Olive Garden.
Rick Hendrick, owner, Hendrick Motorsports: I was still racing sports cars then and met Paul Newman, who was a very good race car driver. He’d just shot “The Color of Money” with Tom Cruise and had gotten Tom into driving sports cars. So we started meeting up to do some driving, and Tom became a friend. We were at Daytona testing our Busch [now Xfinity] Series car, and they came out to the track, so we put Tom in that car, and he just took off. He loved it.
Tom Cruise, aka Cole Trickle (interviewed for ESPN The Magazine in 2015): I had driven some incredible machines with Paul and Rick before that, but the sensation of driving one of Rick’s stock cars around Daytona, that was an entirely different level. I think I hit 175 mph. The second I climbed out of that car on pit road, I said, “We have to make a movie about this!”
Geoff Bodine, driver of Hendrick’s No. 5 Chevy: That night we went to dinner with them, Rick and me and the crew, and we told story after story. Cruise was just riveted, man. This was the most famous guy in the world, and he barely said anything. He was just listening and smiling the whole time.
Chris Connelly, ESPN, then with Premiere Magazine and MTV: It’s difficult to remember a time when an actor had more momentum than Tom Cruise did right then. That very year, 1986, he starred in both “The Color of Money” and “Top Gun.” Then he headlined “Cocktail” and “Rain Man,” a Best Picture winner. While those two films were in theaters, he was shooting “Born on the Fourth of July” with director Oliver Stone, which earned him his first Oscar nomination. Tom Cruise had the power to do whatever movie he wanted. And he wanted to make a NASCAR movie.
‘If you built the car, I’d get a damn driver’
Equally unstoppable was the powerhouse producing duo of Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, who had worked with Cruise on “Top Gun” and overseen pop culture sensation “Flashdance” and a pair of “Beverly Hills Cop” movies starring Eddie Murphy. Simpson was a bona fide Hollywood wild man, an Alaska-raised former head of Paramount Pictures. Bruckheimer was a Detroit-raised advertising man who had transitioned to feature films. They were known as “Mr. Inside” and “Mr. Outside,” Simpson bringing the Hollywood Rolodex while Bruckheimer delivered a get-your-hands-dirty knowledge of film production. They were the perfect yin and yang. They famously shared an office with desks facing each other, where they had just signed an unprecedented five-year, five-film, $300 million deal with Paramount.
Connelly: They called it the “visionary alliance.” Here is the money, make five movies, whatever movies you want to make, however you want to slice up that financial pie. They were given free range. They described their relationship with the studio as, “We meet them at the premiere.” So there was a lot of attention paid to what the first film of that alliance was going to be.
Jerry Bruckheimer: Tom brought the idea of “Days of Thunder” to us. Everyone knows the line from “Top Gun”: “I feel the need for speed,” right? Well, that’s Tom, quite literally. No one takes it to the limit like Tom. He wanted the audience to experience auto racing like it had never been done before, like he had on the racetrack. But the movie couldn’t be just about fast cars. There had to be characters that the audience could connect with and a story that brought those characters and those cars to life.
Cruise had already conceived the bones of that story, about an Indy car driver transitioning to stock car racing, dueling with a bitter rival while overcoming the physical and mental aftermath of a big crash. But his first draft was admittedly flat. Oscar-winning screenwriter Donald E. Stewart (for 1982’s “Missing”) took a stab at the script. So did Warren Skaaren, writer of the original “Top Gun” screenplay who had just written Michael Keaton’s “Batman.” But those treatments were still missing the mark, and while Cruise was busy with “Rain Man” and “Born on the Fourth of July,” he didn’t have time to babysit rewrites.
Bruckheimer: We needed someone that we knew would completely immerse himself in the NASCAR world. If you know the work of Robert Towne, then you know that’s how he approaches any script. He did a true deep dive into the lives of the drivers, the teams, every aspect of that world.
Towne was 54 years old and already a living Hollywood legend. He’d helped craft the scripts for “Bonnie and Clyde” and “The Godfather”; had won the 1974 Best Original Screenplay Oscar for Jack Nicholson’s “Chinatown,” still considered one of the greatest screenplays ever written; and had just written and directed “Tequila Sunrise” starring Mel Gibson, Kurt Russell and Michelle Pfeiffer. Towne was also at the peak of his movie-making powers.
To recruit Towne, Cruise took the writer to a NASCAR Winston Cup Series race at Watkins Glen on Aug. 13, 1989.
Dr. Jerry Punch, ESPN pit reporter and film technical adviser: I came in early on race morning and I was introduced to these two guys who were going to be part of my crew during the race. One was in his 50s and had a beard and the other was this little guy with scruff on his face, sunglasses and a hat pulled down over his face. I figured it was a college kid looking to earn 75 bucks, but it was Tom Cruise. Robert Towne was the older guy and had a little microphone pinned to the brim of his ball cap, and it was hooked to a tape recorder he was carrying. He was recording everything: conversations, dialects, sayings, stories, the sounds of the pits — all of it.
Richard Petty, NASCAR legend: We talked for a long time. I’d just had my big crash at Daytona, the one when I barrel-rolled down the frontstretch. They wanted to know all about that deal. They couldn’t believe that I stayed awake the whole time and remembered the whole thing, like it happened in slow motion. When I told them that I’d gone blind for a little bit, that seemed to really get the writer’s attention.
Punch: They managed to stay undercover until about halfway through the race. It got really hot and Cruise took off his hat and sunglasses for a minute, just to wipe the sweat off his face. A camera guy spotted him and all of a sudden there he was, up on the big TV screen and it said, “Welcome, Tom Cruise!” The crowd went crazy, and suddenly everyone was coming for him. Tom said, “Sorry, Doc, we gotta go.”
Hendrick: Tom brought Robert to our race shops in Concord, North Carolina, and introduced us. It felt like Robert was here all the time after that, listening and asking questions about what we did and why we did it.
Bruckheimer: Don Simpson and I came out to Charlotte too. We brought Tony Scott, who had directed “Top Gun” for us, and we all met with Rick Hendrick and his people to talk about supplying race cars for the film. He gave us the keys to the kingdom. We don’t make “Days of Thunder” without Rick Hendrick’s cooperation, plain and simple.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR star and son of Dale Sr.: They came to see Dad at his office. Me and [my sister] Kelley went up there just to get a look at Tom Cruise. I guess I was 14 or 15. They met with Dad for probably 30 minutes in his office. The word on the street was always that they had offered him the role of Rowdy Burns but he turned it down because he didn’t want to play the bad guy. I never found out if it was true or not. But it’s pretty obvious that Rowdy Burns is based on The Intimidator.
Michael Rooker, aka Rowdy Burns: Oh yeah, Earnhardt was the pattern. That’s pretty obvious, right? I got to see him up close, in real life and in his element. He’s the guy who knows that every time he walks in the room he is immediately the biggest badass in that room. But I wasn’t trying to “do Dale Earnhardt” like a carbon copy. I was trying to capture what he was all about. Plus, I didn’t want to copy him straight up because I sure didn’t want to piss him off. [Laughs]
Rooker was joined by up-and-comer John C. Reilly as mechanic Buck Bretherton; Randy Quaid as car salesman-turned-NASCAR team owner Tim Daland; and Cary Elwes, he of recent “Princess Bride” fame, as Trickle’s new teammate and Hardee’s-sponsored weasel Russ Wheeler. The female lead, neurosurgeon Dr. Claire Lewicki, was awarded to relatively unknown Nicole Kidman, who met Cruise on set and married him less than two years later.
But the coup was landing Robert Duvall, who had not been able to come to terms with Francis Ford Coppola to reprise his role as mafia confidant Tom Hagen in “The Godfather: Part III,” shooting at the same time as “Days of Thunder.” Instead, he was coming south to play crew chief Harry Hogge, based on real-life NASCAR crew chief Harry Hyde.
Hendrick: The scene at the start of the movie, when Randy Quaid, the car salesman, asks Robert Duvall, the old retired crew chief, to help him start a NASCAR team, that really happened. It was me and Harry Hyde, and that talk took place right there in that same spot where I introduced Robert Towne to Harry; land that was his is where our race shops are now. Well, Harry, he liked to talk. And Robert, he likes to listen. I left them down there for a couple of days with Harry telling stories, and by the time Harry was done with Robert they had written a movie where the crew chief was the hero and the smartest guy in the movie. They even named him Harry!
Bruckheimer: Duvall wasn’t available to do any script readings during preproduction, so we had other actors sitting in with Tom to read the scenes between Cole and Harry. It just didn’t work. I went to Robert Towne and said, “Hey, Robert, I’m sorry, but these scenes aren’t working.” He told me to wait until Duvall got there. As soon as Robert Duvall arrived, he started reading those scenes with Tom and it was amazing. I was so relieved.
‘OK … Big John’s turn.’
As Cruise and Towne became constants around NASCAR tracks and the race shops around Charlotte, Simpson and Bruckheimer flew to Daytona Beach to join Cruise at NASCAR headquarters for a meeting with epically stoic NASCAR chairman Bill France Jr. France went through the list of films that NASCAR had cooperated on in the past, and they had all been bad. He specifically mentioned 1965’s “Red Line 7000,” which was so awful that NASCAR star Curtis Turner stood up during the premiere and shouted to fellow racer Tiny Lund, “Goddamn it, this is terrible! Tiny, let’s get the hell out of here!” and walked out of the theater.
Bruckheimer: That conversation with NASCAR, that was not easy. It certainly doesn’t hurt to have Tom Cruise in the room with you. NASCAR saw Tom’s enthusiasm, and they saw that Rick Hendrick was behind the project.
Cruise: I think about that discussion, really all of the discussions that we had with NASCAR and the racers themselves, and I go back to Cole’s promise to Harry before the final race of the movie: “Just let me drive. I won’t make a fool out of you.”
Bruckheimer: I think about the meeting that you see in the film, when the president of NASCAR meets with Rowdy and Cole. There is no question in that meeting who is calling the shots, who is really in charge. That’s exactly what that meeting with NASCAR felt like. Especially when we asked to have cars on the racetrack in live racing conditions. Thankfully they said yes.
Greg Sacks, NASCAR driver and “Days” camera car driver: I still can’t believe that NASCAR agreed to that, to let cars with cameras in them qualify and run in actual Cup Series races … and I was one of the guys driving the cars!
Punch: They shot the movie for several months in Daytona, and it became commonplace to hear sirens all over town, escorting Tom Cruise to wherever he was going. It got to be a joke. “That must be Cruise.” Well, one night Bill France Jr. was having dinner with the movie folks and he knew Cruise was going to be there, so he got the Daytona International Speedway security to escort him to that dinner with all of their sirens blaring and everything. It was a joke, but it was also a little reminder to let Cruise know that Bill Jr. was still the man in this town.
‘I’m gonna give you an engine, low to the ground …’
Production began on Aug. 26, 1989. That’s when Tony Scott came to Bristol Motor Speedway to shoot a handful of racing scenes … and ended up surrounding the half-mile oval with multiple cameras and shooting hours of footage. Unintentionally, Scott had on day one already set the tone for how the entire “Days of Thunder” production was going to go. Big, big and bigger.
Before entering their cars in real races, Scott and his crew started shooting film sequences on their own. They raced and wrecked cars at eight Winston Cup tracks, a pair of lower-level short tracks and a Florida air strip, plus on the sands of Daytona Beach.
Bruckheimer: Someone was working on a race car somewhere 24 hours a day. We would shoot with them at the racetrack, wreck them all and load them up on transporters to be hauled back over to Hendrick Motorsports. They would work on them all night, get them fixed and send them back. Then we would wreck them all over again. I think we built 60 cars, and I think we ended up with zero.
Hendrick: Oh, they definitely wound up with zero. I know because at one point we had most of them lined up behind the building, a “Days of Thunder” graveyard out there reminding me how much money it was costing. At one point, we had to meet with them and say, “Guys, this is great stuff. But we can’t keep up this pace.”
Allan Padelford, stunt driver: The general manager at Hendrick Motorsports was Jimmy Johnson, not the champion driver, the executive, and he was assigned to help us out, to give us anything we needed. I loved Jimmy. He made it all work. But I also felt so bad for him. Every night we sent him a fleet of cars to fix. Chassis parts smashed, engines blown, everything. One time I broke a rocker arm in the engine of my car and Jimmy took me over to the shed where Rick Hendrick kept his drag racing boats. We took a rocker arm off of one of those boats and put it in my car.
Padelford was only one of dozens of stunt drivers, but his role was the most important. He was the driver, and inventor, of the high-speed C2 Chase Car. He was frustrated with the standard clunky camera trucks, limited on speed and stuck with an elevated camera angle via a camera operator strapped into the bed of the truck. So Padelford modified a low-slung El Camino chassis and gave it a Corvette 427 engine — the perfect machine to keep up with and film a pack of Winston Cup cars, driven by a mix of stuntmen and real NASCAR racers Greg Sacks, Bobby Hamilton, Tommy Ellis, Hut Stricklin and Rick Mast.
Padelford: It was really low to the ground, and the camera in the back was even lower. It was so fast that it was too dangerous for a man to be buckled in the back, so I developed hand controls that let the camera operator ride shotgun up front, watching monitors and controlling the camera in the back. When Tony reached out to me to say he was making a NASCAR movie, he said, “We are really going to push the limit with these cars, so we need a rig like nothing ever used before.” I said, “I’m already ahead of you.”
Sacks: Those on-track shoots were all choreographed. Controlled chaos. Tony Scott would be on pit road at Daytona with all of us crowded around him, he’d have his shirt off and he had Matchbox cars lined up on a table, showing us exactly what he wanted us to do on the track, all in that British accent of his. We would roll out some of the cars with cameras bolted all over them and the camera car right in the middle of us, and we would perform these dances. Meanwhile, Tony was on the radio in our ears, “Move over here! OK, now you pass him there!”
Rooker: For the big crash where Cole and Rowdy get hurt, they had one car rigged with explosives that would fire a section of a telephone pole out of the bottom and launch the car into the air. I’ve never seen a car barrel roll like that one did, and when it finally stopped, there was nothing left. It was just a smoking pile of twisted metal. Then a stuntman popped out of it, screaming, “F— yeah!”
Padelford: We had a sequence where we were supposed to drive up through the pack. One of the race cars following us as it was making its way up to the lead. I totally lost control as we entered a turn and completely spun into the infield grass, just looping it. My camera operator shouts to me, “When you make that move, it causes the camera to really pan hard to the left!” He was wanting me to correct the move I was making. I just yelled back, “Yeah, OK, I’m working on it!” He was so locked in to getting the shot that he had no idea we were wrecking.
During 1990 Daytona Speedweeks, the movie cars were in the Winston Cup garage, being prepped, qualified and raced for real, their bumpers hiding cameras to capture legit in-race action. But they had to qualify for the races on speed, just like everyone else.
Rusty Wallace, NASCAR driver and performer of one line in “Days of Thunder”: A lot of guys were pissed about that, movie cars being on the track. I know Earnhardt wasn’t happy about it. But I thought it was great, as long they didn’t get in my way.
Rick Mast, NASCAR driver and “Days” movie car driver: My car was fast in practice. I was thinking, “Damn, I’ve got a car that could win the Daytona 500!” We had a meeting with Mr. France, all of us driving the movie cars. He talked to us about what a big deal this movie was but that we were to stay the hell out of the way when the races started, pass no one. I raised my hand and I said, “Mr. France, if it gets late in the race and I think I have a chance to win the Daytona 500 …” and he said, “Rick, I know you are working hard to make it full time in NASCAR. Well, I run NASCAR and I own most of the NASCAR tracks, so I can guarantee you that if you pass one car out there, you will absolutely never make it in NASCAR.”
‘When I’m driving, I’ve got a guy on the radio who talks to me’
While the mechanics at Hendrick Motorsports were up all night fixing cars, Towne was up all night fixing the script. When actors reported for duty on set the next morning, Towne handed them new pages of just-dreamt-up dialogue, much of it changed mere moments earlier when Sacks, Hendrick or Punch would advise, “Hey, a real racer would never say it that way.”
Cruise: I tried taping the new lines to the dashboard of the race car. I was out there driving at 130 mph in a pack with cameras bolted to the car, so the weight was all over the place. I was looking around all over trying to read these new lines, and I totally hit the wall. So we changed the approach and I started having Bob [Towne] feed me the new lines through my radio earpiece. In the movie, when you see me listening intently to my crew chief giving me instructions, that was for real. I was actually listening to Bob Towne giving me the next line.
The only chunks of the script that weren’t changed were the best stories handed to Towne and Cruise by the NASCAR community, many of them with roots back to that very first storytelling dinner at Olive Garden four years earlier.
Bodine: Every big disagreement between Robert Duvall and Tom Cruise, that was 100 percent a story about Harry Hyde disagreeing with either me or my teammate, Tim Richmond. And the feud between the drivers, the one that got so bad they had to be brought in front of NASCAR to be told to chill out — that was me and Dale Earnhardt.
Hendrick: What “Big John” [played by future U.S. Senator Fred Thompson] said, “You two monkeys,” is what Bill France Jr. actually said to Geoff and Dale, who drove for me and Richard Childress. Richard and I were there too. After his speech, Bill Jr. said that we were all going to dinner. When Rowdy says he couldn’t go because he had plans, that’s exactly what Dale said too. Bill pointed to the phone and said, “Cancel them.” The deal on the beach, where Cole and Rowdy wrecked each other driving rental cars to that dinner, that didn’t happen, but the rest of it sure did, including the part where Bill Jr. told me if I didn’t get my s— together I could go back to selling cars in downtown Charlotte.
Darrell Waltrip, Hendrick Motorsports driver during “Days” production: The whole thing about the driver not really knowing anything about cars, just going out there and driving, that was exactly Tim Richmond. The tire test where Harry teaches Cole Trickle how to go faster by saving his tires, that was Harry Hyde and Tim at a real tire test at North Wilkesboro. I do like that line, “You see Darrell Waltrip out there using up his tires?!”
Bodine: When Duvall starts screaming at Cruise, “I can’t work with this son of a bitch!” that was Harry Hyde screaming at me during a meeting with Rick to try and get us to work together better.
Hendrick: The line from that scene that everyone loves so much, when the team owner yells, “We look like a monkey f—ing a football out there.” I said that to Harry and Geoff in that same meeting.
Iconic schemes from an iconic movie.
Who has sported your favorite Days of Thunder throwback look? pic.twitter.com/GiScpmzFmo
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) June 27, 2020
Punch: When Harry says to Cole, “I want you to go out and hit the pace car … because you hit everything else out there and I want you to be perfect,” that was Harry Hyde and Buddy Baker at Martinsville. The scene when Cole wants to pit but Harry says he can’t because the crew is eating ice cream? Harry Hyde did that to Benny Parsons at Pocono.
Bodine: When the movie came out, all I could think was, “Well, hell, there’s all the stories we told Cruise and Paul Newman that night at dinner four years ago!”
‘By ornery, you mean …’
‘I mean real ornery!’
Towne was on-site for nearly the entire shoot, as were Simpson and Bruckheimer. Every script change meant another reshoot, and every reshoot meant another day added to the schedule. Production was supposed to have wrapped up at the end of February 1990, shortly after the Daytona 500. But that date was pushed back to mid-March, then mid-April, and finally to mid-May, only six weeks before the film’s scheduled opening. Meanwhile, the Hollywood trade papers were reporting that the film’s budget had ballooned from $35 million to more than $60 million and Paramount was getting nervous about hitting screens in time for the coveted Fourth of July holiday.
Bruckheimer: There wasn’t much sleep happening, I can tell you that. We had multiple shoots, multiple edits and multiple sound studios all running around the clock in Daytona, Charlotte and back in California. We even had Hans Zimmer with us, scoring the film live on site.
Hans Zimmer, Oscar-winning composer: Tony Scott asked me to come down to Daytona to meet with Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer. I went down there for a meeting, so I had no clothes packed. I just had on a T-shirt. They basically started the meeting by saying, “We’re so behind schedule that you can’t leave, so we’ll build you a studio.” They built a gorgeous studio for me in a warehouse in Daytona. My one-day trip turned into three months, and all I had was the one T-shirt.
While Bruckheimer, Zimmer and Towne weren’t sleeping because of work, everyone else on the crew wasn’t sleeping because they were partying, led by Simpson. Both Simpson and Bruckheimer had a custom gym built at their Daytona Beach hotel. That attracted a lot of attention from the thousands of spring breakers trying to catch a glimpse of Cruise. Instead, they often walked away with invitations to one of Simpson’s notorious parties.
Padelford: We had wrap parties held inside of wrap parties. I remember one night Simpson rented out an entire strip club, and when you got there he’d instructed the special effects guys to make the parking lot look like there had been a big NASCAR crash right there at the club. They blew up a car on the spot, and it sat there, on fire.
Hendrick: They rented out an entire floor of the Hilton here in Charlotte and cut holes in the walls of all the rooms so that they could walk from one end of the hallway to the other without having to use a door.
Bruckheimer: I don’t remember a lot of that, and I’m sure there’s a reason for that. [Laughs] We had this great confluence of great people, between the crew and the actors and so many great NASCAR people, so we had a good time. The NASCAR people had no problem holding their own.
John C. Reilly, aka Buck Bretherton: It was, I think, my fourth movie ever, and the first three certainly hadn’t been like this one. I was like, “Oh, OK, this is how this blockbuster thing works!” And then over the next several years I was fortunate to have a lot of work and I realized, “Oh, OK, so every shoot doesn’t try to burn down entire hotels. Good to know.”
‘I’m more afraid of being nothing than I am of being hurt’
“Days of Thunder” opened June 27, 1990, on a then-unthinkable 2,307 screens. But before that came a premiere in Charlotte, shown to an eager yet nervous NASCAR community. The audience gasped in awe at the opening sequence, as Zimmer’s soaring keyboards met Jeff Beck’s smooth guitar riffs. They got chills as they watched their machines take the green flag in the Great American Race.
Then came the barn.
Hendrick: Yeah, they cut from all of that awesome Daytona footage to this old rickety barn, and the graphic said in giant letters: CHARLOTTE, NC. A big groan went out in the theater. We had been so careful to make sure the producers had seen our race shops that are so pristine and clean, building cars using the latest technology. Charlotte was booming, a real up-and-coming city, and there it was as an old barn. I thought, “Well, damn, here I have gone and ruined everyone’s lives, making us look like a bunch of hillbillies racing cars. I’m finished.” But thankfully, it got better after that.
Many among the NASCAR community have still never gotten over that barn, the rickety “race shop” in which Harry Hogge later builds Cole Trickle’s first Chevy Lumina, talking to it all along (“I’ll get you primed, painted and weighed …”). Bruckheimer, Simpson and Scott had spotted the barn during an evening drive to Hendrick’s lake house north of Charlotte. It’s still a roadside attraction for eagle-eyed movie fans.
The cringers have also never gotten past little missteps throughout the film, like showing a shot of Daytona and labeling it Rockingham, or Cole Trickle, Russ Wheeler and Rowdy Burns announcing their next moves over the radio before making them (“I’m gonna draft Wheeler, make him pull me around!”).
Wallace: I’ve never understood NASCAR people being so sensitive about it. It was never going to be a documentary. I think it’s fun as hell. I still do. And that’s not because I think I owe them anything. I do still get checks every year from that one line I had in the movie, and they used to be pretty big. But I think the last one I got was for four bucks.
Reilly: I loved that scene of us building the car in the barn. When I was in “Talladega Nights” 15 years later, I tried to get them to let me shoot that same scene, where I was talking and rubbing, then getting way too intimate with the car. “I’m gonna buff you out and pump you full of octane, baby.” We didn’t shoot it. That was probably for the best.
Connelly: Whenever I see that scene, I imagine that’s Robert Towne working on his script. “I’m gonna shave a half inch off you and shape you like a bullet. You’re gonna be perfect.”
“Days of Thunder” opened with a $15.4 million weekend, the equivalent of $30 million in 2020 dollars, holding off “Dick Tracy,” “RoboCop 2,” “Total Recall” and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” for the top spot at the box office. The final tally by summer’s end was $83 million domestic and $75 million overseas, a $310 million total when adjusted for inflation. Still, the take was less than half that of “Top Gun.” The comparisons between the films had been so constant, the “Days of Thunder” crew had worn joke “Top Car” caps during production. So the cash comparison was inevitable.
Bruckheimer: Not every movie is going to make a billion dollars. But this was a great success for everybody. We poured every ounce of energy we had into that film, and even among what has become a very fortunate filmography, “Days of Thunder” remains very special to me. It’s because of the people who worked on it. Tony, Don, they are special people in my life and always will be.
The weeks leading up to its release was peppered with “Days of Plunder” stories, detailing the swollen production budget and schedule, describing shouting matches between Towne and Simpson, especially when Simpson’s Mario Andretti-ish character, Aldo Benedetti, was trimmed down to a one-line cameo. The Hollywood press blamed the film for breaking the “visionary alliance” open-checkbook business model before the first movie produced within that system had even been released. (Bruckheimer, Simpson and Paramount mutually ended their agreement later that year.) It was the supposed end of Hollywood hedonism as we knew it.
Connelly: That’s not really a fair framing of the “Days of Thunder” story, is it? I seem to remember plenty of Arnold movies and Sly Stallone movies and Joel Silver productions after 1990. The real story of that film are the ghosts associated with it. That set is where Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman met and fell in love. I believe their big reveal as a couple was at the Oscars while “Days of Thunder” was still in production. Later, of course, it became one of the biggest divorce stories Hollywood has seen in quite some time. Don Simpson’s very bright flame burned out with his [drug overdose] death in 1996. And I don’t think we’ll ever know the real story behind Tony Scott’s death.
Scott died on Aug. 19, 2012, when he jumped from a bridge in San Pedro, California. He left behind 12-year-old twin boys and a wife, Donna Wilson Scott. He met her on the “Days of Thunder” set when she played the girlfriend of Reilly’s Buck Bretherton, and they married in 1994.
Tony Scott, in a 2010 interview: “Days of Thunder,” it was hard to make. But it was also so fun. And it gave me the greatest gift of my life: my family.
Those ghosts aren’t limited to the Hollywood side of the story. Rick Hendrick says he still loves to catch the film on TV because it reminds him of Harry Hyde, who died in 1996, and Tim Richmond, the driver upon whom Cole Trickle was loosely based. Richmond died from complications of HIV/AIDS on Aug. 13, 1989, the same day that Cruise and Towne were at Watkins Glen doing their story research.
Hendrick: Racers love nothing more than to sit around telling stories about old friends. These stories and the people in them, they are going to live forever thanks to this film.
Cruise: I think the real filmmaking legacy of that movie is what it did for the way that NASCAR, and really auto racing in general, is portrayed. The look of that movie changed everything.
Padelford: The fingerprints of “Days of Thunder” are all over any racing movie you’ve seen since. My same camera car was used for “Talladega Nights.” The camera rig from that car was used for “Ford v Ferrari” just two years ago. I work on all of the Fast & Furious films, Marvel films, “Baby Driver,” you name it, and what we built for “Days of Thunder” is used for almost every one of those movies. I just worked on a film with John C. Reilly before the quarantine, and we spent hours shooting him driving around Los Angeles. As soon as I mentioned “Days,” that’s what we talked about and laughed about, all night.
As the years have passed, those from the NASCAR world who were involved in “Days of Thunder” and those who were so offended by its lack of authenticity in 1990 have largely moved on from the sport. Meanwhile, the film has been a lot like Cole Trickle’s Lumina at Darlington, mysteriously gaining speed while other financially larger films of its era have fallen off the pace. When’s the last time you saw “Dick Tracy”?
Connelly: It has maintained legs, and I think that nostalgia certainly has a lot to do with that. You miss seeing Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty racing at North Wilkesboro? Well, there they are. Like old friends, even if there are some images and moments that are certainly dated now.
See: The three Confederate flag shots in that legendary opening sequence. Earlier this month NASCAR banned that flag from its racetracks. But their inclusion in the film at the time is a very accurate time capsule of the 1990 Daytona 500 experience. Also, that Sweet’N Low drafting lesson? That was born from an actual explanation of how the slingshot move worked, shown to Cruise and Towne by racers on a restaurant table, then transferred to Nicole Kidman’s thigh for the film, explained by Trickle amid twisted sheets after a lovemaking session, because Cole, he was romantic like that. Trickle’s moves might have worked on Dr. Lewicki, but the slingshot move hasn’t worked that way since the year before the film was shot. NASCAR introduced horsepower-leveling restrictor plates at superspeedway races in 1988.
Petty: I seem to remember people getting a little squirmy about that scene back then. But hey, the way he explained it wasn’t wrong, either. I lost races and won races on slingshot deals just like that. [Laughs]
Those in the motorsports community who rolled their eyes at the film back in the day been replaced by a generation of racers who saw it in the theater as kids and have had it on repeat in the 30 years since. They love it. So do NASCAR fans, who have made it a go-to midsummer ratings-getter for cable TV. Paramount Pictures recently decided to include it in a limited series of “Paramount Presents” remastered Blu-ray releases, placed alongside Elvis Presley’s “King Creole,” Glenn Close’s “Fatal Attraction” and Cary Grant’s “To Catch A Thief.”
Jimmie Johnson, seven-time Cup Series champion: I was 15 when the movie came out. I watched it several times, but what I really did was play the “Days of Thunder” video game nonstop. It was hard as hell, but I couldn’t stop.
Today’s racers gleefully quote Towne’s script over the radio during races, and when it comes time for Darlington Raceway’s annual throwback weekends, they paint their cars to look like Cole’s, Rowdy’s and even Russ Wheeler’s.
Kyle Busch, reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion: It is no exaggeration to say that between the ages of 6 and 10 I probably watched that movie 200 times. I would come home from school, make a snack and watch it with my grandmother. VHS, baby!
When Busch first broke into NASCAR via the Truck series, his team owner, Billy Ballew, fielded a black machine with a white “15” on the door. Busch asked him to flip those digits, meaning he would drive a black No. 51 Chevy, just like Rowdy Burns. Instead of his name over the driver’s side window, Busch went with “Rowdy,” and that’s been his nickname ever since. In 2015, he even shot a series of commercials for sponsor M&M’s where he reenacted “Days of Thunder” scenes with crew chief Adam Stevens as Harry Hogge and boss Joe Gibbs as Tim Daland.
Busch: Whatever if the movie isn’t perfectly accurate. It makes racing look cool. And if you go back and look at the growth boom of NASCAR in the 1990s, you know what kick-started that? Damn “Days of Thunder” did, man! The only question now is: Are they going to make another one? And what would the story be?
Rooker: When we left ol’ Rowdy, he had brain damage, so unfortunately I think he’s done as a driver. Maybe he’s a team owner now, like Dale Earnhardt was. If nothing else, Rowdy and Cole could race wheelchairs again. This time we’ll do it in a retirement home. And I’ll beat Tom’s little ass again, like I did in 1990. Hell yeah, I’m in.
Hendrick: I need to check and see if I have enough cars to pull that off again. What’s Jerry say?
Let’s ask the man, shall we? As Jerry Bruckheimer is on the phone from California, he is post-producing virus-delayed “Top Gun: Maverick” remotely, while cranking up preproduction on “Beverly Hills Cop 4” and “National Treasure 3.” Last year his “Bad Boys for Life” was a smash hit. Classic sequels are working.
So … “Days of Thunder 2”?
Bruckheimer: I would love to do it. But you need to have the right people in place. You can’t do it without Tom, and he’s tied up for the next three or four years. He has a couple of “Mission Impossible” projects in the works, and he’s also trying to get up to the International Space Station.
Bruckheimer: [Laughs] I told you, no one takes it to the limit like Tom Cruise.