Monday, August 20, 2012

Tom Cruise's Days of Thunder

To be a famous Hollywood actor, a fellow has to have a big head. Not a humongous ego. I’m talking about basic cranial measurements calculated with an old-fashioned tailor’s tape measure. Think about it: Bogey, Groucho, Kirk Douglas, Ronald Reagan, Mel Gibson, Burt Reynolds, Russell Crowe, Tom Hanks – all blessed with giant heads which come across larger than life on the big screen.

Of course, equally successful mega-stars like Tom Cruise defy the trend. Cruise’s head may be smaller than the average Joe’s, if you’re gonna go crazy in the tape-measure comparisons. But here’s the thing that’s always struck me about Cruise, whether he’s on the red carpet or leaping off a talk show host’s couch: He looks and acts like a modern-day race car driver.

And that, my friends, is a blessed condition to be born into.

Resembling a race car driver is more than having a certain body type. Sure, it helps to be on the small side, taut, rangy, cagy, wiry. More than that, the “look” includes a certain self-possessed, devil-may-care attitude.

Cruise has the full package. He oozes confidence and swagger. He drives too fast. He jumps from airplanes. He’s a natural in aviator sunglasses. He’s short. His electric, larger-than-life presence fills an entire room even when he’s physically small enough to slide lithely from a car’s driver’s side window. And then there’s that killer grin.

Tom Cruise doesn’t just smile. He aggressively flashes his teeth in the instinctive way an animal on the range would ward off predators or attract a mate.

That special smile brought a lot of new fans to NASCAR in the 1990 film Days of Thunder, which Cruise created.

Growing up, he’d 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 want to buy an expensive house or fancy clothes. He only wanted a fast car. As Cruise’s movie career was taking off in the late 1980’s, he landed a big break in working with on The Color of Money with Paul Newman, a serious professional race car driver who regaled his protégé with romantic racing tales.

“For me as a kid growing up, I always wanted to race cars,” Cruise said. “Toward the end of shooting on The Color of Money, Paul really got me into car racing, and I ultimately raced on his team. The last time we raced was a few years back. We were trying out different cars at Willow Springs Raceway in California. Per usual, I thought I had him beat … but suddenly he comes around the corner. His car is next to mine. Then he flips me off and blisters past. You’ve gotta love it. It was pure Newman.”

Through Newman, Cruise met NASCAR team owner Rick Hendrick. The two drove in the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) Showroom Stock Series and became tight. Cruise would spend time at Hendrick’s North Carolina lake house, and tag along when Hendrick Motor Sports 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 a panic, but Cruise knew that kind of racing was viewed by the public as more a niche for rich guys approaching a proverbial midlife crisis. He wanted a bigger, broader canvas. In NASCAR, he saw a sport tip toeing out of the Southeast, and he ran to it.

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 turning the sport on its head. His friend Rick Hendrick would be the model for the team owner, and Rick’s crew chief, Harry Hyde, the prototype for the young driver’s crew chief.

“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!”

Cruise wanted to capture NASCAR’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.”

Days of Thunder was an ideal vehicle for the 28 year-old whom Newman had dubbed “this generation’s biggest film superstar.” With his all-American looks and middle-American appeal, young Cruise had already built a reputation as a box-office sensation playing the swaggering overachiever who is knocked down a few pegs and humbled by life lessons. By the time the credits role, Cruise’s characters emerge more likeable than when the house lights went down two hours earlier.

In Days, Cruise repeated that formula, playing Cole Trickle, a vainglorious Indy car driver who lost his ride and headed to NASCAR with team owner Tim Daland, (Randy Quaid) and salty crew chief Harry Hogge (Robert Duvall). During the Daytona 500, Cole and his nemesis Rowdy Burns tangle in a nasty wreck threatening to end their careers. Rowdy and Cole form a friendship, while Cole comes to grips with his own mortality.

When Tom Cruise sets his mind to do something, he famously goes all out, whether it was taking on odd jobs as a kid to help his divorced mother put food on the table or landing his first acting roles in The Outsiders and Taps. 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 in their cars and around the garage. The NASCAR crash course began at the Watkins Glen road course with screenwriter Robert Towne, who had won an Emmy for Chinatown. Towne clipped a microphone to his cap with the wire running into his shirt. While the writer recorded racing conversations, the actor, in a floppy sweatshirt and with a ball cap pulled low over his eyes, intently watched the pit stops.

Dr. Jerry Punch, a South Carolina emergency room physician during the week, was announcing for ESPN in the pits on weekends.

“I’d talk to Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon and Davey Allison, and Tom would eavesdrop,” he said. “It was his first up-close introduction into the culture of NASCAR, and he was absorbing it like a sponge. About halfway through the day, one of our ESPN handheld camera men recognized Cruise. He spun his camera around and started screaming, ‘Tom Cruise is here. We know he’s here!’ Cruise had to leave at that point. I’m just a pit announcer in an ESPN fire suit, and fans start screaming at me for being important enough to be near him. That’s when it stuck me how big his celebrity was.”

The impression Cruise left on Punch, and 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.

“Tom developed a real respect and appreciation for the sport,” Dr. Punch said. “What seemed to me to be merely a movie was for him a passion to get it right. He got in the racecar and actually drove it. Granted, these cars were pretty much nailed to the ground in their set up, but they still ran some hard laps. He knew the more they let him drive the car, the more realistic the film would be.”

It was turning out Cruise not only looked like a race car driver, he was performing like one. “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.”

“Oh yeah, Tom likes speed and is very racy,” agreed Greg Sacks who was driving the Slim Fast car for Hendrick in the Winston Cup Series and in Days exclusively drove the City Chevrolet, Exxon and Super Flow cars. “The first time I met Tom he jumped into a Corvette and did burnouts right there in the garage. He started racing around the garage looking for any new piece of asphalt he could find, going way too fast.”

Valuing the expertise of Hendrick, Punch and Sacks, the filmmakers made them technical advisors. Sacks became the sounding board and racing conscience for Robert Duvall, whose wrinkled, pitch-perfect character, Harry Hogge was modeled after the legendary crew chief Harry Hyde. “(Director Tony) Scott would call a wrap, and Duvall would look over at me and say, ‘Greg, is it a wrap?’ I’d give a thumbs up.”

But sometimes he didn’t. When Hogge says, “Boys, we got ourselves a sponsor,” for the first take, he was walking to Victory Circle at Darlington with champagne and paper cups. Sacks told everyone to lose the cups and spray the champagne around like they meant it.

In Punch’s case, after putting in 12 hours in the ER, the doctor would arrive home and field Robert Towne’s questions on the telephone deep into the night. Unbeknownst to him, the screenwriter was sketching out scenes. For example, Hogge was involved in a real-life racing episode that seems too outlandish to have actually happened.

“I was working the pits for MRN radio in Pocono, and Benny Parsons lost a lap and the caution came out,” Dr. Punch said. “Benny was on that long 7/10 of a mile backstretch, and he wanted to pit. Harry, who was his crew chief at the time, wouldn’t let him. Benny thought it was a race strategy. He cruises by during the caution, looks over at his pit and sees Harry and the entire crew eating ice cream. Not many people know it, but the ice cream scene in the film was a true story.”

The mock arrest in which a female cop pulls over Cole Trickle only to disrobe for the young driver actually happened, as did a much-recalled line of dialogue with Hogge telling Cole, “I want you to go out and hit the pace car because you’ve hit everything else.” Harry Hyde had once sarcastically barked those instructions to an erratic Buddy Baker at Martinsville Speedway.

Many characteristics of the flamboyant, good looking, and immensely talented Tim Richmond fed the development of Cole Trickle. 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.” Hendrick said Richmond 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 driver.

Dr. Punch’s medical background would help Cruise and Towne cast the female lead – an aloof neurosurgeon who’d fall for Cole Trickle…and the actor playing the character. “A list” Hollywood beauties of the day wouldn’t cut it as a serious surgical resident.

“We wanted an attractive woman, because she’d fall for Tom Cruise, but also someone who had a pasty complexion, because she’d be in the hospital 24/7, and maybe an accent to make her sound especially astute and intelligent,” Dr. Punch said. “When we found Nicole Kidman, who had been a premed student at UCLA and didn’t have to pretend to be intelligent, the decision was pretty much made right there.”

Days of Thunder exposed the sport to a whole new audience, while those already inside the tent were excited to have “their own” NASCAR movie. Stock car racing had been portrayed in films like Thunder in Carolina, Stroker Ace and Speedway with Elvis Presley, but there hadn’t been a true big-budget NASCAR flick in a while; certainly, none generating Tom Cruise-portioned hype and headlines. As Paramount rolled Days into thousands of theaters across the country, NASCAR itself was rapidly growing in popularity. Now it was reaching people with no interest in racing who merely wanted to see Tom Cruise. Corporate and ad types who hadn’t given a second thought to the sport were rapt in attention watching good ol’ boys rubbing fenders on the silver screen. Rick Hendrick says a handful of new sponsors signed on to be part of this big and exciting sport they previously had no clue existed.

No doubt, Days of Thunder was entertaining; NASCAR fans would begin an ongoing debate about the film’s accuracy and which parts represent 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 turns to Cole and calls him, “Tom.”

“That is one of the best continuity errors in film history,” said NBC Anchor Brian Williams. “I can watch Days of Thunder just waiting for Nicole Kidman to call her future husband, ‘Tom’.”

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 race cars built on a dirt-floor barn, 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.

“A lot of NASCAR fans thought the movie would be like a regular Sunday race with movie stars,” Dr. Punch said. “But Hollywood has to make it into a compelling story where boy meets girl. You can’t have all racing in that kind of film. And then you had a director (Tony Scott) who had made Top Gun, and wanted more demolition derby than NASCAR racing as we knew it. But they did the best they could, and it was a step ahead of Stoker Ace. For me, it’s a loveable campy look at our sport that gets more entertaining every year.”

On the track, filmgoers were drawn to a hefty share of fireworks that might not have reflected the real NASCAR each week 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 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 Rusty Wallace, NASCAR’s champion the year before Days started filming. “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; Days was nominated for an Oscar for “best sound.”

While Days of Thunder 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 in this film – 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.

Twenty years later, Greg Sacks still smiles when recalling how Tom Cruise would sneak skydiving jumps into the busy filming schedule. In all, Cruise secretly made dozens of jumps from Deland near Daytona International Speedway. Sacks tried it himself with Cruise and Tony Scott, the trio free-falling from 13,500 feet and landing in the track’s infield grass. To say the least, the money men behind the film, Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson, were not pleased. “We were like three amigos landing in the grass,” Sacks said. “Tom had this completely mischievous look in his eyes.”

Rusty Wallace, who had a small role in the film playing a NASCAR driver, still watches Days from time to time to remember the brash, colorful Harry Hyde. With 55 wins of his own, Wallace is one of the sport’s greatest drivers. He took more than $50 million in purse money over his career but still appreciates the $5.60 royalty check which turns up in his mailbox like clockwork each month.

Tom Cruise would go on to make many more blockbusters, including and A Few Good Men, The Firm, Jerry Maguire, War of the Worlds, and the Mission Impossible franchise. Fifteen years later, he’d return to NASCAR races in Daytona and Auto Club Speedway outside of LA with his son, Connor, who has become an avid NASCAR fan. Cruise still hangs out at Rick Hendrick’s pit stall and sat at his friend’s table at the Waldorf=Astoria when the most successful team owner in NASCAR’s history celebrated Jimmie Johnson’s third straight championship. Looking back two decades to the NASCAR film he lovingly made, Cruise fondly recalls going hard into the corners and getting to know the very special people who were taking a regional sport into the mainstream.

“My personal Daytona memory is getting up close to 200 mph, personally driving on that track in the car, and meeting those drivers that I got to meet,” he said. “Making movies, I love it because I get to enter into a world and you meet these generous people. It’s a great life because I’m interested in life and in engaging in life, and to have those experiences I feel very privileged.”