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.”