June 27, 2005

Today in Automotive History

1990 NASCAR's Thunder

Paramount released Days of Thunder, a film created by the team that brought the world Top Gun. In Days of Thunder, Tom Cruise stars as Cole Trickle, a brash young stock-car racer with more skill than brains.

He gets a ride from team owner Tim Daland (Randy Quaid), and sets out to take the NASCAR establishment by storm in his Mellow Yellow car. In his way stands hard-nosed Winston Cup champion Rowdy Burns (Michael Rocker). While Cole is faster on the qualifying track, Rowdy teaches him a few lessons about car contact ("Rubbin's racing," he says to Cole after pushing him into a wall). But Cole Trickle has experienced pit-crew leader Harry Hogge (Robert Duvall) to lend him an experienced perspective.

Hogge has demons to chase out of his own closet relating to a mysterious accident that caused the death of a former driver, for which he blames himself. The plot thickens when Rowdy and Cole crash into each other at the Daytona 500, both suffering career-threatening injuries. Rowdy never races again, and the two men overcome their competitive differences to become friends. Cole must erase the specter of his life-threatening accident in order to regain the edge he once maintained.

He's helped by his neurosurgeon and lover, Dr. Claire Lewicki (Nicole Kidman). Incidentally, Cruise and Kidman fell in love on the set of Days of Thunder. Now, with Harry, Rowdy, and Claire in his corner, Cole rejoins the circuit. The new racer to beat is another young hotshot, Russ Wheeler (Cary Elwes). Cole turns the tables on the fast, cocky Wheeler--clearly a reference to Top Gun's Iceman--and captures Daytona.

Days of Thunder may be a formulaic film that draws heavily from Top Gun, but its cast and its racing scenes more than make up for the somewhat dubious script. Days of Thunder was released at a time when NASCAR was taking over as one of America's most popular spectator sports. The movie inspired even greater interest in stock-car racing, spawning video games, fan clubs, even a documentary.

In retrospect, Top Gun appears a pale shadow of its protégé. Call to mind the emotion you felt when you first heard Maverick say, "I'll hit the brakes and he'll fly right by," with the surge of adrenaline you felt when Cole, over the roar of his engine, yells into his headset for the last time, "Harry, I'm dropping the hammer."

Posted by Quality Weenie at June 27, 2005 08:41 AM