20 Facts About Days of Thunder You’ll Never Tire Of
Over the top, ridiculous and extremely silly it may be, but there’s still something about 1990’s Days of Thunder that makes us want to watch it again and again.
The script and acting isn’t always great, despite it featuring the talents of Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman and Robert Duvall, but Days of Thunder’s action sequences are fantastic, and it’s a movie held in high esteem by NASCAR racers and fans alike (even if some see it as a less exciting Top Gun).
Start your engines, because we’re revving up 20 facts about Days of Thunder!
20. Tom Cruise’s character was based on a real NASCAR driver
Whilst Days of Thunder never claimed to be based on a true story, the main character, Cole Trickle, played by Tom Cruise, was loosely based on a real NASCAR driver.
You might think that Tom Cruise’s role is based on legendary racer Richard Leroy ‘Dick’ Trickle, but it in fact bears a closer resemblance to driver Tim Richmond and his relationship with his crew chief Harry Hyde (or in the film, Harry Hogge, as played by Robert Duvall).
In particular, the scene in which Hogge teaches Trickle about NASCAR terminology and tire management is based on a real incident between Hyde and Richmond.
Richmond was one of the first drivers to make the switch from open wheel racing (such as F1) to NASCAR stock cars, much like Trickle does at the beginning of Days of Thunder.
Tragically, Richmond died from complications from AIDS in August of 1989 at the age of only 34 – the year before Days of Thunder was released.
19. The film’s shoot ran over by three months because the director and producers wouldn’t stop arguing
The Days of Thunder shoot lasted three months longer than expected, mainly due to the constant arguments between three of its main players behind-the-scenes.
Much of the disagreement and bad blood related to drug use by producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer (more on that later) and their vicious fights with director Tony Scott over how to shoot certain scenes.
Of course, while these arguments were taking place, the cast and crew were being paid to sit around and do nothing – rumour has it that some ‘worked’ 20 hours a day without even lifting a finger!
As a result of this conflict, shooting lasted longer and the wrap date kept getting pushed back. One day the production schedule was revised three times; after being confronted for the disarray, Simpson and Bruckheimer simply said “screw the schedule.”
The film would eventually release a month later than expected, meaning the film was a little late to the summer blockbuster audience, which only compounded the financial issues the film faced.
18. Three of the cars used in the movie competed in real-life races
In order for the movie’s racing footage to be as realistic as possible, the cars used by Cole Trickle, Rowdy Burns, and Russ Wheeler in Days of Thunder competed in real-life races.
The cars were driven by professional drivers Greg Sacks, Tommy Ellis, Bobby Hamilton and Hut Stricklin, and in one of the races Hamilton even qualified 5th and led a lap!
Unfortunately, since the cars weren’t properly prepared for the intense strain of competition, the engines quickly blew.
Most famously, two cars competed in the 1990 Daytona 500, added to the rear of the field so as to interfere with the race as little as possible.
Given the strength of the competition, however, this plan didn’t exactly work out – at one point in the race, first-place finisher Dale Earnhardt ended up lapping the movie cars.
17. The ice cream scene really happened to one NASCAR driver
Who doesn’t love ice cream? On a hot day, when you’ve been working hard, there’s no better way to cool off than with a sweet refrigerated treat. Ideally, though, you wouldn’t do it in the middle of a high-octane high-stakes race.
Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happens to Cole Trickle in Days of Thunder, when Harry Hogge refuses to pit his car because he and the crew are too busy chowing down on choc ices.
It’s a comedic moment during the thrilling climax of the film, but you might be surprised to learn that this incident actually happened to famed driver Benny Parsons, when he was racing for Hendrick Motorsports in 1987.
“During a caution about halfway [after suffering a three-car crash], I asked Harry if he wanted me to pit,” said Parsons in a 1998 article for Hot Rod. “Not right then, he replied. I drove another lap and asked again. No, not until he and the crew finished their ice-cream cones, he answered.”
In part because of this refusal to repair the car after such significant damage, Parsons ended up finishing outside the top 10. On the plus side, when the car eventually did pit, Parsons got some ice cream.
16. The producers lived like rock stars while the movie was being filmed
Producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer are well known for fully embracing everything their career was able to offer them in their 80s/90s peak, and their time on Days of Thunder led some of their most notorious moments.
While staying at a hotel in Daytona, Simpson and Bruckheimer paid somewhere in the region of $400,000 to convert a vacant storefront in the same building into their private gym, branded for the film.
Simpson had met Donna W Scott during casting, and the two had begun a relationship, but Scott ended it after Simpson’s rampant drug use during production. Scott would then meet director Tony Scott on-set (he would later become her husband).
The producers also threw a memorable party to welcome the crew to Daytona – though it wasn’t memorable for Simpson and Bruckheimer. There wasn’t much food and drink, but the pair had flown in several sex workers whom they roped off in a VIP section for themselves and Tom Cruise.
Perhaps the strangest, and even creepiest, story of Simpson’s lascivious lifestyle was that he kept a closet of designer Donna Karan dresses; he then had his assistants hand them out to any attractive women he spotted on the beach near filming.
15. It was the first of three movies to star Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman
Rumour has it that many of Tom Cruise’s relationships have been (allegedly!) arranged by the Church of Scientology – but that’s a story for another day. As far as we know, Cruise’s chemistry with Nicole Kidman was all legitimate, and two married shortly after starring together in Days of Thunder.
The pair would eventually divorce in 2001, but between Days of Thunder and that marriage-ending year the couple starred in two further films together.
Their second film was Far and Away (1992), in which Australian-born Kidman and the American Cruise both play Irish immigrants.
The third and final film featuring the Kidman-Cruise pairing was Eyes Wide Shut (1999), Stanley Kubrick’s final film, an erotic thriller about a husband and wife who fantasise about infidelity.
“He was huge; still is,” said Kidman of Cruise in 2006. “To me, he was just Tom, but to everybody else, he is huge. But he was lovely to me. And I loved him. I still love him.” Kidman married her current husband, singer Keith Urban, later that year.
14. Tom Cruise handpicked Kidman for the film himself
Days of Thunder was Nicole Kidman’s American movie debut, and the film that made her name as an international star.
We have Tom Cruise to thank for this, as Kidman was in fact handpicked by Cruise to star as the love interest in his new racing film.
“I remember walking in, I remember being so nervous and seeing Tom Cruise drive up in a Porsche, I think it was,” said Kidman in a 2016 interview. “He got out of the car and walked through and I was like, ‘Ah.’ My jaw dropped.”
Kidman had caught Cruise’s attention for her work in Dead Calm (1989), a psychological thriller in which she and Sam Neill – future star of Jurassic Park (1993) – are pursued across the Pacific by a vicious murderer.
“Throughout the film, Kidman is excellent,” reads a contemporary review from Variety. “She gives the character of Rae real tenacity and energy.”
13. It divided both fans and critics
It’s fair to say that Days of Thunder received mixed reviews from critics, with some believing that it was far too similar to the previous Tom Cruise-Tony Scott-Don Simpson-Jerry Bruckheimer collaboration, Top Gun.
Critics have called Days of Thunder ‘Top Gun on wheels’ or ‘Top Gun in Race Cars’, while the Monthly Film Bulletin described it as “simply a flashy, noisy star vehicle for Tom Cruise, one which, like the stock car he drives, goes around in circles getting nowhere.”
Despite the critics taking a pop, Days of Thunder was a financial success, taking over $150 million at the global box office. It was also nominated for the Academy Award for Best Sound.
While it’s not unusual for films to gross hundreds of millions of dollars nowadays, it was quite rare to surpass $100 million when Days of Thunder was released. Ultimately, however, it was beaten out by the Arnold Schwarzenegger sci-fi flick Total Recall (1990).
Days of Thunder also became extremely popular in the months that followed its cinema release, making another $40 million in home video rentals.
12. Hans Zimmer’s score for the film was impossible to buy until 2013
Forgive us for getting into the weeds of Hollywood talk, but while you think you might own the soundtrack to Days of Thunder, it in fact wasn’t released until 2013.
This owes to the difference between a soundtrack album and the score for a film. The soundtrack album for Days of Thunder is famous enough on its own (who can forget the Maria McKee power-ballad Show Me Heaven?).
The soundtrack album is also famous for including a rare version of the Guns N’ Roses classic Knockin’ On Heaven’s door, released on this album a full year before it was released on Use Your Illusion II (1991).
However, while countless bootlegs have been made, the score for the film – as composed by Hans Zimmer – wasn’t released officially until 2013.
“I went down [to Daytona] with a t-shirt on,” said Zimmer of his experience working on the film. “We decided to have this meeting and they basically went ‘Well we’re so behind schedule if you leave now we’ll never get it done.’ So suddenly I’m stuck in Daytona with one t-shirt … The one day trip turned into three months.”
11. It’s one of Quentin Tarantino’s favourite movies
Famed for his tight dialogue and snappy visuals, Quentin Tarantino is one of Hollywood’s most iconic directors. But it might surprise you to learn that the overblown NASCAR syrup of Days of Thunder is in fact one of his favourite films.
“People say the greatest racing movies are Grand Prix and Le Mans,” said Tarantino, “but those are a couple of the ones I don’t care for. Grand Prix should be great, but it’s not. It gets way too caught up in the soap opera. S**t, who cares about that?
“Hands down,” he insists, “my favourite is Days of Thunder. Yeah, yeah, you laugh but seriously I’m a big fan. To me Days of Thunder is the movie Grand Prix and Le Mans should have been.
“Sure, it had a big budget, big stars and a big director in Tony Scott, but it had the fun of those early AIP movies. I just don’t think it works if you take the whole thing too seriously.”
Tarantino is rumoured to be tied down to a new Star Trek film to round out his directorial career, but maybe he can sneak a Days of Thunder remake in there too.
10. The film was adapted into a classic Simpsons episode
Nowadays, with the classic animated series The Simpsons running up over 30 seasons, it seems like the yellow family has parodied everything. But in the earlier days of the show, the writers were more discerning with what they spoofed – and Days of Thunder made the cut.
‘Saturdays of Thunder’ is the ninth episode of the third season, and sees Bart and Homer collaborating to win a soapbox race (in the process, Homer also tries to become a better father).
After the racer that Bart and Homer build together falls apart, Bart ends up driving a sleek racer created by school nerd Martin, all in an effort to topple the dirty driving dominance of school bully Nelson.
According to the Nielsen ratings, it’s estimated that the episode was watched by upwards of 13 million people, though this may be inflated since it immediately preceded the premier of the video for Michael Jackson’s Black or White, starring Macaulay Culkin.
Michael Coulter of The Age magazine wrote that the episode is “a ‘classic’ Simpsons, insofar as it boasts a plot, rather than a sequence of surreal pop-culture parodies,” working its parodies of Days of Thunder and Ben-Hur (1959) into the script in a convincing way.
9. The scene in which Trickle and Burns fight really happened to two NASCAR drivers
On paper, you might not think that NASCAR is all that intense. After all, isn’t it just cars driving around in a circle? Still, watching Days of Thunder, you get a real sense of the thrills and many spills of America’s most famous motorsport.
Even then, you might be shocked to learn that the physical altercation between Trickle and Burns – far from being a movie fiction to show off the rivalry between the drivers – actually took place.
The story comes from 1987’s The Winston, a race held at Charlotte Motor Speedway in North Carolina, famous for being Tim Richmond’s last race at the track and a particular manoeuvre that riled the participants.
So riled was driver Bill Elliott by Dale Earnhardt’s antics that they came to blows outside the stadium. The cause? The infamous ‘pass in the grass’, in which Earnhardt drove across the grass of the stadium to maintain his lead.
The manoeuvre has been parodied several times over, most recognisably in the climax of Cars (2006), though Earnhardt never ended up reversing!
8. Filming started before the script was even completed
Producers Simpson and Bruckheimer were keen to involve themselves in the writing and directing on Days of Thunder, while also going on regular drug binges. So it’s not exactly jaw-dropping news that, by the time principal photography rolled around, things were already behind schedule on the film.
In fact, the process was so far behind, with the script not even being finished, that Days of Thunder’s cast and crew were required to cut corners in order to make the shoot for the rapidly-approaching Daytona 500.
Scenes were conceived and written on the day of filming where necessary, and this of course gave the actors no time to learn their lines or be comfortable with the script.
Ever-determined, Tom Cruise decided to continue shooting but read his lines off cue cards attached to his windshield. As we all should know about being distracted while driving (especially when reading lines for your latest Hollywood flick), this can lead to accidents. And it did, with Cruise careening off the road while trying to read his next line.
Cruise was not injured in his accident, but the team decided instead to feed him lines through an earpiece rather than having him read, drive, and act all at once.
7. The stock cars were fake
It seems like every American child at one pointed wanted to own a stock car, and Days of Thunder’s Mello Yellow car has become one of Hollywood’s most famous movie vehicles – even though it’s not a stock car.
While it has the gaudy visuals and iconic shape of a stock car, the Mello Yello – and, indeed, most if not all of the cars used in the film – was in fact a generic Chevrolet that was customised for the right look.
Fiberglass bodies were made and laid on to the existing chassis, which were then painted with iconically gaudy NASCAR visuals and advertisements. Incidentally, the Mello Yello was real, and earned the soft drinks brand millions in revenue.
Even though the look of these cars was picture perfect, and they were far cheaper than building (and often wrecking) the real thing, the vehicles struggled with the demands of the film.
Since the engines had not been optimised for stock racing, they frequently broke down. At one point, half of the fleet was in the repair shop, and it’s estimated that 35 cars were completely destroyed in the making of the film.
6. Tom Cruise DIDN’T do his own stunts
Tom Cruise has lately developed a reputation for doing his own stunts, especially when it comes to his flagship action franchise Mission: Impossible, so it’s interesting to learn that Tom Cruise didn’t do his own stunts for Days of Thunder.
Cruise famously suffered a broken ankle while filming Mission: Impossible – Fallout, and just carried on running – just one example of how the actor regularly pushes the limits of what the studio will allow him to do.
But for Days of Thunder, NASCAR driver Greg Sacks was enlisted to drive in the riskier scenes in order to protect Tom Cruise’s pretty face.
After some initial successes, Sacks’ career had begun to wane. It was reinvigorated, and his reputation rehabilitated, by his work on the film, and he came to be known as an exceptional qualifying driver.
For what it’s worth, Cruise did want to do his own Days of Thunder stunts, but the studio was unwilling to pay the insurance. Nowadays, with his own studio, it’s Cruise who makes those calls.
5. Birds were harmed in the making of this film
It’s one of the most famous scenes in Days of Thunder: while a fancy dinner takes place deciding the future of Cole Trickle and Rowdy Burns, the two racers are hiring rental cars and doggedly competing in the city.
Complete with all the typical NASCAR ramming and dirty tricks, the drivers end up wrecking the cars and arrive a little shoddily at the dinner. But it turns out it wasn’t just the cars that they wrecked.
In one of the shots, the cars drive on to a beach and scare off a flock of gathered birds as they drive past. Even though the shot is only a few seconds long, the filmmakers were keen to get it exactly right, and for that they needed enough birds.
So, to ensure a healthy number of birds could scatter, producers used bird seed to lure them on to the beach.
Sadly, in the first take, most of the lured birds were killed by the cars. So if you ever find a free meal on the beach, make sure Tom Cruise isn’t coming to mow you down first.
4. The film destroyed Simpson and Bruckheimer’s relationship with Paramount
Over-budget, behind schedule, and a unloved by critics: whatever you think of Days of Thunder, it’s no surprise that the studio, Paramount, wasn’t exactly happy with the finished product.
While the film performed far better at the box office that its disastrous production suggested it would, it was still well below Paramount’s expectations for a summer blockbuster, and they laid the blame squarely at the feet of producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer.
As a result, Paramount made two demands of the two men: that their desired third instalment of Beverly Hills Cop was to have an unworkably small budget, and that Simpson and Bruckheimer would give up $9 million of their earnings so Paramount could recoup some losses.
Simpson and Bruckheimer declined the demands and left the studio (though perhaps not as politely as that) and instead began a new production deal with Disney.
Simpson and Bruckheimer’s first film with Disney, The Ref (1994), was a disaster. But their subsequent films, including Crimson Tide (1995) and Bad Boys (1995), were runaway successes, again lifting the duo to the heights of Hollywood production esteem.
3. It was Margo Martindale’s first feature film
Margo Martindale is one of cinema’s greatest character actors, and has starred in dozens of films and TV shows. Remarkably, for a career that has stretched from Broadway to Dead Man Walking (1995), her feature film success began with Days of Thunder.
Martindale began her career in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof on Broadway, and is perhaps most famous for starring alongside Susan Sarandon in Dead Man Walking and Lorenzo’s Oil (1992).
Martindale has again starred alongside Nicole Kidman in Practical Magic (1998) and The Human Stain (2000).
Nowadays, Martindale is best known for voicing herself – or, more specifically, Character Actress Margo Martindale – on the Netflix black comedy animated series BoJack Horseman.
Martindale stars in Days of Thunder as pit girl ‘Donna’. Apparently, according to an Indiewire article, she so convincingly acted the part that Robert Duvall mistook for her a real pit girl!
2. Producer Don Simpson insisted on being cast in the film as Aldo Bennedetti
You’ve heard a lot about Don Simpson’s antics by now, but did you know that he demanded a significant part acting in the film?
Simpson insisted that Robert Towne write him a part in the film, and under much pressure Towne wrote the character of Aldo Bennedetti, modelled after NASCAR driver Mario Andretti.
This character was intended to be a major early rival for Cole Trickle, and several scenes were shot with Simpson in the role.
However, so bad was Simpson’s acting that almost all of his scenes were cut, though he still has a cameo in the film.
Simpson previously had a cameo role in 1976’s Cannonball as an Assistant District Attorney, though he evidently failed to impress enough with his acting chops to star in any of the other films he produced.
1. NASCAR King Richard Petty said the film only got two things right
Richard Petty is a retired NASCAR driver who, during his career, was nicknamed The King for his incredible and record-breaking achievements in the sport. And he hated Days of Thunder.
Petty was the first driver to win the NASCAR championship cup seven times, won 200 races during his 34-year career, and is statistically the most successful driver in the history of the sport.
Given his accolades, Petty is probably the most authoritative opinion on the accuracy of Days of Thunder. He even makes a brief appearance in the film, so saw a lot of the behind-the-scenes work.
Unfortunately for the film, Petty had a pithy verdict on its quality, saying that it only got two things right about NASCAR: “The cars have numbers on them, and they go fast. That’s about it.”
Petty also provided the voice of The King in Pixar’s Cars. He hasn’t commented on the accuracy of that film, but perhaps it isn’t worthy clarifying that cars neither have eyes nor sleep in giant traffic cones.