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20 years later, 'Days of Thunder' still resonates

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — "Rubbin', son, is racin'," or so said Harry Hogge to a worldwide audience in the summer of 1990, when NASCAR was a niche, regional sport that had yet to pique much mainstream interest.

Tom Cruise was into it, though, and that was good enough.

Riding high from his "Top Gun" fame, the actor had an idea for a movie based on fast cars and the characters who raced them. And so began the making of "Days of Thunder," a critically panned summer blockbuster that was largely lampooned throughout the NASCAR industry for its exaggeration and overindulgence.

But underneath all that Hollywood glitz and glamour ran currents of truth, and as the film celebrates its 20th anniversary on Sunday, it's still wildly popular with a cult-like following.

"We worked hard to bring audiences right into the thrilling, high-powered world of NASCAR racing," said producer Jerry Bruckheimer. "I'm really pleased that the film has taken on a life of its own and, like NASCAR, stood the test of time, with a new generation rediscovering the film."

The fan base goes from the viewer who can recite every line in the movie and can't turn the channel when it pops up on cable, to a current crop of NASCAR drivers who watched the film or played the video game as little boys and knew that's what they wanted to do when they grew up.

"What's there not to love about 'Days of Thunder?' " Kyle Busch deadpanned when asked what he liked about the movie.

So smitten with the movie as a child, NASCAR's resident bad boy "borrowed" a character from the film when he re-branded a Truck Series ride from the No. 15 to the No. 51 and had the name "Rowdy" painted above the door. It was an homage to Cruise's nemesis in the film, Rowdy Burns, a tough-as-nails superstar who ruled the race track.

The character was largely based on Dale Earnhardt, while Cruise's Cole Trickle was a sketch of the late Tim Richmond. Randy Quaid was a slicker version of team owner Rick Hendrick, and Robert Duvall's crew chief Hogge was, as Hendrick said, "a better Harry Hyde than Harry Hyde ever was. That just blew me away."

Fred Thompson played "Big John" which was obviously a takeoff on NASCAR chairman Bill France Jr., and the scene where Cruise's Trickle and Michael Rooker's Burns are summoned down to Daytona Beach for a tongue-lashing by the boss was a re-creation of an actual meeting France called for Earnhardt and Geoff Bodine.

"So many of the things really did happen," said Hendrick. "They took bits and pieces, they took the characters, they took how I got started — when Randy Quaid went out to talk to Harry about getting back into racing (the opening scene), the car he was driving was my white Caprice. But it didn't really happen that way: Harry was always after me. So some of the stuff had been changed for Hollywood."

Even some of the dialogue was lifted from real-life situations.

"You build me a car, I'll win you Daytona," Trickle tells Hogge in trying to convince the crew chief to come out of retirement to work with the hotshot driver.

In reality, it was Hyde who told Hendrick: "Let me build a car, and I'll win you Charlotte," Hendrick recalled with a smile. "And I was stupid enough to believe him."

Cruise recruited Oscar-winning screenwriter Robert Towne ("Chinatown") for the script, and the two descended on Charlotte to learn everything they could about NASCAR. Cruise stayed in Hendrick's lake house, while a neighbor's house was secured for Nicole Kidman, who played Cruise's love interest.

The "shop" where the team built its cars was an old barn Hendrick owned not far from his lake house, and the racing footage was captured from actual events with the late Bobby Hamilton competing in a car equipped with a camera.

Towne leaned heavily on Hendrick and his staff, race promoter Humpy Wheeler, ESPN reporter Jerry Punch and every NASCAR driver who would speak to them.

"The drivers were more fun than any group of people I had met before," Towne said. "The thing about it is they are the greatest storytellers in the world. I think I had arguably as good a time as I've ever had on a movie. It was just endless fun."

Towne spent time a great deal of time with Hyde, and picked the brains of Richard Petty, Darrell Waltrip, Rusty Wallace, Bodine and "one very memorable afternoon with the late Dale Earnhardt, who was wonderfully colorful and had just a great sense of humor."

Dale Earnhardt Jr. said on Friday that he remembers the day 20 years ago when Cruise and Towne came to visit his father at Earnhardt's shop.

"Makes you feel old, doesn't it?" he said. "That was a thrill for me and my sister, Kelley. We anticipated that movie coming out. It was interesting to see our sport be put into the mainstream and be a part of that."

The film was primarily a vehicle for Cruise, who played Trickle as a tamer version of Richmond, NASCAR's talented party boy who had died in 1989 from complications of AIDS. Hendrick said Richmond had dated a doctor, which opened the door for Kidman to be cast as Dr. Claire Lewicki, the brain surgeon/love interest for Cruise.

Cruise did all his own driving, said Towne, and surprised everyone on the set with his skill.

"He was gifted, that's all there is to it," Towne said. "I think even Rick would tell you that."

So as the filmmakers immersed themselves in NASCAR, the industry began to eagerly anticipate the movie's release. Only most were initially disappointed with the final product, in large part to the glamorized racing.

"The racing wasn't very good," Hendrick said flatly. "It was just beating and banging, and cars looked like they were from a junkyard. But that was what they wanted."

Towne, who said he hasn't watched the movie in 20 years, was also unhappy with the action sequences.

"I liked the drivers, and I liked the characters," he explained. "But I felt, as did Rick, that knowing the ways those guys drove, they rubbed, they didn't bump, and there was a lot of that in the movie. So coming to know what I knew, I objected to that. I felt it wasn't necessary."

The dramatization ultimately turned off many of NASCAR's competitors.

"It's not the most physically accurate movie," said Carl Edwards, "but it was neat."

But what the movie ultimately did was introduce NASCAR to a wider audience that had very limited exposure to stock-car racing before that summer. There had been racing movies before — think "Thunder Road," ''Grand Prix," ''Stroker Ace," or even "Smokey and the Bandit" — but none that had depicted NASCAR in such a sexy style.

"Even though the critics weren't sold on the movie, and lot of people had different opinions about it, it got our sport a lot of exposure," Earnhardt Jr. said. "The movie was fun to watch, regardless of whether is good or not."

And it brought in new fans to NASCAR.

"It was the one that I thought came the closest to being widely accepted," said NASCAR president Mike Helton. "There were some accuracy's, there were some snippets of truth and there was some Hollywood-style racing that made it entertaining. Tom Cruise didn't hurt anything, either."

Nor did the dialogue, which pops up every now and then in real-life situations. Scott Speed, who grew up dreaming about Formula One, counts himself among the biggest "Days of Thunder" fans and loves to work the lines into his in-race radio chatter. It's not uncommon to hear Speed in the middle of a NASCAR race tell his crew "I'm droppin' the hammer!"

"When I was in Europe and was racing Formula Renault, they called me 'Cole,' " Speed said. "Everyone in Europe knew about 'Days of Thunder' and American race car drivers. On my pit sign, it had the name Cole written on it.

"When I first got my Ducati, the first thing I did was drive it to Charlotte for the fall race last year. Right up in the motor home lot. Felt like Tom Cruise rolling in on a motorcycle."

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AP Sports Writer Dan Gelston contributed to this report from Loudon, N.H.

(This version CORRECTS SUBS 19th graf to correct spelling of Darrell. Moving on sports and entertainment services.)