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"Ever since I can remember, the sensation of moving vehicles has excited me," Cruise says. "When I was 13, I had a paper route and paid $50 for my first go-kart, $75 for my first motorcycle."
Cruise's parents had divorced when he was 12. He, his mother and his three siblings lived in Kentucky and New Jersey before Cruise was out of high school. "In all the places we moved, I took up different sports," he says. "Soccer, wrestling, hockey. I was never the best."
When he was 14 in Louisville, Cruise repeatedly sneaked his mother's car out at two in the morning. "I pushed. My sister steered. We had a long driveway, with an incline, a dip and another rise. I was not a very big kid, but my legs were strong. This was before I had any learner's permit. I'd drive around all night. Then we'd have to do more pushing to get the car back up the driveway. Once a neighbor caught me and told my mom. But I still did it."
What questing soul would not surrender to a vehicle that can carry you through the night, merge with you, and take you as far as you're brave enough to go? Cars and movies both can do that, but cars were first.
"I've always loved the freedom of driving fast," Cruise says. "Then when I worked with Paul Newman on The Color of Money, he gave me books on racing, and we spent a lot of time talking racing."
"Tom was fascinated that Newman didn't start racing until he was 47 or so and he became a national champion," says Simpson, who, with partner Jerry Bruckheimer, produced Top Gun, in which Cruise starred, in 1986. When that movie was complete, Simpson and Cruise went to the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving at Scars Point International Raceway, north of San Francisco. "We raced Mustangs," says Simpson. "The instructor told mc that Tom drove like Maverick [the character Cruise played in Top Gun] flew—and asked if could I stop him. Back then it was go fast and crash, go fast and crash. I think it's a function of his basic personality. He's always full bore, and he takes things beyond the envelope and pulls back. That's part of the reason he's improved as an actor. He goes outside himself, looks around and pulls back in."
Cruise began to gain command of his skills at another driving school, based at the Road Atlanta circuit, where his instructor was Jim Fitzgerald. Cruise's hands become cars and turns and situations as he describes his first real race, a March 1987 Sports Car Club of America event in Sebring, Fla., in which he drove a race-prepared Nissan 300ZX. "I was next to a national champion, and he was trying to pass on the first turn, coming outside, trying to get a nose on me so I'd brake. I never touched the brakes. If I have an inch on him, that's my line. So I took the turn with all four wheels sliding, and the guy probably thought I was out of control and didn't pass. I finished third. I can still see Fitzi, laughing and clapping. 'You got the control,' Fitzi said. 'Now we have to refine it and find your style.' "
In fact, Cruise still had some sheet metal to rend. At Pocono (Pa.) International Raceway, for another SCCA race in July 1988, he had already spun once but was back in the race and gaining, drafting on a teammate in a more powerful car. "On the banking the wind would lift my car," says Cruise. "Finally, at about 145 miles per hour, the wind really took the rear end while I was in a four-wheel drift. I over-corrected, snapped around and...it's like slow motion now. I remember every second. I'm heading straight for a guy in the infield. I snap right, and now I'm going at the wall. I would have hit it square, but I had an instant to get a little to the left. It was a beautiful car. I carved it in at an angle."
These accidents didn't exactly convince Cruise of his mortality. "Fitzi used to say, 'You've got guts. One day we're going to find out if you're truly brave.' My fearlessness was feeling I just was not going to be hurt in a race car. Bravery is knowing you could be...and still doing it."
Fitzgerald fit Cruise's own stubborn description. Still racing at 65, he was killed at the St. Petersburg ( Fla.) Grand Prix in November 1987. Many fledgling racers would have taken a lesson from the loss of a mentor and considered taking up the challenge of golf. Yet Cruise the driver has seldom felt the chill of objectivity.