One exception occurred the first time he drove at Daytona. That was in January 1987 when Hendrick invited Cruise and Newman to take a few laps in one of his stock cars. "Seeing the first-turn wall come up at 200 miles per hour, feeling the g-forces on the banking was the only time I thought, 'I could die doing this,' " Cruise says.
Cruise's reaction to this realization was powerful. "I screamed," he says. "I screamed until I got that fear out of my system. I haven't felt it since," he says.
When he rolled to a stop after that introduction to Daytona, Cruise bounded trembling from the car and yelled to Hendrick, "I want to make a movie about this."
Cruise enlisted his Top Gun producers and director, Tony Scott, but for almost three years the project sputtered for want of an effective script. Then Cruise invited Towne (whose credits include Chinatown, Tequila Sunrise and Personal Best) to spend some time on the NASCAR circuit. "He watched and listened," recalls Cruise, "and in a little while he said, 'I got it. I see what you see in these people.' "
For Cruise, Towne invented a film persona calculated to cut near the actor's heart. "Tom's career has been a magical string of movies," Towne says. "It seems anything he tries, from Cocktail to Born on the Fourth of July, is a commercial or critical success. Now, you have to admit you can't call those films shrewd career choices. Still, he's always pulled them off."
So Towne gave Thunder's leading character, Cole Trickle, a similarly incautious racing career, but one that comes to a screeching, frightening halt. "What Tom identified with in the script was just what a driver would," says Towne. "A crash—but one with no known cause. These guys figure that they, personally, can control machines. They're famous for it."
To address the issue dramatically, Towne has Trickle's neurosurgeon lover, Dr. Claire Lewicki (played by Nichole Kidman), tell him that he and the other drivers have never learned that control—total control, cocksure control—is an illusion. Only "infantile egomaniacs" don't know that.
After rehearsing this scene, Cruise said he wanted it out of the movie. "It's not true what she's saying there," Cruise argued. "I can control things."
"Unless there's an earthquake," said Towne, "or someone blows a couple of tires. There are variables, Tom."
"No, she's wrong in that speech," said Cruise. "She's wrong. I can control anything that can happen if I'm careful and have learned...."