Cruise's own progression in racing from here on is difficult to predict. After he drove some laps at 185 mph early this year at Daytona, Johnson was moved to say, "Tom could easily have qualified in the top 20 for the Daytona 500."
"I consider him a great talent," says Hendrick. "To become a great driver he needs only experience. Nothing replaces scat time."
"I love driving and I love acting," says Cruise. "I'd love to be a driver. While I was making Rainman, I even thought of taking time off to drive, but then we got that done, and this came along. Acting is my life. I don't compromise that. Time will tell whether I'll ever be able to give more to driving."
It is not difficult to imagine why racing exerts such an attraction upon Cruise or Newman or James Garner, Gene Hackman, Steve McQueen, James Dean or any of the many other actors who have been drawn to it. Both film and racing are collaborative disciplines, yet are defined by moments when you're absolutely on your own. But one's work in film ultimately is in support of grand illusion. One's work in racing is in support of dangerous reality.
"Racing is great because it's so immediate," says Cruise. Movies, by contrast, can take disturbingly long to be made and shown and seen. "I never pretend to know how a movie will be received." he says. "You go in hoping to learn. The more you know, the more control you have over your craft. The fundamental lesson of racing is no different."
His smile isn't all glinting canine fangs now. It's tight and drawn. "Just remember you'd better be ready. The less prepared you are, the worse off you're going to be. Control comes through knowledge, only knowledge."