The Chevy Lumina stock car that Tom Cruise drives in Days of Thunder, Paramount's large, loud, expensive film on NASCAR racing, which opens June 27, is the real thing. It was built by the Rick Hendrick racing team. In testing at the Charlotte Motor Speedway, Ken Schrader shot through a lap in 31.65 seconds, not far off the then-standing track record of 31.21 (173.210 mph) for the 1�-mile oval.
A few weeks later, Cruise went out on the same track in the same car. "I remember feeling it was the most beautiful car I'd ever driven," he says. "I was in the groove, just focused on the machine, the track and the enjoyment. It was release."
Hendrick, who often monitors testing sessions for Schrader and his other drivers—Daytona 500-winner Darrell Waltrip, Ricky Rudd, Greg Sacks and Stan Barrett—was in a following car. "I saw Tom come oil a corner at 170 miles per hour, and his car broke loose. He was three feet from the wall. He controlled it. He's developed a great feel."
"I like it loose," Cruise says. "Feeling the car hanging out, feeling it j-u-u-u-st going. I love being right at that point." He grins the grin that has become our cultural icon for savage glee. "Some people don't."
When Cruise returned to the pit, Jimmy Johnson, the general manager of Hendrick's race teams, told him, "Tom, you're not going to believe this. You're just playing, the car is not in qualifying trim, you're on regular composite tires and you did 31.4. Twice."
Robert Duvall was also on the track that day, being chauffeured through a few quick laps as part of preparing for his role as crew chief Harry Hogge. Duvall, a horseman in real life, stepped weakly from the car. While he was absorbing how eerily fast Cruise had gone, Duvall swayed ever so faintly. "Amazing," he said, his color that of wet plaster.
Not long afterward, Schrader drove up. Johnson gave him the news that his best had been surpassed by .2, by an actor. "Well," Schrader said shortly, "he's never hit the wall."
Actually, he has, as we shall sec shortly. Cruise's talent is genuine. "He ran six miles per hour faster in that car than I thought he could," says Hendrick. "He has no fear. He has the need all great drivers have to extend themselves, to drive aggressively. He'd make one hell of a race driver, and in not too long a time, either, because if you have the ability and the will to extend, all you need is enough sheet metal."
Hendrick told Thunder screenwriter Robert Towne much the same thing, only with a darker phrasing. "Cruise is so good," Hendrick said, "he can really hurt himself."
During conversations, Cruise, whom Thunder producer Don Simpson calls Laserhead, stares at you with a fixity that pulls you out of your rhythm. You stare back, so as not to seem shifty-eyed by comparison. You talk faster. Everything races.