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TOM CRUISE cast as a race car driver is more a case of art imitating life than just the substitution of a hot Chevy for an F-14

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 1½-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.

"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'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.

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...."

"In order to do what you do, you have to feel you can, but Tom, Tom...."

Cruise went on getting hotter until Towne went up to him and almost whispered, "Tom, the speech is supposed to make you mad." Cruise stared at Towne, thunderstruck, then he burst into laughter. The scene stayed in. The point stayed tellingly unresolved. It's a tough one, a human divide. Racers versus reasonable people.

It is unkind to press drivers as to whether or not they deny the risks of their calling. They do. They have to. Racing's imperatives are such that to do it well, you have to abandon, for a time, all reason. The moment of departure may be marked by a scream.

Cruise, as both racer and artist, would seem to be on an interesting fence, but, as Towne discovered, he's not. "I don't feel it to be true that drivers practice risk denial," Cruise says. "They're out with good men, in quality machines. Sure there is risk. But look at the percentages. In most deaths their equipment just wasn't there."

Spoken like a true driver.

Cruise's ability behind the wheel unquestionably strengthens the film. "Audiences are sophisticated," says Thunder's still photographer, Steve Vaughan. "They know when it gets dangerous, you cut to a long shot of a stuntman. With Tom, we don't."

"We can hold the cameras on him even with the pack coming down on his butt," says director Scott. "He's fearless. He's a damn lunatic."

"The key has been keeping Tom alive through the picture," says Bruckheimer. At least when he was driving race cars, the crew knew the risks their star was taking. But it was not until shooting was almost complete when they learned that their meal ticket was skydiving on many of his days off.

Scott directed while wearing a baseball cap emblazoned with the word TOPCAR. Days of Thunder's similarity to Top Gun will surely be discussed all summer, and the longer that goes on, the less patience Cruise will have with it. "The world of flying and the world of NASCAR racing are different," he says. "Cole and Maverick are different people going through things differently."

"Cole has been a person who puts things off on others," Cruise says. "He goes, 'I don't have a problem. What's your problem? What's your problem?' " Cruise advances on you as he becomes Cole, jabbing at your sternum, making you think he's snapped. Then he pulls back. "He has this fear of asking, fear of needing help. Yet he comes to trust his crew chief enough to admit he really doesn't know much about the cars he drives. The bond with the crew chief enables Cole to be more himself. That's the character's progression."

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."





Newman was a national champion in sports cars when he and Cruise costarred.



Duvall got into his role as a crew chief but don't ask him to get into a stock car again.



Stand-ins for Cruise—here being pulled from a stock car—are rarely used in "Thunder."