Days of Thunder is the best racing movie of all time.
So, then, the Senna movie has gone down a storm – and rightly so. Not to put too fine a point on it, things were simply more exciting then. The circuits were bumpy, the cars more raw, the characters more extrovert and the onboard footage, from beside the driver’s head with skid plate sparks and turbo flashes all around – from a different world.
It’s something for Formula One’s long-suffering fans to reclaim a little bit of their soul and, with its rave reviews and Sundance award, stand tall in the eyes of the sport’s detractors. But, strictly speaking, it’s a documentary compiled from an awful lot of footage which, if you were so minded, could have been watched on a daily basis by clicking through Youtube.
So what is the greatest motor racing movie of all time?
To many minds, Steve McQueen’s Le Mans is unassailable. There is an entire cult around the 1970 Le Mans 24 Hours as a result, and justified by what remains a fine first-hand tribute to a distant era in the sport.
But conversely, Le Mans has nothing to offer the regular moviegoer. The absence of plot and dialogue, the omnipresent ear-pounding wail of the cars – no, it’s no substitute for Jaws or even Harry Potter.
On that basis the clear winner is a movie based on a true story, but pumped up with all the bombast that Hollywood could throw at it. It is, quite rightly, one of Quentin Tarantino’s favourite blockbuster movies. It is Days of Thunder.
Hit the pace car
I can hear you groaning, so get over it. A true story, you say? Why yes. Told by the men who made it happen… rising team owner Rick Hendrick (who provided the cars for the movie) and his veteran crew chief, Harry Hyde.
In Days of Thunder, rising team owner Tim Daland coaxes the old school crew chief Harry Hogge back into the Winston Cup in order to bring success to Cole Trickle, a wild young Indycar driver who Daland believes can be their ticket to fame and fortune.
All of which was, shall we say, somewhat similar to the way in which Hendrick had to convince the traditionalist Hyde that a driver by the name of Tim Richmond was their ticket to the top of the sport before the 1986 Winston Cup season began.
Finishing 1986 with 7 wins
Tim Richmond was everything that NASCAR drivers weren’t supposed to be. A wealthy, privileged young man from Ohio who was hell-bent on hedonism, Richmond shot to prominence as Rookie of the Year in the 1980 Indianapolis 500. Before the end of the year, however, Richmond had turned his back on open wheel racing in favour or stock cars.
In those days NASCAR was in its corporate infancy, still the home turf for God-fearing, gun-toting, Stetson-wearing boys from the Deep South. Into the lion’s den came a bandana-wearing long-haired cosmopolitan boy – and no sir, they didn’t like it.
Tim Richmond video – struggling to fit in 2
Richmond was fast but wild. He won his first Winston Cup race in 1982 but couldn’t get a full-time ride until Hendrick convinced Hyde to take him on for 1986.
At first the relationship between Hyde and his new charge was every bit as unsuccessful as that played out between Robert Duvall’s irascible crew chief Hogge and Tom Cruise’s reckless Cole Trickle in the movie.
Yet by the end of their first season, Richmond and Hyde had taken two wins among 13 top 5 finishes. The outsider ended the season with joint ownership of the Driver of the Year award with his on-track nemesis, Dale Earnhardt.
Oh yes, not for nothing does Days of Thunder pit its tearaway hero against an all black car driven by the people’s champion. In the characters of Cole Trickle and Rowdy Burns, art is merely imitating the racing life of Earnhardt and Richmond, who spent many a race, as Earnhardt would say, ‘a-bumpin’ and a-slammin’!’
Richmond helps Earnhardt to the ambulance after big crash
Like their counterparts in the movie, Earnhardt and Richmond were polar opposites riffing off one other – Earnhardt wrecking Richmond at his beloved Pocono, Richmond riling ‘The Intimidator’ by pretending to be drunk during the pre-race interview at his home track of Charlotte.
Or was he pretending?
While the rest of the NASCAR boys may have chased tail, drunk beer and got into fights, Richmond never had to chase the tail… and he mixed his beer and bar-room brawling with a heady mix of class A drugs, vice girls and excess.
Tim Richmond video – struggling to fit in
So it was that in 1987 Richmond resigned from Hendrick’s team and disappeared from view. Rumours circulated and were later confirmed: the wayward star had AIDS – and despite returning to claim back-to-back wins in mid-1987, NASCAR began desperately trying to erase him from its collective memory. The job was swiftly accomplished and Tim Richmond died in obscurity on August 13th 1989.
NASCAR has never reconciled itself with the Tim Richmond story. It never will. Men like Richard Petty will never hear or say a good word about him, while the inevitable post-mortem mythology among fans paints him as a far better driver than he was.
Tim Richmond video
What we’re left with is Days of Thunder, a movie that was in production even as its inspiration lay dying. Maybe Hendrick was using the Hollywood superstars to celebrate his forgotten star under NASCAR’s nose. Maybe NASCAR was trying to airbrush Richmond’s memory, or offer supplication for its lost soul.
One thing is for sure: the Hollywood über producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer made something unexpectedly special. Days of Thunder was a production line rendition of their glossy, overblown formula. Yet I defy anyone to watch the first two and a half minutes of this movie and not want to witness the Daytona 500 – or any kind of racing – at first hand.
And that, my friends, is what defines the best motor sport movie yet made.
by Nick Garton
Opening Scene -Days of Thunder