This is the first of three films to star both Cruise and Kidman (the other two being Far and Away and Eyes Wide Shut).
Cole Trickle is a young racer from Eagle Rock, California, with years of experience in open-wheel racing, winning championships in the United States Auto Club (USAC). His goal was to win the Indianapolis 500, but realizes that "You can't win at Indy without a great car and my name isn't Andretti or Unser". He is recruited by Chevrolet dealership tycoon Tim Daland to race for his team in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series. Daland also convinces former crew chief and car builder Harry Hogge to come out of retirement and lead Cole's pit crew. After Trickle sets a fast time in a private test at Charlotte, Hogge builds him a new Chevrolet Lumina to drive in the Winston Cup, though the season has already started.
During his first few races, Cole has difficulty adjusting to the larger NASCAR stock cars and communicating with his crew while being intimidated on the track by Winston Cup Champion Rowdy Burns; this results in Cole not finishing the races, mostly due to crashes and blown engines. After discovering that Cole does not understand the common terminology used by NASCAR teams, Harry puts him through rigorous training. This pays off at the Darlington race, when Cole uses a slingshot maneuver from the outside line to overtake Rowdy and win his first race.
The rivalry between Cole and Rowdy intensifies throughout the season until tragedy strikes. At the Firecracker 400 in Daytona, both drivers are seriously injured after their cars are destroyed in a multi-car wreck. While recovering from his injuries in Daytona Beach, Cole develops a romantic relationship with Dr. Claire Lewicki, a neurosurgeon at Halifax Hospital who was senior doctor on duty when he was brought in after his crash and who was attending to his health. At the same time, NASCAR president Big John, brings Rowdy and Cole together in a meeting and warns them that he and his sport will no longer tolerate any hanky-panky from the two rivals. Afterwards, Cole and Rowdy go out to lunch together by Big John's persuasion, and settle their differences by banging rental cars on the beach. Cole and Rowdy change from bitter rivals to close friends.
As Cole is still undergoing therapy, Daland hires hot-shot rookie Russ Wheeler as a substitute to fill the seat. Weeks later, Cole returns to active duty, with Daland now fielding two teams – the second car driven by Wheeler which Harry disapproves of. Though Cole shows signs of his old self, he now finds himself in a rivalry with his new teammate with no help from his inexperienced owner. At North Wilkesboro, Russ gets dirty on the pit path and pulls his car into his pit box (directly in front of Cole's pit box) diagonally so as to block Cole from exiting his box until Russ's pit stop was complete. Russ also forces Cole into the outside wall in a move on the last lap causing Cole to spin and finish down in the standings. Russ goes on to win the race. In retaliation, Cole crashes his car into Russ's car following the race, resulting in Cole and Harry being fired by Daland.
When Rowdy discovers that he has to undergo brain surgery to fix a broken blood vessel, he asks Cole to drive his car at the Daytona 500, so his sponsors will pay for the year. Cole reluctantly agrees and convinces Harry to return as crew chief again. Hours prior to the race, Harry discovers metal in the oil pan, a sign of engine failure, so he manages to have Daland provide him a new engine. During the race, Cole's car suffers a malfunctioning transmission after being spun out by Russ, but the combined efforts of his pit crew, as well as those working for Daland, manage to fix the problem and get him back on the lead lap. This sets the tone for a final showdown between Cole and Russ. On the final lap, Russ predicts that Cole will attempt his signature slingshot maneuver from outside, but Cole tricks him with a crossover, overtaking him from the inside to win his first Daytona 500.
Cole drives into victory lane, where he and Claire kiss passionately while they celebrate with his pit-crew. As he looks around to see where Harry is, he spots him sitting alone on a concrete barrier near the teams pit stall. Cole walks up to Harry to ask for him to say something, but Harry is lost for words. Cole asks Harry to walk with him and Harry agrees. As he begins to walk, Harry turns to Cole smiling and challenges him to a foot race to victory lane, and they both begin to race.Tom Cruise as Cole Trickle, a young race car driver out to make a name for himself in NASCAR. The character was patterned after Tim Richmond, while his name is a nod to veteran racer Dick Trickle.
Nicole Kidman as Dr. Claire Lewicki, a neurosurgeon who develops a relationship with Cole.
Robert Duvall as Harry Hogge, Cole's crew chief (patterned after Harry Hyde).
Michael Rooker as Rowdy Burns, the current Winston Cup Champion and Cole's first rival. He drives the #51 Exxon Chevrolet (patterned after Dale Earnhardt).
Cary Elwes as Russ Wheeler, a rookie driver who fills in for Cole, but later on becomes his teammate and bitter rival. He drives the #18 Hardee's Chevrolet (patterned after Rusty Wallace).
Randy Quaid as Tim Daland, a wealthy car dealership and race team owner who first recruits Cole into NASCAR (patterned after Rick Hendrick).
Fred Thompson as Big John, president of NASCAR (patterned after "Big Bill" France).
John C. Reilly as Buck Bretherton, Cole's car chief. Reilly also starred in Talladega Nights.
J. C. Quinn as Waddell, Rowdy's crew chief. The name is likely a reference to Waddell Wilson.
Caroline Williams as Jeannie Burns, Rowdy's wife.
Leilani Sarelle as a Female Highway Patrol Officer who is actually a stripper hired by Harry as a prank on Cole.
Chris Ellis as Harlem Hoogerhyde, Cole's gas man (patterned after Danny "Chocolate" Myers).
Don Simpson in a cameo as Aldo Bennedetti (patterned after Mario Andretti and using his twin brother Aldo Andretti's first name).
Richard Petty, Rusty Wallace, Neil Bonnett, Harry Gant, and Dr. Jerry Punch all appear in cameo roles as themselves. Bob Jenkins had a voice-over role as public address announcer.
Principal photography took place in early 1990 in and around Charlotte and Daytona. It was plagued with delays due to frequent arguments on set between Simpson and Bruckheimer, Scott, and sometimes Towne over how to set up a shot. Crew members sat idle for long hours; some later said they had accumulated enough overtime pay to go on vacation for a full four months after filming was completed. The completion date was pushed back many times, with filming being completed in early May, three months later than it had originally been scheduled. At one point, following the third revision of the shooting schedule in a single day, the unit production manager, who represents the studio on the set or location, confronted Simpson and Bruckheimer and was told bluntly that the schedule no longer mattered.
In Daytona, Simpson and Bruckheimer spent $400,000 to have a vacant storefront in their hotel converted into their private gym, with a large neon sign reading "Days of Thunder." Simpson also kept a closet full of Donna Karan dresses to offer the attractive women his assistants found on the beach, and held private parties with friends like rapper Tone Lōc. Towne also played a role in the film's increasing cost by scrapping more barn scenes when he didn't like either of two barns built to his specifications. The film's original budget of $35 million ($64.2 million in modern dollars) nearly doubled; at that level it would have had to make at least $100 million, a rare gross at that time, to break even. In addition, when Tom Cruise failed to win the Oscar for Born on the Fourth of July, some additional budget was cut. Despite the budget overruns and delays, reportedly it was only after shooting was finished that the filmmakers discovered they had neglected to film Cole Trickle's car crossing the finish line at Daytona.
The cars used as those of Cole Trickle, Rowdy Burns, and Russ Wheeler were provided by Hendrick Motorsports, with racers Greg Sacks, Tommy Ellis, Bobby Hamilton, and Hut Stricklin as the stand-in drivers. In order to provide authentic race footage involving the cars, these cars were actually raced on three occasions. In late 1989, Hamilton and Sacks raced at Phoenix. Hamilton officially qualified 5th and led a lap before his engine blew. In 1990, the cars were raced again at Daytona and Darlington. Sacks drove a car during the Busch Clash, while Hamilton and Ellis drove unscored entries in the Daytona 500. At Darlington, Stricklin and Sacks drove two of the cars, but both were pulled from the race early after Sacks broke a crankshaft.
Cole's first car in the film is sponsored by City Chevrolet, a real-life car dealership in Charlotte, North Carolina, owned by Rick Hendrick.
The score for Days of Thunder was composed by Hans Zimmer, with Jeff Beck making a guest appearance on guitar. This was the first of an ongoing list of films in which Zimmer would compose the score for a Jerry Bruckheimer production. An official score album was not released until 2013, by La-La Land Records.
The song film's theme song "Last Note of Freedom" was sung by David Coverdale of the band Whitesnake at the request of Tom Cruise himself. Coverdale's vocal parts were recorded in 1990 in Los Angeles during a day off of the Whitesnake Slip of the Tongue Liquor and Poker world tour.
Days of Thunder was released on Wednesday, June 27, 1990. The film was a financial success grossing $157,920,733.
The film was more successful on home video. It grossed $40,000,000 in rentals.
In the 2013 Subway Firecracker 250 driver Kurt Busch had his #1 Phoenix Racing Chevy painted identical to Cole Trickle's #46 City Chevy car.
The fictional Mello Yello sponsorship depicted on Trickle's car during film was followed by a real-life sponsorship arrangement the following year. The car of Kyle Petty at SABCO Racing carried the livery from 1991-1994. Mello Yello also sponsored the fall race at Charlotte from 1990-1994.
The 2015 Bojangles' Southern 500 at Darlington saw this livery again with Kyle Larson piloting the now throwback scheme.
The film received mixed reviews from critics who mostly shrugged off the sometimes over-the-top special effects and plot in many ways resembling the earlier Bruckheimer, Simpson, Scott and Cruise vehicle Top Gun (some calling it "Top Gun on wheels" or "Top Gun in Race Cars!"), which had been a huge success four years earlier. Halliwell's Film Guide dismissed Days of Thunder as "An over familiar story rendered no more interestingly than usual", while the Monthly Film Bulletin described it as "simply a flashy, noisy star vehicle for Tom Cruise, one which - like the stock car he drives - goes around in circles getting nowhere".
The film currently holds a rating of 38% on Rotten Tomatoes based on 58 reviews with the consensus: "Days of Thunder has Tom Cruise and plenty of flash going for it, but they aren't enough to compensate for the stock plot, two-dimensional characters, and poorly written dialogue."
In a positive review, film critic Roger Ebert noted:Days of Thunder
is an entertaining example of what we might as well call the Tom Cruise Picture
, since it assembles most of the same elements that worked in Top Gun, The Color of Money
and runs them through the formula once again. Parts of the plot are beginning to wear out their welcome, but the key ingredients are still effective. They include:
1. The Cruise character, invariably a young and naive but naturally talented kid who could be the best, if ever he could tame his rambunctious spirit.
2. The Mentor, an older man who has done it himself and has been there before and knows talent when he sees it, and who has faith in the kid even when the kid screws up because his free spirit has gotten the best of him.
3. The Superior Woman, usually older, taller and more mature than the Cruise character, who functions as a Mentor for his spirit, while the male Mentor supervises his craft.
4. The Craft, which the gifted young man must master.
5. The Arena, in which the young man is tested.
6. The Arcana, consisting of the specialized knowledge and lore that the movie knows all about, and we get to learn.
7. The Arc, a journey to visit the principal places where the masters of the craft test one another.
8. The Proto-Villain, the bad guy in the opening reels of the movie, who provides the hero with an opponent to practice on. At first the Cruise character and the Proto-Enemy dislike each other, but eventually through a baptism of fire they learn to love one another.
9. The Villain, a real bad guy who turns up in the closing reels to provide the hero with a test of his skill, his learning ability, his love, his craft and his knowledge of the Arena and the Arcana.
In an 1990 Siskel and Ebert special on Cruise, Ebert added one more ingredient to the formula, the "Dying Friend", referencing how in almost all the Cruise formula films, his friend/colleague had almost ended up sick or dying in the course of the film to present an emotional challenge for the Cruise character.
The film was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Sound (Charles M. Wilborn, Donald O. Mitchell, Rick Kline and Kevin O'Connell).
Following Scott's death in 2012, film critic Stephen Metcalf argued that the film marked an important turning point in the history of the American film industry. "The best film he made may well have been Crimson Tide," he wrote in Slate, "but the most important film he made was Days of Thunder." The excesses of its production and its failure to equal Top Gun's magnitude of box-office success, he argues, helped end the era that had followed the failure of Heaven's Gate ten years earlier. The studio's willingness to indulge director Michael Cimino on that film, as other studios had been doing up to that point, led to a backlash where studios favored producers like Simpson and Bruckheimer whose films bore far more of their imprint than any director who worked for them. Crimson Tide, made several years after Days of Thunder, was the critical and commercial success it was, Metcalf says, because after similar excesses on the producers' part like those that occurred on Thunder directors were allowed to reassert themselves.
Quentin Tarantino said the film was his favorite big budget racing movie:
Yeah, yeah, you laugh but seriously I’m a big fan. To me Days of Thunder is the movie Grand Prix and Le Mans should have been. Sure, it had a big budget, big stars and a big director in Tony Scott, but it had the fun of those early AIP movies. I just don’t think it works if you take the whole thing too seriously.
In 1990, Mindscape released a video game adaptation of the film for multiple platforms such as the PC, NES and Amiga. A Game Boy version was released in 1992. The game is currently available for the PlayStation Network and iOS.
Paramount Digital Entertainment releases a new video game based on the film for the iOS, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and PlayStation Portable. iOS version was released in 2009 and other versions were released in 2011. The game will include 12 NASCAR sanctioned tracks—including Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway—and the film characters Cole Trickle, Rowdy Burns, and Russ Wheeler. The PS3 version, labeled Days of Thunder: NASCAR Edition will have more than 12 select NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers, including Denny Hamlin, Ryan Newman and Tony Stewart.