Forty-four cars will start in the Daytona 500 Sunday, but only 42 are official entries in stock car racing's biggest event.
Two, starting at the rear, will be movie cars shooting footage for the Tom Cruise film, "Days of Thunder," which is set in the environment of NASCAR racing. Cruise is here, too, but he won't be driving in the race.
Greg Sacks and Bobby Hamilton, two licensed Winston Cup drivers, will do the driving during the race. They will be in Chevrolets owned and prepared by Rick Hendrick Motorsports, the same team that owns the cars driven by defending champion Darrell Waltrip and top qualifier Ken Schrader.
"During the race, the cars will be involved just as if they were racing, but obviously we'll be diligent about not screwing up the process of the race," said co-producer Don Simpson of Paramount Pictures, who also worked with Cruise in "Top Gun."
There is no question about the quality of the cars. During the Autoworks 200 last November at Phoenix International Raceway, Hamilton actually led the race for a lap when most of the other cars pitted during a yellow caution period.
"We had NASCAR black-flag (call in) Hamilton because that wasn't what we wanted," Simpson said. "But it did show something about how strong the cars are that Hendrick provided."
Last Sunday, in the Busch Clash, Sacks drove one of the movie cars to second place behind Schrader. He had qualified for the race, limited to 1989 pole-sitters, by winning a wild-card draw among second-day qualifiers during the season.
When Sacks didn't have a ride for this season, Hendrick lent him the car to drive in the Clash, and may have a car for him in limited races this season.
"I thought Greg deserved the chance after watching the way he drove at Phoenix in the movie car," Hendrick said.
At Phoenix, the only other Winston Cup race in which movie cars participated, Hamilton qualified fifth and Sacks 30th as part of the official field. For the Daytona 500, producers Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer and NASCAR officials decided in the interest of fairness that the movie car drivers should not try to qualify but run as unofficial entries.
"The movie cars will not be included in the official standings, will not receive prize money or car owner/driver points," assured Les Richter, NASCAR vice president for competition.
Each of the 42 drivers will receive an added $2,400 for their part in the film. The crowd of an anticipated 150,000 will perform free, however.
Spectators who lingered after Thursday's Twin 125 qualifying races received a bonus when Cruise, stripped to the waist, was strapped to a stretcher and lifted by helicopter from the front straightaway. Later, they also saw Cruise drive his race car around the track--escorted by a camera car--and take the checkered flag.
Simpson and Bruckheimer would not say how the scenes fit into the picture.
"Days of Thunder," Simpson insisted, is not a story about racing, such as "LeMans," "Winning," or "Grand Prix," which he labeled as "boring," but is a film about people in an atmosphere of race cars.
"There will be only 12 to 13 minutes of racing in about a two-hour film," Simpson said. "What we want is to create the atmosphere of racing, not a racing film.
"We wanted our picture to be character-driven, not event-driven. The picture is not about the Daytona 500, but the Daytona 500 is one of the stars of the movie. We would like to think that 'Days of Thunder' will do for stock car racing what 'Top Gun' did for airplanes."
The picture, scheduled for release in the summer, is based loosely on the careers of the late Tim Richmond as a race driver, played by Cruise; crew chief Harry Hyde, played by Robert Duvall, and car owner/businessman Hendrick, played by Randy Quaid.
Cruise became interested in racing after attending Bob Bondurant's driving school at Sears Point Raceway in California while making "Top Gun." Later, according to Simpson, Cruise got the idea for the picture while driving race cars with fellow actor Paul Newman, who is also an Indy-car owner.
"We decided to base our film on NASCAR instead of Indy-cars because in this series the drivers are stars, and in Indy-cars the cars are the show," Simpson said. "Stock car racing is more gladiatorial."