Alan Kulwicki is no movie critic, but he knows something about auto racing and after sitting through a premiere of the new Tom Cruise movie "Days of Thunder" here Monday night, the Wisconsin race car driver had mixed feelings about the racing elements.
"For one thing, the way we build cars is a lot more professional (than shown in the movie)," said Kulwicki, who was the 1986 rookie of the year in NASCAR, the stock car racing circuit used as the setting for "Days of Thunder." "We don't build them in a barn with the sunlight coming through the boards. We work in highly technical shops with all kinds of technical equipment."
Kulwicki was also critical of the footage of racing accidents, pointing out that when cars slam into walls in real life, they don't stay in the race.
"If we hit a wall once, we have to pit and get new tires," he said. "But they had to make the movie exciting for the movie fan and I think they did that very well."
Kulwicki, 36, had more positive things to say about the acting and the movie's storyline, but acknowledged that the people who govern stock car racing went out of their way to convince the drivers that the movie would be good for them.
At a NASCAR race in Michigan last weekend, he said, NASCAR officials held a pre-race meeting during which they reminded the drivers that "Days of Thunder" was "only a movie" and that some of the action was not real.
"If this movie is successful, maybe they'll make another one (about racing) someday," Kulwicki said, pointing out that the lifeblood of a racing team is sponsorship and that product exposure in a hit movie could provide major financial transfusions.
For most of the drivers who are regulars on the stock car racing circuit, "Days of Thunder" has been an unavoidable reality during the last year. Despite complaints by some racing teams and sponsors, NASCAR allowed the film crew to place camera cars in actual races (in cars driven by experienced drivers), and dramatic scenes were shot in the infield and garage areas with paid spectators doubling as movie extras.
The drivers were also aware that Cruise's character, Cole Trickle, was partially inspired by Tim Richmond, a talented young driver who won 14 races before his career and his life were cut short by AIDS. And the crew chief played by Robert Duvall was based on veteran NASCAR crew chief Harry Hyde.
Kulwicki said that despite the unrealistic racing sequences, he found much in "Days of Thunder" to identify with. The scene where Cruise and a fellow driver get into a serious wheelchair race while recuperating in a hospital after a car racing accident perfectly captured the competitive spirit that inhabits most drivers.
"That's just the nature of race drivers," he said. "You have to have that ego drive. . . . A guy that gets in a race car has to excel, he has to win, beat the other guy."
Kulwicki said he also identified with the reason Cruise gives in the film for his driving obsession: "To be in control of something that's out of control."
"Controlling a car at those speeds give you a certain feeling of power. It's something that few others can do. The power is like knowledge. What we do, the average person can't do."
Do drivers have a death wish, which has been the popular assumption of most auto racing films? No way, said Kulwicki. "People always ask me why I do what I do. It's the challenge. It's not a daredevil thing or (about) defying death . . . The biggest reason I drive is because of the fulfillment and control of doing something most people can't do.
"I also do it for the crowds. You've got to have that crowd up there in the stands to make it worthwhile."