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Thunder for Actor Would Be Major Blunder for Sportswriter

The other day in Laguna Beach, I went to see the new auto racing movie, “Days of Thunder,” with Tom Cruise.

Wait. Let me rephrase that.

I did not go see the movie with Tom Cruise. Tom hates to go to movies with me. The girls flock around, dying to meet a sportswriter, and poor Tom ends up feeling neglected.

Anyhow, when I say that I saw Tom’s movie, I literally mean that I saw Tom’s movie. The audience was me.

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There was nobody else in that theater--not even one of those ushers who comes around shaking his can to hit you up for money.

I mean, that place was empty--not a ghost, not a spider, not even a Gummi Bear stuck to the bottom of my seat.

This film is no flop, as far as I know. So, maybe everybody in Laguna was down by the beach. I saw a lot of people on the sand, playing catch with their dogs.

I was looking forward to “Days of Thunder” because stock car racing is a great subject for a film. It’s the only time anybody in Hollywood ever has an actual excuse for having a car chase.

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There were other reasons to see this movie. It stars Cruise, one of our top young actors, and co-stars Robert Duvall, who remains one of my favorite actors even though in “The Natural” he played a sportswriter who was a nasty, cruel, vicious, crooked, creepy slime--which, as we all know, is a slight exaggeration.

As it happens, I don’t write much about stock car racing, mainly because there are so many subjects that I understand better, like quantum physics and Hindu philosophy.

Usually, when I cover auto racing, my gut instinct is to write: “First the blue car was winning, but then it got passed by the red car, and then the red car blew up and the yellow car won.”

I figured from “Days of Thunder” I could learn more about stock cars, which I did. It taught me about tire meltdown, and fuel consumption, and drafting, and how the best way to recover from a crash is to have a great-looking doctor.

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But the part I liked best was that Tom Cruise’s character didn’t know one thing more about auto racing than I did.

It’s hilarious stuff. He is already a champion racer who is moving to the NASCAR circuit, with hopes of someday moving again and driving at Indy. However, he doesn’t know a lube job from a lug nut.

Asked by Duvall where he learned how to drive, Cruise replies: “From watching ESPN.”

And next thing we know, Tom is driving at Daytona.

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Now, listen: I watch ESPN all the time. I watch “Mud and Monster Truck Racing” and Roy Firestone and “Basic Training Workout,” which is a show where beautiful men and women dressed in Army fatigues do push-ups without being ordered to by some ugly sergeant.

I even watch ESPN’s weekly boxing program, “Unknown Flyweights from Mexico.”

Let me tell you something, though. No matter how many times I watch auto racing on ESPN, I have never felt qualified to drive in the Daytona 500. Matter of fact, I barely feel qualified to watch ESPN.

But Tom Cruise’s character gets right behind the wheel and goes. He doesn’t even ask if the car has an automatic transmission.

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I like this guy. He’s a dope, and I can relate to that.

It’s a great idea, having Cruise be an auto racer who is ignorant about autos. The best part for me was the last part, where Tom drives in the Daytona 500 against Dustin Hoffman, who takes a pit stop during the final lap because he has to watch “The People’s Court” on TV.

Tom’s name in the movie, by the way, is “Cole Trickle.” Now, is that a great handle for an auto racer or what?

Every time I’m reading about some car race, the winner turns out to be a guy with a name such as Buddy Bob Beandip, or Carvin Turkey, or Delmar Pony.

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Except, of course, for those Formula One drivers, who always have names such as Alain Renault or Jean-Valet Bidet.

Cole Trickle does quite a few unpredictable things. He gets the girl, then gets the girl mad at him, then gets back the girl. He gains self-confidence, then loses self-confidence, then regains his self-confidence. Pretty original stuff.

Cole also gets a checkered flag--and, because he has seen ESPN, he knows what it means.

All in all, I give “Days of Thunder” thumbs up. Then again, what do I know? I went to see “Grease” because I thought it was about a mechanic.

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