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Friday, September 14, 2012
Updated: April 19, 1:46 PM ET
'Days of Thunder' star still loves it

By Marty Smith
ESPN.com

For very obvious reasons, "Days of Thunder" is among my favorite films. It is timeless, every bit as engaging right now as it was in 1990 -- and may even resonate more now than it ever did for some folks, given how deeply the die-hards yearn for the rough-edged roots that so long defined us.

If I happen upon CMT and Cole Trickle is in the 46 car, the volume increases, the kids get hushed and the remote finds its rightful position on the table, not to be disturbed. I'm not concerned with the criteria critics use to disparage the movie's overzealous storyline. Yes, it's a bit disjointed. Yes, it's far-fetched. And "Star Wars" isn't?

"People have compared it with [Top Gun], and I think it's an unfair comparison," said Michael Rooker, who played grizzled veteran Rowdy Burns in the film. " 'Days of Thunder' is its own animal. NASCAR is its own animal. It totally has stood the test of time."

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When you consider the logistics involved in making "Days of Thunder," you realize what was actually achieved.

"For the filmmakers, the director and cinematographers and the lighting and crew, the logistical issues on that show were just … amazing," Rooker said. "It was really hard to get done, from the editing on down.

"We had 12 or 13 editors working on the show at one time. We had to get it out by a certain time, and that preconceived release date was impossible. And they made it possible by editing at the same time they were shooting. We had a whole crew of editors and editing assistants right there on set, editing as we went."

So … say "Days of Thunder" was made today, with all the new technologies and computer graphic imaging. What would it look like?

"I really don't think they could do it any better," he said. "We placed those cameras in positions that nobody had ever seen a camera placed before on a car, or around a racetrack. They're placing them now during real races in spots where we had placed cameras during our movie.

"And they're doing it now during real races and have discovered that because of 'Days of Thunder,' that they can put the camera by the wheelbase or by the bumper and under the car, on the backside of the car and on top of the roof. We can place those cameras now, in places we never thought would be safe."

Michael Rooker
Michael Rooker is still fond of his time filiming "Days of Thunder."

That is but one way "Days of Thunder" was transcendent. It is a fantastic film with a world-class cast that included four stars -- Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Randy Quaid and Robert Duvall -- who throughout their decorated careers collectively earned a pair of Oscars, an Emmy and 11 Golden Globes.

But none of them had the most-authentic character. To me, they all got upstaged by Rooker, a guy who'd barely dropped anchor in Hollywood when his phone rang with a proposition.

"I had just moved to California, and I got cast in 'Days of Thunder' two weeks after I landed," Rooker said. "And there I went, off to the Southeast, which is where I'm from originally, Jasper, Alabama. So I came down here and got to see all my relatives, and got to be in a great movie."

It is a great movie, and Rooker stole the show. With a "try-me" glare that suggested he'd wreck his momma to win and has since become a signature of his characters, he looked the part. Asked who he studied to bring to life the Rowdy Burns character, Rooker howled in laughter.

"Dale Earnhardt was the pattern -- it was kind of obvious," he said. "It was so cool to watch him in real life, and during the races, too. You could watch his body language. I was not trying to 'do' Dale Earnhardt, but it was patterned after his type of racing, what he did, the kind of guy that he was in his entire life [who] loves the daily grind of getting out there and shoving people around on the racetrack."

(Incidentally, Rowdy reminded me more of Ricky Rudd than Big E. I think it was because of the scene in which he stared a hole through Cole and snarled through clenched teeth, "Listen, man, I've raced with my legs broke, heart bruised, eyes popping out of my head like they're on springs … " Maybe it was the hair. Or maybe it was the general demeanor. But Rowdy reminded me of Rooster.)

Rooker said he and Cruise didn't participate in the racing scenes. But once, while filming at Daytona, no one noticed him slip into the seat for five or six laps.

The racing scenes "started with the imagination of the director and the cinematographer, and the professional stock car people working with us, and how they wanted to make those realistic," Rooker said. "From there, from [inside] their heads and talking, they would use Matchbox cars to demonstrate what they wanted to happen.

"We, the actors, didn't have a lot to do with the real activities on the track because they wouldn't let us get out there with all the stunt guys and actually race around. But we did, anyway. I got out there with all the stunt guys in the middle of 50 drivers and had a good time.

"But when they found out I was out there everybody got yelled at and they stopped the scene immediately and got me out of the car. But I gotta tell ya, it was fun while it lasted. Before they knew the real actor was in the car racing with the stunt guys everything was going along really well."

Rooker laughs a lot, in a Kenny Wallace sort of fashion. He doesn't seem to take things seriously that don't deserve the attention. He seems free and easy, and thoroughly enjoys the fact that Kyle Busch's nickname was born from a character Rooker portrayed.

"That is so cool! I love it, man!" he howled. "What a great role. Boy, I think I'd cut off my hand to get back on that racetrack again and play another role out there.

"I know Busch just got his butt kicked [for missing the Chase], but he'll come back. He's a tough competitor. Anybody with the name Rowdy? Come on, you have to suck it up and get back in there."

Rooker says folks recognize him mostly for three roles: The title character in his first movie, "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer"; Hal Tucker in "Cliffhanger" and, you guessed it, Rowdy Burns.

His favorite scene as Rowdy was shot in a hospital, when he and Cole raced wheelchairs hell-bent to get the girl.

"I truly enjoyed the wheelchair race scene," he said. "I had so much fun doing it. It was real, how we had bloody knuckles at the end of the race and [Cruise] so wanted to get to the girl first. And I was so bound-and-determined not to allow that to happen. It was just awesome. It was Nicole Kidman! She's a doll! A sweetheart! Everybody on set was truly enthralled by that young lady."

Rooker noted his appreciation for how deeply NASCAR fans love close, physical competition, and how much the sport has evolved in that direction in the two-plus decades since "Days of Thunder" was filmed. He also noted the unpredictability and inherent danger of racing as a key reason so many people enjoy the sport.

I wondered, then, what was the biggest lesson he took away from shooting a film about NASCAR racing:

"Rubbin's racin'," he screamed. "Hahahaha!"

Indeed it is, Rowdy. May it forever be the standard.

Marty,
Why should we believe in Dale Earnhardt Jr. this time? Why should we think he'll do anything more than run mid-pack and finish seventh or eighth in the Chase?
-- Jim

Simple: Believe in Junior because Junior believes in Junior.

Confidence is a key determining factor between mediocrity and excellence, and it has been quite a while since he knew he had the chops to get it done, not to mention the willingness to accept the responsibilities that accompany the elite.

It's like Rick Hendrick said to me two weeks ago in the SportsCenter Sunday Conversation: Show up on time and show up ready to work. That's Dale Earnhardt Jr. today.

He says often these days that the team has to run him off from the truck. Used to be he showed up at the last available moment, didn't engage with the team as he does now. He didn't realize the impact that has on them, the camaraderie it builds and the foxhole-trust it forges. His teams always loved him. This one loves him more.

He's happier than I can recall. And that happiness permeates his entire life. Truth told, it doesn't matter if you come unglued for Earnhardt or loathe him, you cannot deny his return to prominence is remarkable.

I wondered last year whether he'd ever win again. Now he's in the championship conversation.

Marty,
You tweeted that you received a copy of Jason Aldean's new album, and said you'd tell us how it is. Well????? (Go Sterling Marlin!)
-- Courtney Halladay, Richmond, Tenn.

Aldean climbed to the top of the country music universe by cutting redneck rock 'n' roll songs that simultaneously broach the human element while speaking directly to the boys in the hayfield trying to get out of town, and the girls in the boardroom who just want to get back home.

Aldean's song choices make many different types of folks from many different places in many different walks of life say, "That's me."

That's hard to do.

It's even harder to duplicate.

Jason Aldean
Jason Aldean is out on tour and has a new album Marty Smith is fond of.

But with "Night Train" he did it.

I can't believe he did it. But he did.

This record is a monster.

And it's not redundant. Country artists can get redundant, fearing they'll try to fix what ain't broke and end up a broken record. Same thing happens in racing. Teams that are really good one season sometimes end up mediocre the next, because they're afraid to change what works in the moment. Then, suddenly, they're behind for the future.

Aldean's last album, "My Kinda Party," sold nearly 3 million copies and, in my opinion, carried two (and maybe even three) more radio hits in its pages than the five straight No. 1s you did hear.

In today's landscape in the country format, triple-platinum is just north of impossible for someone not named Taylor Swift, according to those I know in the industry.

How do you follow a record that huge? That's a ton of pressure. (Welcome pressure, sure, but difficult nonetheless.)

I broached that thought with a buddy of mine in Nashville, who made a fantastic point: When you're on top of the mountain like Aldean is, the best writers in town lay the best songs in their catalogues down on your doorstep. "Here's the best I got: Take your pick."

Nobody loves country music more than I do. I skew "hardcore fan" on the demo sheet. I'm no music critic. I'm not educated in music theory. But I have plenty of music theories. I'm a hard-sell these days but not a cynic. I'm not educated enough to be cynical and have conviction about it. I'm too big a fan for that.

There are but a select few artists that make me pump my fist. There's a lot of watered-down work out there. So when I receive an advance copy of a new album, I'm excited, but try to temper it. If an album carries 11 songs and four of them are solid, it's a decent record.

"Night Train" carries 15 tracks. You don't especially need the seek button. There are a couple songs I don't love. But it's an album you can just let play.

It is 90 percent classic Aldean. The remaining 10 percent is a swing for the fence.

"The Only Way I Know," a collaboration with Luke Bryan and Eric Church, will be No. 1 by wintertime, I figure. It's about growing up in the middle of nowhere, ignorant to the broader scope, and the core value of the simple man. "Don't back up … don't back down … "

The beauty-in-simplicity nostalgia of growing up in the country is a theme that weaves throughout the album. There are a lot of rivers and a lot of reminiscing in this record.

The initial radio track, "Take A Little Ride" is the fastest-rising single of Aldean's career. It sold more downloads in its first week than any country male artist in history. And in my opinion it is one of the weaker tracks on the record.

There's a rap song on the album called "1994," which hops through Joe Diffie's career. The first time I heard it I mocked it. But by the fifth listen, it's impossible not to bob your head. It'll be huge in Aldean's live show. Just huge. There'll be 15,000 people bobbing their heads and hollering, "Joe … Joe … Joe Diffie! … Joe … Joe … Joe Diffie!" Trust me.

There are also some huge tracks. "Talk" is my favorite in the early going. The way I hear it, it's about taking the next step with a new love interest, and it's the best vocal -- with the most passion -- on the album. Aldean didn't write it, so he either lived it or dreamed about living it. It's that personal.

The title track, "Night Train," is just fantastic. Same for "Drink One For Me." "Tell the boys … thanks for havin' my back … some of the best memories I've ever had …"

I could go on and on. Buy it. You'll be glad you did.

Marty,
I'm a huge Martin Truex Jr. fan. What are his realistic chances to win this championship?
-- Jackson Winton, Teaneck, N.J.

Truex certainly isn't the first name you think of when you think of title favorites. But he's a dark horse. He has two things that matter -- speed and consistency on every type of racetrack. If the No. 56 bunch learns to close the deal, beware.

I can see the failure to win weighing on Truex. I can tell he's extremely annoyed by it. I spoke with him Saturday evening after the Richmond race, as he waited to participate in the Chase-field photo shoot, and he reiterated over and over how badly he needed a win. He needs that victory for himself above all else. He needs to affirm his position in the series for himself.

"Obviously, we don't have a lot of Chase experience," he said. "We don't have a lot of expectations other than we know what our team is capable of and we're going to go in there and do our best every weekend to try and make a statement, so to speak.

"I think we've got a great chance and, for us, we're definitely going to sit back and look at it all and try to come up with a plan. What we've done all year has been great, but we need to start winning, so we're going to try to do that."

Marty,
Does Chase experience or past championships work more in your favor in the Chase?
-- Jessie L. Collins, from Facebook

Yes, it matters a great deal. In fact, most every driver asked about this topic notes that Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart are the favorites entering the 2012 Chase, for that very reason.

"I think it gives everyone who has won a championship an edge going into the Chase," Earnhardt said. "Jimmie and Tony Stewart. Matt Kenseth. Jeff Gordon, all the guys who have won championships definitely know how to get it done.

"They have that confidence within themselves that they know what it takes to win a championship. Just that air of confidence alone is a step above all the guys who haven't."

Interesting that so many of you noted to me that you expect a first-time Chase winner come November. Not me. I picked Kenseth in January and I'll stick to it, despite his impending departure from Roush Fenway to Gibbs.

It'll be awfully difficult to beat Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin.

"I think it's pretty easy why Jimmie Johnson is the championship favorite, and it's not because he's won six championships, or five or whatever the hell he's won," said Brad Keselowski. "It's simple, you go through the stats and look at it and he has the fastest car.

"His speed ranks, his quarterly ranks throughout the season are drastically higher than everyone else. And speed is the backbone of this sport. He has it. And from there, it's his championship to lose. It's all about execution and we have to force him to not execute."

That's my time this week, thank you for sharing it. I appreciate yours.