CONCORD, N.C. — In the 1990 movie Days of Thunder, a car salesman convinces a retired crew chief to work with a cocky young driver. Really?
Yes. It’s based on real-life NASCAR champion team owner and dealer Rick Hendrick, his late driver Tim Richmond and crew chief Harry Hyde.
A chance meeting led Hendrick, who owns Hendrick Automotive Group in Charlotte, N.C., the sixth-largest dealership group based in the U.S., to be involved in the movie. Ultimately, the movie and Hendrick’s racing activities led him to rub shoulders with movie stars and rock stars.
In 1986, a friend of Hendrick introduced him to actor and race car enthusiast Paul Newman at a Sports Car Club of America race at Road Atlanta. Newman’s Color of Money co-star, Tom Cruise, was with him. Hendrick had not heard of Cruise at the time, but Cruise was an aspiring racer, so Hendrick invited the two actors to racetrack practices.
“Cruise and I got to be good friends, and he’d come stay with us in the summer, and we’d race and go play at the track,” Hendrick recalled, standing next to a car used in the movie, which Hendrick now owns and keeps in his 58,000-square-foot private garage, the Heritage Center, here.
“One day we were at Daytona; Paul and Tom and I. We were just driving, and Tom said, ‘You know, we need to make a movie about this,’” Hendrick said. “It was my first adventure with Hollywood.”
Elements in the plot were based on true stories. The two sparring drivers in the film were inspired by Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Richmond. One scene derived from a real incident when “we got called to Daytona and got our butts chewed,” Hendrick said, laughing. “Randy Quaid played my part, and he drove my actual demo in the film. Robert Duvall was more like Harry Hyde than Harry Hyde was like Harry Hyde. Just watching them do movies was a handful.”
During filming, Cruise stayed in Hendrick’s lake house; co-star Nicole Kidman stayed at another home down the street. Hendrick still chuckles at the thought of hanging out with Hollywood types, saying Newman was a down-to-earth guy who loved cars and was “a heck of a driver.” Cruise visited Hendrick’s racing headquarters so often, the women in the office stopped swooning.
The movie was good for NASCAR, he said.
“It created some excitement and brought in new sponsors,” Hendrick said. “Around that period, our sport just started to take off. We were selling out and had TV deals. I don’t know if the movie had anything to do with it, but it didn’t hurt.”
Hendrick, who grew up on a tobacco farm, said racing has led to his brushes with stardom. At the Heritage Center, he keeps 210 of his prized cars on display, plus 165 autographed guitars and other instruments such as a fiddle signed by Charlie Daniels.
“Alabama and Brad Paisley filmed in here,” Hendrick said, motioning toward the hundreds of cars and the mock storefronts that honor his roots and history. “Can you imagine? Alabama and Brad Paisley in here jammin’?”
Hendrick remains in mild disbelief at his good fortune. “I’ve gotten to meet a lot of really neat people. You can see all the artists that have come through here to look at the cars. I built a car for Sylvester Stallone. We’ve had everybody from Aerosmith to Iron Maiden through here.”