When we first meet Tom Cruise as Cole Trickle in Tony Scott’s Days of Thunder, he’s rolling up to the racetrack on a motorcycle, black duster jacket billowing behind him. He looks like a superhero, as cool and confident as if he owned the place.
But he doesn’t. Cole Trickle doesn’t even have his own car. He’s never driven NASCAR before; he’s been running open-wheels, racing a formula car, but he tells Harry Hogge (Robert Duvall) that he “lost [his] ride.” Harry’s not interested in letting him lose another, balking at the idea of Cole sitting in the seat usually occupied by Michael Rooker’s Rowdy Burns, and we see our first glimpse at the chip on Cole’s shoulder when he grumbles, “Forget it. He needs a brand name.” But then, for once, Cole’s love of the race wins out over his considerable pride, and he asks plainly of Harry, “Let me drive. I won’t make a fool out of you.”
He doesn’t. After running the track faster than Rowdy's time, Harry tells him he got lucky in his tunnel turn. Cole challenges him, "Well, if you think it was luck, best do it again."
Drivers don’t typically move from open-wheel racing to NASCAR, or the other way around. The two racing programs have a long and heated rivalry, and fans of one usually despise the other - and the drivers even more so. So why is Cole Trickle - after two championships and seven straight wins, who once dreamt of winning the Indianapolis 500 - suddenly interested in NASCAR? “You can’t win at Indy without a great car and my name’s not Andretti or Unser.”
He's just Cole Trickle, and he's got the talent and he certainly has the cockiness, but he doesn't have a sponsor or any money of his own. That's why stock car racing is suited for him. "Stock car's a stock car, it's pretty much the same." Harry, who's built his life around building stock cars, bristles, "There's nothing stock about a stock car," and Cole tells him he isn't trying to insult him. "All's I'm saying is stock cars are built to run equal, isn't that right? So I don't have to worry about getting beat by another car." Harry gets it: "In other words, all you have to worry about is getting beat by other drivers." And Cole's not worried about that. "You build me a car and I'll win Daytona next year." There's nothing he can't do in a race car, he tells him.
After a rough start, Cole and Harry start trusting each other, respecting one another, liking and finally loving each other, and Cole starts winning races. A lot of races. He's proving his mettle, but that chip on his shoulder never really goes away. His rivalry with Rowdy eventually turns friendly, but remains, with the two men racing each other in rental cars on their way to a restaurant, or in wheelchairs in the hospital after a collision leaves them both out of commission for a couple of weeks.
Cole is constantly trying to prove himself, to overcome his complete ignorance of cars (an ignorance Harry uses to his advantage, convincing a nervous Cole that he can take a dangerous outside lead on Turn Four because of the special, perfectly matched tires Harry put on the car - might as well be magic tires or Felix Felicis helping Cole out) and a life of being told he's nothing special. When he starts dating his doctor, Claire, played by Nicole Kidman, she asks him what he sees himself doing after NASCAR, and he replies, "I can tell you what I don't want to be in life, and that's a fraud. I want to know it's not just dumb luck that gets me around that racetrack." If you think it's luck, best do it again.
But Cole's spent his whole life around people who think they're better than him, and he sees through Claire's question to the real question. "But that's not the question you're really asking. [You're asking], 'How can I be in bed with this guy? How can I, a brilliant brain doctor, be in bed with a guy who drives a car for a living?'"
After spending a little time with Cole, after he wins his first race and celebrates by getting shitfaced, we finally learn the source of that chip, his distrust of even the people who want to support him. He lost his open-wheel ride because the team owner was a conman selling junk bonds and stolen yachts, using Cole's name to promote his shady sales, ending up in jail and losing Cole his car. 'It was pretty humiliating," he says, and Harry tells him he shouldn't be embarrassed that "some lowlife piece of trash put [him] in a bad position." Cole tells him, "That depends on whether you're related to that piece of trash."
The conversation takes only a minute, mostly mumbled in hushed, drunk tones, but it tells us everything we need to know about Cole. He grew up without any money and with a conman for a dad. He pulled himself out of that life by proving himself as an open-wheel driver, only to have his father ruin that for him, too. That's why NASCAR's the perfect place for Cole Trickle: he doesn't need a name, he doesn't need a family, he doesn't need a fancy car. All he needs is the same piece of machinery everybody else gets, and his talent will take care of the rest.
And with nothing else, just like he promised Harry the day they met, he wins his first Daytona 500. After all, as Harry reminds him, "It's like you said. There's nothing you can't do in a race car."