Actor Michael Rooker has appeared in nearly 125 movies and TV series in his career, with among his most notable roles being Yondu Udonta in Guardians of the Galaxy I and II, Merle Dixon in Walking Dead, Bill Broussard in JFK and Chick Gandil in Eight Men Out.
But the breakout role that really made Rooker a well-known actor and fan favorite was the NASCAR-themed Days Of Thunder, released in 1990. The Alabama native played the role of Rowdy Burns, the arch-rival of Tom Cruise’s Cole Trickle character.
Even today, nearly 30 years later, Days Of Thunder remains one of the most popular and notable racing movies made.
“It was awesome, man,” Rooker said of Days of Thunder in an interview with NBC Sports. “I got the role within two weeks of moving to L.A. from Chicago. I went out and got fitted with Simpson race suits and race shoes. The first time the cars started up, we’re actors, we don’t usually get to experience that kind of stuff. We were within 10-15 feet of the car. That stuff will shake your little brain. That just blew my mind. It vibrated the ground and concrete we were standing on. It was pretty awesome. I knew I was really going to dig this movie.
“Eventually I got to get in the driver’s seat and drive one of them. I had a blast. It was one of the most fun and exhilarating movies I’ve ever been in. It changed my total perspective on racing because the only racing I had had experienced before that was more like dirt track, figure-8 racing, demolition derby, stuff like that.”
This Saturday, in a sense, Rowdy Burns will ride again as Jeremy Clements will have one of the most notable rides in Darlington Raceway’s throwback weekend, piloting the No. 51 Chevrolet in the Xfinity Series race, an homage to Rooker’s Burns character and the movie.
“Dude, I just wish I could be there,” Rooker told NBC Sports. “They totally invited me. I would have loved to be there, but I’ve been scheduled for an appearance at a (comic) convention in Indianapolis for several months. The fans have been waiting and I couldn’t back out of it.”
But Rooker was quick to warn Clements that he better do a good job in the race – or else.
“If he doesn’t do good this year, I’ll take over next year! There’s your scoop,” Rooker laughed.
William Byron will also be driving a Days Of Thunder themed car in Sunday’s Southern 500.
While he’ll be cheering from a distance for Clements in Saturday’s race, the NASCAR driver Rooker cheers for the most is, well, a natural fit.
“Dude! I mean, c’mon. I’m Rowdy. It’s my namesake, Mr. Kyle Busch,” Rooker exclaimed of Busch, whose nickname is Rowdy, which Busch has said he took from Days Of Thunder. “He’s such a nice guy, such a nice man, has such a beautiful family. He’s got it all. And he’s also very aggressive on the track and I really appreciate that.”
During the interview with NBC Sports, a group of tourists from Italy approached Rooker for photos while he was sitting on a park bench outside his Miami hotel, which led to Rooker to talk about how he’s more recognized today for some of his more current roles. But he also concedes he’ll always be Rowdy Burns to diehard NASCAR fans.
“Folks on the street, it’s usually Walking Dead or Guardians of the Galaxy,” Rooker said. “Those are the most in-your-face projects right now. Hell, Walking Dead is on their ninth season and they’re still going – and Merle Dixon is still as popular as ever.
“But when I went to Richmond (Raceway in April 2018) to run the pace car, dude, you know what it’s like to have several hundred people all scream at the same time, ‘Rowdy!’ That was amazing,” Rooker said. “I had no idea Rowdy Burns from Days of Thunder, really, truly ended up being the star of that movie. I’m sorry, Tom (Cruise), but sometimes it’s just longevity.
“The NASCAR fans, the racing fans that remember this character and know this character, Rowdy Burns, they’re just relentless, they love this character. When I showed up to drive that pace car … the fans were freaking out.”
Even though he’ll physically be in Indy, Rooker will be at Darlington in spirit, cheering on Clements and Busch. Rooker is no stranger to the Track Too Tough To Tame, having filmed several scenes for Days Of Thunder there, as well as a series of commercials this year promoting NBC’s and NBCSN’s coverage of NASCAR racing.
Rooker will soon be putting his pedal to the metal once again when he begins shooting the next installment of the Fast & Furious franchise (the film is tentatively titled Fast & Furious 9).
“I play a guy named Buddy. That’s about all I can say,” Rooker said with a coy laugh, not alluding to whether he’ll be a good guy or a villain in the mid-2020 release.
During the 30-minute phone interview, Rooker reflected back on Days Of Thunder and the influence it had on his career. He can’t believe it has been nearly three decades since he played the Rowdy Burns character.
“It’s crazy, isn’t it? I’ve had a long relationship with NASCAR ever since Days Of Thunder,” Rooker said. “I’ve done all kinds of stuff with them and for them, everything from making announcements to going and being a part of ceremonies and handing out trophies and all sorts of stuff.
“It’s been cool over the years and it’s all been very casual. They’ll say, ‘Hey Rooker, you wanna come and do this?’ I’m like, ‘Hell yeah, I’m there, baby. I’m there.’ It’s always a blast.”
Which leads to one of the most frequently asked questions that Rooker gets from Days Of Thunder and NASCAR fans: will there ever be a sequel – a Days Of Thunder 2, perhaps? After all, Tom Cruise is wrapping up production on the sequel to Top Gun (to be released next year), which was originally released in 1986.
“Wouldn’t that be nice? It’d be a hell of a time,” Rooker said of a Days Of Thunder sequel possibility. “Whoever was involved in the first one (like Cruise or co-producer Jerry Bruckheimer), if they get to be involved in the second one, that’d be a dream come true as far as I’m concerned. I’m down!”
What would Rowdy Burns be like or what role would he play in a sequel?
“Well, the last we left him, Rowdy had a little bit of brain damage,” Rooker said with a chuckle. “Hopefully, he’s still thinking. I have a feeling that Rowdy’d be an owner or be involved in some way, like Rick Hendrick. He’s always in the pits and always involved, really deeply involved with the guys and their cars and everything. It would most likely be something like that.
“Or maybe Rowdy would be one of these older drivers that just won’t give up. Why not? I’m 64, but I look 44. I still have the body of a 44-year-old. I’m still in shape but who knows? To hear my friends tell it, I should be driving on the track instead of the streets. Doing another Days of Thunder would be an absolute joy.”