Rowdy Burns rides again at Darlington; actor fondly recalls Days of Thunder

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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.

Michael Rooker. Photo: Getty Images.

“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.

Rowdy Burns and Rowdy Busch in 2013. Photo: Getty Images

“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.”

Photo: Getty Images.

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.”

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John Ray, who drove patriotic big rig at Talladega, dies at 82

Photo courtesy Talladega Superspeedway
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One of Talladega Superspeedway’s most endearing and popular figures has passed away.

John “Johnny” Ray, whose diesel big rig carrying an American flag around the 2.66-mile track has been a fixture during the playing of the National Anthem at NASCAR Cup races for the past two decades, has died at the age of 82, the track announced Monday.

Ray began the tradition behind the wheel of his gold, brown and chrome-colored Peterbilt semi-tractor in 2001, with an oversized American flag flowing in the breeze behind the tractor.

The procession quickly became a significant fan favorite, eliciting loud cheers and applause from fans in the stands each time it passed by on the track’s front stretch.

“We just had the 9/11 attacks and Dale (Earnhardt) had also passed away earlier that year,” Ray, who lived down the street from the track in Eastaboga, Alabama, said in an interview three years ago. “I had a crazy idea to run my rig out on the track with an American flag attached to the back. It started off as a tribute to the country and to Dale.

“I never thought it would become the heart-felt moment that it has over the past some-odd years, but I’m glad it has become a tradition that means so much to the fans and the Talladega family. It represents such a sense of pride that we all share together as a nation and as a community. It is my honor and privilege to do it.”

Ray, who started his own trucking company in the early 1970s, and also had a brief NASCAR racing career of his own, ceded driving duties of the big rig several years ago to his late friend, Roger Haynes, and then last year to son Johnny Ray, to continue the tradition.

“National Anthems at Talladega Superspeedway are the most iconic, and it’s because of our great friend John Ray,” Speedway President Brian Crichton said in a media release. “What he brought to our fans can’t be duplicated.

“He was an incredible, passionate man who supported the track and all of motorsports with everything he had. His spirit will live here forever. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Ray family.”

Funeral arrangements for John Ray are pending, according to the track.

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Ryan Blaney experienced Kobe Bryant’s ‘Mamba Mentality’ in person

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CONCORD, N.C. — Kobe Bryant didn’t ask normal questions.

Nearly two years after a 20-minute conversation in the back of a Las Vegas steakhouse, that’s what sticks out to Ryan Blaney about the five-time NBA champion.

Blaney reflected on his encounter with Bryant on Monday, roughly 24 hours after the 41-year-old former Los Angeles Laker was killed in a helicopter crash, along with his 13-year-old daughter and seven others.

MORE: NASCAR community mourns death of Kobe Bryant

The encounter between the Team Penske driver and Bryant came in October 2018 during a convention for Body Armor, a sports drink company Bryant was an investor in that sponsors Blaney in the NASCAR Cup Series.

“We went into a backroom and all of a sudden Kobe Bryant was standing there,” Blaney said during a media event at Charlotte Motor Speedway. “Pretty amazing that he was back there and they let me meet him.”

During their meeting, Blaney gifted Bryant the firesuit that he wore during the race weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway earlier that year.

“He was pretty excited about that,” Blaney said. “Just being able to talk to a guy like that for 20 minutes, someone who didn’t really know a lot about racing, but wanted to learn everything about it 20 minutes. Just the way he asked questions, (he) was so interested in it, to me I could see where they call it the ‘Mamba Mentality’ comes from and how he used it in basketball to become so great.

“That was the coolest moment. I don’t get star struck very often. I knew all the answers, but I was getting nervous that I would answer wrong when he was asking me questions he knew nothing about. That’s just his atmosphere.”

Bryant didn’t pepper Blaney with the cliche questions one expects from those uninitiated with auto racing.

“I just didn’t expect the amount of interest he showed, he wanted to learn everything about it,” Blaney said. “It wasn’t like the (how do you use the) bathroom question. It wasn’t ‘do you get dizzy?’ It was technical stuff and shows what kind of amazing, intellectual person that he was. That was something that really tickled me, how excited he was to learn about it.”

Blaney, who said he was a Bryant fan growing up in the ’90s before LeBron James arrived on the scene to play for his home team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, said it was a “shame” he was never able to get Bryant to attend a race weekend.

“For somebody who has inspired so many young boys and girls around the country for decades, the social media stuff the last day and half has been unbelievable to see people who looked up to him growing up. I did too, I ain’t lying, how can you not watch Kobe Bryant when you’re growing up as a kid? A terrible loss. I hate that for his family and the other family involved.”

Bryant didn’t forget about their steakhouse encounter. He later sent Blaney a signed copy of his book, “The Mamba Mentality.”

Blaney keeps it on display on a bookshelf.

“Just really neat,” Blaney said. “You respect other great athletes and people and their work ethic. I think that’s what impressed me the most about him was his work ethic at everything. He’d outwork you at every little bit. You’ve got to respect somebody like that, who will figure out how to beat you and if he can’t do it with talent he’s going to outwork you really hard. I don’t know, it’s just amazing to get a privilege like that. It’s hard to describe.”

Brendan Gaughan to run 4 final Cup races in 2020, including Daytona 500

Photo: Beard Motorsports' Twitter account
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Brendan Gaughan will kick off his 23rd and final season of NASCAR racing in the 62nd Daytona 500 for Beard Motorsports.

Gaughan – who is using the hashtag #NotGaughanYet to symbolize his final season — will drive the No. 62 Chevrolet at Daytona. If he qualifies, it will be his fifth time in the 500 field, with his best finish coming in 2017 when he finished 11th.

The 44-year-old Gaughan is slated to drive four races this season in NASCAR Cup for Beard Motorsports. In addition to the Daytona 500, he’ll also race April 26 at Talladega Superspeedway, August 29 back at Daytona and will make the final start of his racing career on October 4 back at Talladega.

The Las Vegas native has made 12 previous starts for Beard Motorsports, all at either Daytona and Talladega.

“I love racing, and competing with Beard Motorsports these last few years have made for some of my most enjoyable moments in NASCAR,” Gaughan said in a media release. “We do a lot with a little, so when we run up front and lead laps, it’s very satisfying because you know all the work that went into it.”

Last April, Gaughan led five laps at Talladega and gave Beard Motorsports its second top-10 finish in the Cup Series, finishing eighth. Gaughan also finished seventh at Daytona for Beard Motorsports in July 2017.

“I wouldn’t want my last races as a NASCAR driver to be with any other team,” Gaughan said. “(Team owner) Mark Beard Sr., and his entire family are passionate about racing, and NASCAR in particular. We’re all competitive and want to perform, but we’re going to have fun doing it. That’s how we all got started in the sport – because it was fun. And as I wrap up my career, I’m going to make sure it stays fun.”

Gaughan has made 62 prior starts in the Cup Series dating back to his rookie season in 2004, when he earned his best career finish in the series (fourth at Talladega).

He also has made 219 starts in the Xfinity Series with two wins, and 217 starts in the Gander RV and Outdoors Truck Series with eight wins.

Gaughan’s effort at Daytona will be in a chassis built by Richard Childress Racing and powered by a motor from ECR Engines. He’ll be sponsored by Beard Oil Distributing, South Point Hotel & Casino and City Lights Shine whiskey moonshine.

He begins his quest to qualify for the 40-car field with Daytona 500 qualifying on February 9. His lap will determine his starting spot in the Feb. 13 Duel – twin 150-mile heat races that set the rest of the field for the Great American Race.

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UniFirst to sponsor Chase Elliott in three Cup Series races this year

Chase Elliott
Hendrick Motorsports
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UniFirst will be a sponsor of Chase Elliott‘s No. 9 Chevrolet in three Cup Series races this year, Hendrick Motorsports announced Monday.

The company will be on Elliott’s car at Phoenix Raceway (March 8), the All-Star Race (May 16) and the playoff race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (Sept. 27).

A work clothing and uniform supplier, UniFirst has been a Hendrick Motorsports sponsor since 2016. It sponsored William Byron in four races in 2018 and three last year.

UniFirst also will be featured as an associate sponsor for all races in 2020.