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15 Fast Facts About Days of Thunder

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Days of Thunder was many people's first exposure to the high-octane, left-turning world of NASCAR. The 1990 Tom Cruise vehicle reunited him with his Top Gun director and producers, and for that reason was nicknamed Top Car during the pre-production stage. It failed to deliver the sizable audience or inspire the fervent devotion that Top Gun had, but Days of Thunder remains a minor cult favorite today among Cruise aficionados and racing enthusiasts. Here are some things you might not have known about everyone's favorite NASCAR movie (non-comedy division). 

1. TOM CRUISE'S CHARACTER, COLE TRICKLE, WAS LOOSELY INSPIRED BY A REAL NASCAR DRIVER—AND IT WASN'T DICK TRICKLE.

It was Tim Richmond, a fiery, hard-partying, ladies' man of a NASCAR driver who died of AIDS in 1989. There was a driver named Dick Trickle, who made his NASCAR debut in 1989 and won the Winston Cup Rookie of the Year award at the record-setting age of 48, but apart from the last name, he had nothing in common with Cruise's flashy playboy.

2. THIS IS WHERE TOM CRUISE AND NICOLE KIDMAN MET. 

It was the Aussie actress’ first American film. She and Cruise started dating while the movie was being shot, and were married on Christmas Eve 1990, six months after the film's release.

3. IT'S ALSO WHERE DIRECTOR TONY SCOTT MET HIS WIFE, A "PIT GIRL" ORIGINALLY PICKED UP BY PRODUCER DON SIMPSON.

Among Simpson's many excesses was making screenwriter Robert Towne write in a small role for Simpson's new girlfriend, an actress named Donna Wilson. She had only one line, but it was enough of an excuse for Simpson to bring her to Daytona for the entire shoot. While there, the relationship ended because of Simpson's Herculean drug use, and Wilson ended up with the director. She and Scott married in 1994 and were together until his death in 2012. 

4. THE FILM DIDN'T FINISH SHOOTING UNTIL ABOUT SIX WEEKS BEFORE IT HIT THEATERS.

That's an unusually short post-production schedule for such a big-budget, tech-heavy film, but shooting delays left Paramount with little choice. Producers Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer (more on them later) were constantly micromanaging Scott and Towne, and arguing with each other about every little thing. The shoot went more than three months over schedule, finally ending in early May. Its original Memorial Day release, where it would have competed with Back to the Future Part III, had to be pushed back to June 27, where it competed with Ghost Dad

5. THAT MELLO YELLO PRODUCT PLACEMENT WAS FOR REAL. 

NASCAR teams are famous for proudly displaying their sponsors' logos on their cars, so it wouldn't make sense to make a NASCAR film without similar decorations on the fictional drivers' vehicles. Naturally, the studio jumped at the chance to make a movie full of product placements that could be justified by the story. Though Mello Yello is never mentioned by name in the film, its logo appears prominently on Cole Trickle's car, and a TV commercial tying the soda to NASCAR and Days of Thunder aired in summer 1990. The next year, actual NASCAR racer Kyle Petty started driving a Mello Yello car, and did so for four years. As expected, Mello Yello's sales surged in the mid-90s.

6. AS WITH SO MANY THINGS, WE CAN THANK PAUL NEWMAN FOR THE FILM’S EXISTENCE.

The legendary actor and part-time racer shared his enthusiasm for motorsports with Tom Cruise when they made The Color of Money together. The two were then introduced to NASCAR team owner Rick Hendrick (the inspiration for Randy Quaid's character), who let budding racing enthusiast Cruise drive a stock car himself. Cruise's reaction after taking a car around the track at 175 mph: “Hey, we gotta make a movie about this!” 

7. THE SCREENPLAY WAS WRITTEN BY AN OSCAR-WINNER, AFTER ANOTHER OSCAR-WINNER TOOK A SWING AT IT.

Robert Towne, author of Chinatown, is whom Cruise eventually recruited to flesh out his basic story idea. Before that though, two other screenwriters attempted it: Warren Skaaren (who'd written Beetlejuice and Batman), and Donald Stewart, a car aficionado who'd won an Academy Award for Missing and would go on to co-write the first three Jack Ryan movies.

8. BUT IT WASN'T WRITTEN IN A TIMELY MANNER, AND TOWNE PROBABLY WOULD NOT HOLD IT UP AS THE BEST EXAMPLE OF HIS CRAFTSMANSHIP.

In addition to all the other production problems, Cruise was consistently unhappy with the script, which 1) wasn't done yet when they started shooting, and 2) kept needing rewrites. Actors would be given new pages of dialogue immediately before filming—or even during. According to Don Simpson's biographer Charles Fleming, “For a while, Cruise read new lines off the dashboard of his speeding stock car, until keeping his eyes off the road caused him to crash. After that, Cruise listened to new lines as Towne dictated through a headset.” 

9. THE PRODUCERS TURNED THE DAYTONA, FLORIDA SET INTO THEIR OWN SPRING BREAK PARTY.

Allegedly. Allegedly. The production delays caused by Simpson and Bruckheimer's incessant creative involvement (to be fair, there were weather issues, too) meant everyone had a lot of downtime. According to one crew member, the producers’ “main concern [was] getting laid.” They—mostly Simpson, a notorious party animal—spent studio money to build a private gym at the hotel where they were staying, with a neon sign alerting nearby beachgoers to the movie’s (and thus Tom Cruise’s) presence. They bought out a local club for a party for the cast and crew, who were mostly men, and invited beach girls and hookers to fill out the ranks. By most accounts, Bruckheimer was the one who got the work done, while Simpson partied, slept, and caroused.

10. SIMPSON THE PRODUCER WANTED TO BE SIMPSON THE MOVIE STAR, AND MADE TOWNE WRITE A PART FOR HIM IN THE MOVIE.

Simpson fancied himself an actor, and even went around telling people he had uncredited cameos in his and Bruckheimer's movies, which was untrue. He made it happen in Days of Thunder though, getting Towne to write a four-page scene where Simpson, as a driver named Aldo Bennedetti (think Mario Andretti), would interact with Cruise and Robert Duvall. Film editor Billy Weber, who was on-set the whole time, said Simpson's acting was “painful.”  “It was clear to Tony [Scott] and to Towne and to Don that his scenes just weren't working … It was unusable." Another on-set source said it was Cruise who objected to the scene, which was unnecessary and would only exacerbate the film's schedule problems. Eventually Simpson's part was whittled down to one line, Aldo telling an ESPN reporter, “I'm glad he's well enough to come back, and I hope I beat him, at the same time.”

11. THE FILM (AND ITS DISAPPOINTING BOX OFFICE) HELPED USHER IN A NEW ERA OF FISCAL RESTRAINT IN HOLLYWOOD.

The '80s were marked by studios giving producers a lot of money to crank out whatever populist entertainment they could. By the end of the decade, production costs were spiraling upward at an alarming rate. When Days of Thunder's budget ballooned from about $35 million to something like $70 million (reports vary, and Hollywood accounting is notoriously secretive and unreliable), execs at Paramount got nervous. When the film's box office barely covered its production, marketing, and distribution costs, they got serious, severing the five-year deal with Simpson and Bruckheimer that they'd inked less than a year earlier. (The duo's previous films, including Flashdance, Beverly Hills Cop, and Top Gun, had been cash cows, but enough was enough.) The producers landed on their feet elsewhere and went on to make The Ref, Bad Boys, Crimson Tide, Dangerous Minds, and The Rock before Simpson's death in 1996.

12. AS YOU'D EXPECT, THE RACING SCENES WERE FILMED WITH THE CARS GOING MUCH SLOWER THAN THEY USUALLY WOULD: ONLY 120 MPH.

That's down from the 200 miles per hour those cars would do in a real race. And still, even at a reduced speed, the work was dangerous. Tony Scott told The New York Times, "There's a major crash in the middle of the movie at speeds of 120 to 140 miles an hour manned by stunt drivers. Things happen to metal at 140 miles an hour that don't happen at 60 miles an hour." Despite that, Scott boasted that the total on-set injuries for the entire production only added up to 13 stitches.

13. TOM CRUISE'S INEXPERIENCE WITH STOCK CARS DESTROYED A $100,000 CAMERA.

Early in the shoot, NASCAR driver Hut Stricklin, hired as a consultant and stunt driver, told Cruise that stock cars are built to turn left. "He didn't really know what I was talking about," Stricklin later recalled. Cruise figured it out soon enough when he turned left without trouble, then tried going back to the right and spun out. The car grazed a track wall, destroying an expensive camera that had been attached to the right side of the vehicle. "[He] understood then," Stricklin said. "Too bad he had to kill a $100,000 camera." (By the way, Stricklin said he got paid more for the Days of Thunder job—for which he was a contractor, not even mentioned in the credits—than he “ever thought about making driving.”)

14. IT WOULDN'T HAVE HAPPENED WITHOUT NASCAR'S SUPPORT.

The National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing truly has national popularity now, but in 1990, it was mostly a regional thing, big in the Southeast quadrant of the U.S. and small everywhere else. Simpson and Bruckheimer needed NASCAR's full cooperation if the film was to be authentic, and the association's president, Bill France Jr., was noncommittal at first. He got onboard when Simpson convinced him that the film would show the public that NASCAR was a high-tech, professional sport. From then on, NASCAR's support was full and unconditional, even allowing producers to enter movie cars in the real Winston Cup (now Sprint Cup Series) races, including the 1990 Daytona 500.

15. THE SCENE WHERE NASCAR BOSS BIG JOHN THREATENS TO FIRE TRICKLE AND BURNS IF THEY BUMP EACH OTHER ON THE TRACK AGAIN—THEN FORCES THEM TO DRIVE TO DINNER TOGETHER—WAS BASED ON A REAL INCIDENT WITH GEOFF BODINE AND DALE EARNHARDT. 

Bodine and Earnhardt did not, however, destroy two rental cars in the process. But such shenanigans were attributed to 1950s racers Curtis Turner and Joe Weatherly, who were the Cole Trickles of their day.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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