When NASCAR heads to Southern California for its annual 400-miler at the Auto Club Speedway, references to the track's proximity to Hollywood are thrown around at an almost-nauseating pace (though nothing compared to the Las Vegas race weekend that will leave a fan literally ill by the time all is said and done).
Stock car racing has "gone Hollywood" on a few occasions, with a handful of movies depicting our favorite sport. Two in particular stand out, however, thanks to their storyline and the fact that the Coca-Cola Company was prominently featured in both.
"The Last American Hero," based off and named for the Tom Wolfe essay on the life of Junior Johnson, was released in 1973 and remains perhaps the best stock car racing movie to date. It stars Jeff Bridges as Elroy "Junior" Jackson, with a cast that also included Gary Busey, Ned Beatty, and Art Lund. Singer-songwriter Jim Croce's wonderful "I Got a Name" served as the soundtrack for a film that was released less than two months before his death in a plane crash.
In the film's climactic race at Martinsville, Bridges' character pilot's a red-and-gold No. 12 Coca-Cola Chevrolet. At the time of the movie's filming, the real-life Coke Machine was driven in 1972 by longtime Coca-Cola man Bobby Allison, owned by Richard Howard, and tuned by Junior Johnson himself, making it the obvious choice for the protagonist's run for glory. Allison won 10 races in the car and finished second in the standings. He split with Howard and Johnson after the 1972 season, taking the Coke sponsorship with him and running his own car in 1973. As another trivia aside, the Howard/Johnson team eventually became the six-time championship-winning Junior Johnson & Associates.
Nearly 20 years later, in 1990, Coca-Cola returned to the big screen with its Mello Yello brand in the Paramount Pictures blockbuster "Days of Thunder." Based loosley upon the relationship between legendary crew chief Harry Hyde and flamboyant superstar Tim Richmond, the Tony Scott-directed Jerry Bruckheimer/Don Simpson production starred Tom Cruise as open-wheel ace-turned-stock car rookie Cole Trickle. Robert Duvall played the role of crew chief Harry Hogge and, as is the case with most of his films, stole the show. The rest of the primary cast included Randy Quaid, Michael Rooker, Cary Elwes, Nicole Kidman, and Nicole Kidman's left leg.
Early on in the film, Cole is tormented by Rooker's Rowdy Burns, a veteran who relishes pulling Cole's chain as he struggles to learn the bigger, heavier stock cars. Once he figures them out and starts winning races, their rivalry really heats up. It finally boils over at the July race in Daytona when, in their effort to beat one another, they speed into the scene of a multi-car accident. Burns hits oil and spins into Trickle's path, and the devastating impact sends Trickle flipping end-over-end. As the film moves on, we learn that Burns has suffered a brain hemorrhage that ends his racing career. He loses his sponsor (Exxon oil) and needs a driver for the Daytona 500. He picks Cole, who reluctantly agrees and "get's the band back together" with Harry and the rest of his team, which had been fired after the season. Burns' No. 51 Chevrolet adopts a black and green Mello Yello paint scheme, and after an excessively Hollywooded-up, over-the-top, "Slam-bam-Thank-you-ma'am" duel with Elwes' Russ Wheeler, Cole wins and everyone - with the exception of Wheeler, one of the most-irritating antagonists in racing film history - ends up happy.
Mello Yello's involvement in the film coincided with Coca-Cola's desire to market the brand known as "The Original Smooth" with a Winston Cup team beginning in 1991. At the time of the movie's release, they were close to finalizing a deal with Darrell Waltrip to be the primary sponsor of the new team he was starting in '91. Just over a week after the film came out, though, DW broke his leg in a practice crash for the July Daytona event (the same event depicted as featuring the horrendous Trickle/Burns spill in the movie). According to Waltrip's 2004 book "DW," Coke decided they didn't want a driver with a broken leg and went with their second choice, Team Sabco and driver Kyle Petty. For the next four years, the No. 42 Pontiac carried the same black-and-green paint job used on the movie car, though that vehicle was a Chevrolet Lumina. Ironically enough, Petty himself broke his own leg in the ninth race of the relationship in a multi-car wreck at Talladega in May 1991. Totalled, he scored four of his eight Cup wins in the Mello Yello Pontiac and finished a career-best fifth in points in 1992 and 1993.
With the 40th anniversary of "The Last American Hero" passing last year and "Days of Thunder's" 25th birthday looming not too far away in the windshield (feeling old yet?), maybe it is high-time that Coca-Cola and NASCAR reunited on the big screen once more.