Cast & Crew
Alan Hale [jr.]
Mitch Cooper, a famed stock car racer, is about to break his recent string of losses when he flips his car, breaking his leg. Out of money, he tows his wrecked car to the garage of his old friend Ben, but there discovers that Ben has died, leaving the garage to young Les York. Employing his trademark charm, Mitch manages to wheedle Les into giving him a job and a room. Les's wife Rene disapproves of Mitch, especially after he tries to flirt with her. As the weeks pass, Mitch and Les repair the car, and when Mitch mentions selling it, Les begs to be allowed to race it. Mitch tries to dissuade him, assuming Les will not prove a skillful enough driver, but finally agrees to test his proficiency. They zoom across the country roads, outracing the local police for fun. Les's driving so impresses Mitch that he agrees to partner with the younger man, who will drive the car and split any winnings. At home that night, Rene confronts Les with the knowledge that he has been spending their savings on Mitch's car. When Les admits that he plans to try out racing, she is terrified that he will be hurt. Soon after, Mitch brings Les to the local dirt racetrack, where his pal Buddy Schaeffer, who lost his arm while racing, now manages the cars of wealthy racing enthusiast Reichert. In his first race, Les wins third place, inspiring him to quit the garage and take up racing full-time. An enraged Rene visits Mitch's room, hoping to convince him to talk Les out of his plans. Despite her heartfelt plea, Mitch informs her that Les is a natural driver with a passion for the sport, and can make his own decisions. Rene retorts that she does not want Les to end up like Mitch, broke and broken inside, but Mitch remains unmoved. In the months that follow, Les wins race after race, traveling throughout the South with Mitch and Rene. Finally, Les is ready for the largest area race, the Southern 500, held every Labor Day in South Carolina at the Darlington International Speedway. The regulars are in attendance, including alcoholic driver Tommy Webb, scarred from a previous accident; his wife Myrtle; and Kay Hill, a race car owner and former lover of Mitch's. Upon overhearing that Rene's motel room is not yet available, Kay befriends her and offers her the use of her room's shower. After warning Rene that Mitch is a playboy, Kay leaves the room, and when Mitch arrives looking for Kay, he is pleased to discover Rene coming out of the shower. Although Rene is increasingly attracted to Mitch, she continues to rebuff his advances. Les is quickly learning the secrets of the track, where eating peanuts is forbidden due to a long-standing superstition and a cooler temperature helps the car's tires stick to the road. After Tommy is killed while driving drunk, Rene grows even more scared for Les, who soon sets a new track record during his qualifying heat. At a party that night, when a drunken Eve Mason flirts with Les, Rene is unimpressed by Mitch's explanation that because Eve's husband died while racing, she now desperately tries to alleviate her loneliness. Later, Mitch counsels Rene to remain patient with Les and tries to clarify his love of the sport, adding that the only element missing for him has been the love of a good woman. At the track the next day, Reichert tries to hire Les away from Mitch, sparking Les's interest despite Mitch's exhortation that the controlling Reichert "puts up the money but takes away the man." Mitch is further annoyed by Reichert after the financier fires his driver for a car malfunction. Reichert hosts a party that evening, and when Rene asks Les to take her out alone, he refuses, insisting that he must please Reichert. In anger, Rene asks Mitch to escort her to the party, where she watches as Eve tries to seduce Les. After Rene throws a drink in Eve's face, Les asks Mitch to take her home. Kay has been watching, however, and now informs Les that he is making a mistake to send his wife home with another man. Assuming she is warning him against Mitch, Les tells Mitch they are no longer partners and drags Rene away. With no one else to drive for him, Mitch enters the time trials himself, only to develop engine trouble. When Buddy tries to help, Reichert forbids him, prompting Buddy to quit and go to work for Mitch. On the day of the race, as the temperature of the track reaches 132 degrees, Rene listens on the radio from the motel room. Les quickly takes first place, while Mitch maneuvers into second place. As Mitch tries to force Les over, Rene, fearful for their lives, rushes to the racetrack. Mitch is forced to pull over to refuel, and although Buddy demands that he withdraw because of a cracked brake drum, Mitch refuses. As Les makes his pit stop, other racers spin out of control, leaving fewer and fewer cars on the track. Les rejoins the race and just as he pulls into the lead, a double accident occurs ahead of him, creating a dangerous pile-up. Mitch is neck and neck with Les, and to save the younger man, deliberately steers his car off the track. In the resulting accident, Mitch once again breaks his leg and is taken to the track hospital as Les wins the trophy. Les hands the trophy to Reichert and rushes to Mitch's side to thank him. Days later, as Mitch and Buddy prepare to leave town, Mitch asks Les if he will see him at the next race. Although Les is unsure, Rene encourages him to follow his dream, and Les happily assures Mitch they will meet him in a few months.
Alan Hale [jr.]
George Rembert Jr.
Rev. Thomas M. Godbold
The Marine Corps Band And Choir
R. E. Colvin
Daniel Decatur Emmett
John K. Keen
Gene F. Martin
J. K. Schipman
W. D. Tyler Jr.
J. Francis White
The film's working title was The Southern 500. After the opening credits, the following written statement appears: "We gratefully acknowledge the cooperation of the Darlington International Raceways, United States Marine Band and the hundreds of officials and individuals for their help and assistance." As noted in contemporary newspaper articles, Thunder in Carolina was financed and produced by a consortium of Darlington, SC theater owners, in order to capitalize on the popularity of "The Southern 500," a local stock car race held every Labor Day. The exhibitors formed the corporation Darlington Films, Inc., headed by Robert Griffin.
A June 1960 Spartanburg Herald-Jounal article stated that the film had been shot in less than a month, mostly in Darlington, during the 1959 race. Portions of the race and the town parade are seen in the film. Technical director R. E. Colvin was the president of Darlington International Speedway. According to the Spartanburg Herald, racecar driver Buck Baker's wife Betty was cast, but her appearance in the final film has not been confirmed. Thunder in Carolina marked the first and only feature film appearance of actress Connie Hines, who is best known for her role in the popular 1960s television series Mister Ed. In his autobiography, director Paul Helmick related the difficulty he had in trying to hire a black actress in South Carolina. Eventually, he hired hotel maid Edith Scott to play the hotel maid.
In March 1960, the Charleston Evening Post quoted raceway press director Russ Catlin as stating that soon after Universal withdrew an offer of $250,000 for the rights to Thunder in Carolina, the Screen Actors Guild strike (7 March-18 April 1960) reduced the amount of films available to exhibitors, making it easier for Darlington Films to distribute the picture themselves.
Reviews were generally tepid, praising the racing scenes but critiquing the dramatic content. According to the Hollywood Citizen-News review, the color quality varied widely, and the Variety reviewer stated: "There is a hollow sound in the dialog, as if it had been filtered through an echo chamber."