This wants so badly to be a good movie, but rather than take a few chances that would have made it decades ahead of its time, Thunder in Carolina falls into the trap of Hollywood clichés. That relegated it to a second-on-the-bill, drive-in flick. Any doubts are dispelled with the credits when the only recognizable actors are Rory Calhoun and Alan Hale. Connie Hines later became famous as television’s Carol Post, but here you’ll quickly see why Mr. Ed got top billing for that.
Calhoun was a genuine bad boy (reform school, federal prison in Springfield, Missouri, and San Quentin, all before he was 21), so he often played to type. Here he’s a rogue with a heart of gold who initially leads a straight-laced young man astray into the world of auto racing. The kid discovers groupies (to his wife’s consternation), and rich, bad guy car owners who want to buy their way into Victory Lane. (Okay, so maybe some things haven’t changed so much after all.) All is neatly wrapped up when Calhoun runs his car off the track to avoid an overturned wreck and opens the way for the other guy to win.
Did we mention this was a fantasy?
The story, as with most B-movies and nearly every racing movie, is superfluous. The reason to watch the DVD is for the racing and the real racers’ cameos. Buck Baker is given a line to speak at a party. Cotton Owen gets a message over the P.A. But if you watch for no other reason, you’ll get to see Joe Weatherly, the only NASCAR driver to lose his life on the track defending his title four years after this film came out. Although not as well-conditioned, Little Joe was Mark Martin-sized, and blessed with a thick and charming Southern accent. Standing next to Calhoun, if you were to guess who would be a two-time champion, you would be forgiven for being wrong.
They tried. They really tried.
They devoted about three minutes just to explaining to Stoogie, who was literally squatting on the pit wall as cars roared by on the track, why peanuts should not be consumed in the pits. Supposedly, it was an eight-car pile-up, four drivers dead, all with peanut shells inside their cars. And if you believe that, you’ll also believe that Calhoun rides off into the sunset with the Skipper—and there’s nary a sign of Gilligan around.
Type of Racing: Stock car
Tracks: Darlington Raceway; also an uncredited dirt track
Reel Racers: Rory Calhoun; Alan Hale; Connie Hines; a hot 1957 Chevy steals, ahem, the thunder.
Real Racers: Joe Weatherly; Buck Baker; Curtis Turner; others; all cameos
Year of Release: 1960
DVD Length: 87 minutes
Approx. On-Track: 23 minutes; 12 minutes of Southern 500
. . . Statistics: 230-horsepower car; $1500 engine; total of $10,000 for the rich man to put car on track; 50 cars in race; 121 mph record at Darlington; and a rookie finishes 3rd on dirt, winning $160.
. . . Cars were impounded after qualifying until race morning. And this was the biggest race of the year at the time. Daytona was an infant, but the Southern 500 was already a decade-long success story.
. . . Racing posters for Pennsylvania tracks. This is supposed to be the Deep South, not just south of New York.
. . . Dead driver is carried out of funeral home in a pine box while a happy, pre-500 parade marches by.
. . . “When they change the rules about women driving, I’ll probably get behind the wheel, too.” –Katie, the eye-candy car owner.