Thunder in Carolina
Three weeks of Darlington excitement, a lifetime of fun memories
By LIBBY WIERSEMA
Whenever stockcar drivers converge to test their pedal mettle, thunder is bound to follow. But first, there is always lightning which, contrary to popular belief, sometimes strikes again. Metaphorically speaking, electrifying bolts of the Hollywood variety have been repeats in this region, though decades apart. Nearly 30 years before “Days of the Thunder” brought Tom Cruise to Darlington and garnered him a speeding ticket, the skies above the storied racetrack cracked open with a bang when film crews showed up to shoot the movie, “Thunder in Carolina.” The sonic rumble it caused might have faded over time, but the memories are still alive, tucked away yet cherished by locals who, as youngsters, were swept up in one of the most exciting times ever in the town of Darlington.
In June 1959, the Florence Morning News broke the story that a script was under review for a Hollywood movie to be filmed in Darlington. The budget was said to be a cool $2 million and Howco, “distributors of Bridget Bardot films,” would market it. Negotiations by the parties involved resulted in the charter of Darlington Films, Inc., which would represent the interests of the raceway. The raceway and its stockholders would receive a portion of profits, and 30,000 shares of stock in the newly chartered film company were offered to “bonafide residents of the state of South Carolina” for $10 apiece. J. Francis White would produce and Paul Helmick, a well-known Hollywood assistant director, would direct.
Given the working title, “The Southern 500,” the film pivoted around the running of the 1959 race and features vintage footage. While Daytona was still in its early days, Darlington’s Southern 500 had been around nearly 10 years by then, and with much success. The allure for racing fans was irresistible – something moviemakers hoped to cash in on.
Based upon the life of racer, Buddy Shuman, who died in a fire in 1956, “Thunder in Carolina” went into production the Friday prior to the 1959 Labor Day race and would culminate roughly three weeks later. The cast and crew totaled 165 and shooting was based in Darlington with some opening scenes shot at the now-defunct Hartsville Speedway.
Prior to its 1960 release, Universal backed out on its $250,000 offer for the distribution rights to “Thunder in Carolina.” This came on the heels of a strike by the Screen Actors Guild, led by the group’s president, Ronald Reagan. Film productions were stopped in their tracks and motion pictures available for theatrical release were severely limited. This made it all the easier for Darlington Films to retain control of their pet project’s distribution. Whether their efforts would pay off in profits remained to be seen.
The year was 1959 and stockcar racing was hitting its stride. Hollywood actor, Rory Calhoun, was on the scene to set the bar for future acting action at the raceway. Rugged and blue-eyed, with a sexy Dean Martin-esque pompadour, Calhoun was all salt and swagger as he revved engines for his portrayal of stockcar champ, Mitch Cooper. A rogue with an injured leg and heart of gold, he mentors mechanic Les York (John Gentry) while also attempting to drive a trackside romance with his protégé’s comely wife, Rene (Connie Hines). By all accounts, the ladies of Darlington swooned in Calhoun’s presence. He even brought some of them to tears.
“I remember Rory Calhoun coming into Diamond Hill Plywood where my mother worked,” said Brenda Hayes Tiller, a timid 6-year-old at the time. “He seemed so tall to me. When he tried to pick me up, I got scared and started crying. My daddy had to take me from him.”
Alan Hale, who would later find fame as the Skipper on “Gilligan’s Island,” was cast as a pit crew mechanic with one good arm. Cecil Chandler, who was already showing investigative skills at 11-years-old, recognized an opportunity to talk up the stars.
“I went down to the Darlington Restaurant where I saw Alan Hale and Connie Hines. Mr. Hale was real nice. In fact, he told me he liked my black hair and he messed it up.”
For Hines, whose best-known role would be playing the wife on “Mr. Ed,” this would be her one and only feature film. The boys in town all clamored to get a look at the blonde-haired beauty, and she thrilled many of them by gladly giving autographs. Some admirers, however, got burned.
“They were shooting a scene on North Main Street,” recalled Edward Howard, who turned 10 that year. “I rode my bicycle there hoping to see some of the actors. Connie Hines was there and several of us kids saw her and asked her if we could get her autograph. She obliged and, as she was signing an autograph for me, her cigarette accidentally burned me on my hand …”
Though she was quite apologetic, the moment is forever seared into his memory.
When it came to extras, whether for racing scenes or bit parts, there was no shortage of enthusiasm among Darlingtonians. Not only did they watch the filming from yards and parking lots, but they eagerly filled the stands of Darlington Raceway when crowds were needed. Some of the schools gave early dismissal so students could take some seats and watch the action.
Stephen Legette, a Darlington native now living in Savannah, remembers both of his parents serving as extras, his mother assigned to the raceway stands while his father worked in the pit. Several locals were chosen for speaking bit parts, too, including Billie Ann Langston, a Mullins beauty queen who was tapped to play flirty Southern girl, “Peaches.” Langston went on to study film at UNC-Greensboro and was an artist living in Charlotte at the time of her death in 2019.
But perhaps the most memorable of the local talent was Van Casey, a Hartsville High School student who stumbled upon the role of pit crew flunky, “Stoogie,” when he and some pals decided to kick around near the movie set one day. As the story goes, producer White noticed the lanky, freckled teen and knew instantly he had found his guy. While Casey (born Zebulon Vance Casey III) was the clueless comic foil in the film, his real-life story is no joke and far more interesting than his brush with Hollywood. After joining the Marines and serving in Vietnam, he settled in Philadelphia where he juggled marriage, kids, and a job as a city police officer – all while earning a degree from LaSalle University. After graduation, he continued with the department, taught criminal justice part-time, went on to earn a master’s degree, and became an advocate for higher education, encouraging fellow officers to complete their own degrees. As a police sergeant in the Internal Affairs Division, he built a reputation as a relentless tracker of criminals and defender of civil rights. His career and persona were so distinguished, that he inspired the “Badge of Honor” series of crime novels by writer W.E.B. Griffin. When a heart attack claimed him at the age of 58 in 1998, he was widely eulogized as “not your average cop.” It seems he wasn’t your average human, either – not bad for a former Darlington County kid.
From the residential neighborhoods to downtown to the racetrack, “Thunder in Carolina” is Darlington-centric. The house and garage on N. Main Street, known by locals as the Swink place, serves in the film as the home of Les and Rene, who allow Cooper to live in their automotive garage. Today, the property is easily recognizable and remains a private residence, though the garage is used for storage instead of car repairs.
Darlington Motel figures prominently in the film, as well. Behind one of its doors, Calhoun and Hines finally surrender – momentarily – to their pent-up romantic tension. It was also the locale of a “special effects” rain sequence that required assistance from the Darlington Fire Department.
“My father was captain of the fire department,” remembered John Dawkins, Jr., a high school student at the time, who now lives in Tennessee. “I watched from across the street as he set up water nozzles in front of the cameras and shot water up into the air to create the rain.”
Actors and crew not only filmed at the motel, but were guests there, too. Larry Stegall, a former Darlington resident now living in Dalzell, remembers going there with friends to seek an autograph.
“Rory Calhoun was sitting in a lawn chair outside his room at Darlington Motel,” he recalled. “He was a very gentle man and patient with our questions. If I remember correctly, he had some pictures of himself and autographed one for me. He stayed outside his room talking to us for a while – a Hollywood movie star talking to a few country boys! Oh yeah, he made a heck of an impression.”
While a lot about the motel looks the same, it wears more than a few of the 61 years that have passed since it was a hub of respite for movie stars.
In one of the most iconic pieces of footage, the Darlington Square takes centerstage as the Southern 500 parade takes off, led by the U.S. Marine Band. Floats, flags, spectators, beauty queens, and clown cars are in full force as it wends its way through the square and down Pearl Street. Bill Fleming, past president/CEO of Marlboro Electric Cooperative, was enjoying the festivities that day when the film crew asked to borrow his bicycle. He obliged and, in return, can relive the nostalgia whenever he spies his old bike in the filmed parade day sequence.
The route passed businesses and landmarks, some of which are still standing and some that are fond memories. The revelry does not skip a beat, however, as it moves past the familiar Victorian façade of a funeral home (the Charles S. McCullough House and current Darlington County Council on Aging) just as the coffin of a recent racing fatality is being lugged down the front steps with the grieving widow looking on. While the intended poignancy of the moment is too contrived for tears, there is no mistaking the ornate balustrade and sweeping veranda of the historic home.
The Florence Elks Club makes a brief appearance as does the Hartsville Speedway. The mountainous area where Calhoun and Gantry try to outrun law enforcement is obviously not lo
cal, but a highway in Wilkesboro, NC that was commonly utilized by drivers for practice runs. But there was one aspect of the film that was off limits for embellishments. As technical director for the film, Darlington Raceway President R.E. Colvin insisted upon a true interpretation of the Southern 500.
The Big Race
The high-octane action that happened during the 1959 race propels this film from a B-movie yawner to a racing cult classic that won the admiration of director, Quentin Tarantino. From a fiery crash at the time trials to the crafty maneuvers and near-misses of the stockcar drivers, the Southern 500 is presented in all its glory thanks to a camera car circling the track during the height of the race – a novel technique at the time. There was even a potential catastrophe, thanks to a near-miss in which driver Bobby Johns came squealing into the pit with no brakes, nearly wiping out some of the cast members. Afterward, according to the Greenville News, Calhoun remarked: “A man could get hurt in this business.”
Indeed, the producers were all in when it came to staying true to Darlington racing traditions. Announcer, Ray Melton, played himself, as did Grand National drivers, Buck Baker, Joe Eubanks, Shep Langdon, Curtis Turner and Joe Weatherly, some of whom acted as stunt drivers. Joe Caspolich, who drove his No. 2 “Paperhanger’s Special” for the City of Florence in that race, made a cameo appearance along with his distinctive wheels. It was the last time a government entity would claim ownership of a NASCAR vehicle.
Legendary driver, Neil “Soapy” Castle was tapped to be Calhoun’s stunt double after the California stuntmen failed to make the grade. According to NASCAR lore, Soapy was the only one gutsy enough to do the director’s bidding: crashing his car into the rail at the first Darlington turn. While Jim Reed won the real race in a 1959 Chevy Impala, the film’s finish took a dramatic twist and pulled off a surprise ending. No spoilers here, though – you can find “Thunder in Carolina” through streaming services and on CD.
The Finish Line
“Thunder in Carolina” premiered in the Pee Dee on June 7, 1960 before being released to theaters across the Carolinas, then nationwide. It was a grand affair, with sold-out simultaneous showings at 7 and 9 p.m. at the Carolina and Colonial theaters in Florence, the Darlington Theater, and Berry Theater in Hartsville. In Florence, police blocked off Dargan Street in front of the Carolina Theater to make way for a six-vehicle caravan carrying the film’s supporting players, (Calhoun, Hines, and Hale had prior filming obligations) including Joe Weatherly, Neil Castles, Billie Ann Langston, Van Casey, producer Frances White, co-producer, W.D. Tyler, Darlington International Raceway’s President Robert Calvin, and Darlington County Senator James P. Mozingo III. The mangled car from one of the crash scenes was a central prop and intensified the mood of the crowd. The Florence Morning News described a lively evening in which a “herd” of miniature race cars “thundered” in front of the theater. The caravan moved from theater to theater across the Pee Dee that night to herald the long-awaited event. The coordination and marketing of the premiere in Florence was such a rousing success, that the theaters’ manager, Floyd H. Gainous, received a “Showman of the Year” award from a national movie trade publication.
The film was a verifiable hit with local movie-goers. The June 29th edition of Variety magazine advertised “Thunder Roars in Carolina” and announced a first week gross of $271,847 – a record-breaking feat that surprised industry insiders. “We don’t believe it either, but that is what the figures add up to” noted the ad. In the end, however, those gangbuster numbers fizzled out and the film’s financial gains did not live up to the hopes of investors and others involved in its production. Reviews were mixed, but largely chilly, with critics panning the acting and storyline, while praising the realism of the Southern 500 action.
And, in the end, that is all that mattered. The Hollywood elite might have endless fame and fortune, but 92 minutes in the spotlight was plenty of time for the people of Darlington to show off their grandest tradition. And the gratification would last them all the way to 1990, when a second round of Hollywood thunder would sound as yet another dark-haired maverick raced into town with an entourage of movie-makers. But that’s another story …