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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."