Directors: William F. McGaha, William T. Naud
Something Weird Video/Image Entertainment

If you lived in the Carolinas, Alabama, Texas, Georgia, Florida, or any state in-between in the 60s, chances are you attended a car race at some point in your life. This distinctly Southern past time also served as the fuel behind a series of racing films in the late 1960s, labeled “speedsploitation” and none of which have really aged that well. The best of them, PIT STOP, was made by Jack Hill, a director with no interest in the sport, and has lasting value because it was really a well-developed story about loyalty and ambition with the speedway used as a setting, not a character. Paired here are two long-forgotten regional rarities celebrating the popularity of racecar driving in the Deep South. You can almost smell the pit beef cooking at the concession stand watching these two!

Smarmy hot shot Scott Clayton is the son of Ben, the head mechanic of Fred Lorenzen, the top race car champ in the South, and is tired of living in the shadow of Fred and his father. After non-stop bitching and whining about how much he wants to be a racer, Scott approaches Vanessa Hamilton, a red-haired vixen who manages a competing racing team. But this femme fatale is more interested in landing Fred and Ben, so tells Scott that if he can convince them to join her team, she’ll give him a chance. To ensure that Scott follows through with his scheme, Vanessa sets him up with Pinkerton Bentley, a satyr-like millionaire who looks like Paul Bartel and keeps Scott up to his neck in beautiful ladies with big hair and a penchant for go-go dancing.

SPEED LOVERS is what Southern drive-in films are all about: rock music, gorgeous gals, wooden acting, and plenty of stock footage. However, it’s not a shining example of what the region could offer in cheap, lousy thrills, and is actually pretty boring. The threadbare plot serves as a clothesline to hang lengthy dancing sequences, interminably long dialogue scenes that bear no purpose, and of course two complete races book-ending the film at the kick-off and finale of the picture. While reviews of the film have said the racing scenes are made up of stock footage, it’s entirely possible that co-writer and second unit director Fred T. Tuch shot them. Whoever is responsible for the footage, it’s not too terribly exciting and sticks out like a sore thumb because of the rough film stock used. SPEED LOVERS is capably shot by Joe Shelton and is a pretty colorful film (“Filmed in Speedcolor”), with lots of bright costumes and sunny outdoor photography, and features some surprising split-screen phone conversations. You can blame one man for delivering this ridiculous time capsule to the big screen: William F. McGaha, who not only co-wrote, directed, and produced, but also stars as Scott, the whiny, rambunctious upstart. Not only is McGaha way too old to be playing a “punk kid”, as he’s called throughout the film, but looks really goofy trying to dance with big-wigged beauties and delivering the hambone dialogue he wrote himself! And of course he gets to kiss lots of pretty girls. McGaha would once again do a one-man show in 1972 with J.C., casting himself as Jesus Christ reborn. Did this guy think a lot of himself or what?! Fred Lorenzen, playing himself, actually does a better job handling his dialogue than any other actor in the film, and he’s no actor! That should give you an idea of how capable the performances are (i.e., not very).

In a film overflowing with reasons not to watch it, the best moments are musical. Billy Lee Riley, famous for the excellent 50s rock hit “Red Hot” (last heard in John Waters’ A DIRTY SHAME), performs the film’s theme song, “Speed Lovers” and another song, “A Girl I Know”, but at this point in his career, was trying to sound like Johnny Rivers and not the vocal chords-ripping rocker of years past. In a recent interview, Riley mentions that McGaha also put up money for him to produce a live album, “Southern Soul”, performed at the Brave-Falcon Club in Atlanta and featuring the songs performed in the film! Better than Billy Lee Riley is the garage band that sings two original songs, Randy Little and the Holidays (“A Living Doll” and “You Love Everybody”). The rock soundtrack is pretty much wall-to-wall throughout the running time, and for this reviewer, remains the only reason to watch this one in the first place. If you’re looking for an exciting speedsploitation sleaze classic, be warned that while SPEED LOVERS has great Southern-fried atmosphere and a fine soundtrack, it’s a fairly average outing that meanders off the track too often to be truly entertaining.

Much, much better is THUNDER IN DIXIE, a black-and-white melodrama in the same vein as PIT STOP. Best friends and fellow stock car drivers Ticker Welsh and Mickey Arnold are torn apart by a nasty accident that takes the life of Ticker’s fiancée, Edna. The two men become bitter rivals, with Mickey’s sympathetic wife Lily and Karen, a barfly floozy enamored with Ticker, caught in the middle. The ultimate showdown takes place on the racetrack, with Ticker and Mickey both determined to win, and willing to kill the other to take home the victory!

Like SPEED LOVERS, THUNDER IN DIXIE was shot in Atlanta, but unlike the gaudy, cheesy excess displayed in McGaha’s drive-in sleaze opus, DIXIE director William T. Naud has created here a minor masterpiece in the world of exploitation. It could easily compete in the field with PIT STOP for greatest speedsploitation film ever! This is a hard film to sell on description alone, but if you like your exploitation to be intelligent, with professional production values surpassing the meager budget, THUNDER IN DIXIE delivers in spades. The story of two friends at odds with one another after one mistake destroys both their lives is a compelling one, and is exceptionally acted by the four leads. Harry Millard as the hotheaded Mickey and Mike Bradford as the vengeance-minded Ticker play off each other well, and offer an excellent contrast in character study. But more interesting are the two female leads. Judy Lewis is the daughter of Clark Gable and Loretta Young, and closely resembles her mother throughout the film. As Lily, she is torn between the affection she feels for Ticker and the fear she has for the life of husband Mickey, who fails to realize his days are numbered if he races against the bitter, angry Ticker. Nancy Berg is introduced as a steamy femme fatale, but her character’s backstory is tragic; a racecar driver’s wife herself, her husband perished in a car explosion, leaving her to cruise the local bars for down-on-their-luck racers to spend her nights with. She sees a vulnerability and sadness in Ticker that she shares with him, and attaches herself to him easily. A pretty darn brilliant film about a friendship stained with blood and strained to its capacity, THUNDER IN DIXIE gets my highest recommendation, and is the real reason to consider picking this disc up!

Both films are taken from the best possible elements (SPEED LOVERS from a 35mm print, THUNDER IN DIXIE from the original negative), and look excellent! LOVERS’ bold color photography is scrumptious, with no grain or defects present except during the grainy-looking racing footage. DIXIE isn’t as crisp as one would expect from a negative transfer, but there’s only mild dirt and debris during reel changes and is generally a clean and bright presentation. SPEED LOVERS sounds great, with the music and dialogue at a decent level. But THUNDER’s audio mix suffers from low audio levels during the original recording in 1964, so crank the volume to hear the dialogue; the sound effects and music come through clear, though.

Extras kick off with a collection of speedsploitation trailers to unleash more rip-roarin’, wheels-spinnin’ excitement across the screen! The theatrical trailer for SPEED LOVERS and two TV spots for THUNDER IN DIXIE precede previews for further rare regional racing rarities! RACERS FROM HELL is an exciting preview, with lots of hyperbole (“WARNING! The RACERS FROM HELL are coming!”) and nifty art like a skull screaming from inside a helmet. I bet the film isn’t so hot, though. RED HOT WHEELS stars Clark Gable as a racer lusted after by Barbara Stanwyck. Both actors are too old for their roles, especially Gable. ROAD OF DEATH is an odd choice to include here, as it’s a sexploitation film from the 70s featuring a rowdy gang of bikers harassing a couple hippies, including blonde porn starlet Carol Connors! The trailer has lots of wild fistfights, loud motorcycles, girls being slapped and beaten, and cornball dialogue! A must-see! ROAD RACERS seems pretty straightforward: a cocky racer with a mechanic father finds love and danger on the speedway. This 50s drive-in teen flick is from AIP. ROAD REBELS features music from PLAN 9 (!) as two packs of teens play chicken on a deserted country road. With a geeky local teen band, an exotic dancer, “three new talents: Bernie Ross, Julie Francis, Wm. Hook” (remember them?), more great library music familiar from MUNDO DEPRAVADOS, and teens dancing at the local malt shop. This looks like an amazing find I’m anxious to watch! THE YOUNG RACERS, produced by Roger Corman and shot in beautiful color, stars Mark Damon and Luana Anders! It’s another story of rival racers fighting it out on the racetrack, with Ms. Anders thrown in-between them. A supporting cast of international beauties like Margrete Robsahn, Beatrice Altarbariba, Christina Gregg, and Marie Versini probably made for good publicity.

Ready for some truly bizarre short subjects? In keeping with the car theme of the disc, witness “The Talking Car”, a kooky kiddie classroom short that might have been enchanting to 5th-graders in 1959. Not so today! A boy and a girl are taught by a talking car with animated eyes and mouth to take an extra long time crossing the street. Why be cautious when you can be paranoid instead?! The car’s so creepy he scares the kids’ dog away! The Scope-photographed widescreen “Driveavision” short “Split-Second Decisions” is like a travelogue, with the entire piece taking place from the camera’s POV as you exit from a parking garage and drive through the city, being careful to watch for pedestrians and other drivers. This is a unique film, produced by Aetna Life Insurance, and features great time capsule Americana footage circa 1966 of regular people, gas stations and other businesses, and the cars, my God, the cars! A glamour girl short, “Hot Rod Girls”, features a trio of lovely 50s gals in a gorgeous convertible with car trouble. The Gallery of Exploitation Art with Audio Oddities closes the disc beautifully. (Casey Scott)