Fact Friday 195 - The History of Thunder Road

Fact Friday 195 - The History of Thunder Road

Happy Friday!

When the park opened in 1973, Carowinds was able to showcase the Carolinas with seven themed areas evoking the heritage and history of the region. Opening attractions included a Monorail, a SkyRide, the Powder Keg log flume, Carolina Sternwheeler paddleboat, Double-Decker Carousel, several flat rides and the Carolina Railroad. Three of the park’s opening attractions, the Carolina Skytower, then known as the Ionosphere Tower, Shortline Railroad, now known as Snoopy’s Junction, and Carolina Goldrusher mine train roller coaster, are still in operation today.

Carowinds from the Air in 1973.

Unfortunately for the original owner, Charlotte-area business man Earl Patterson Hall, Carowinds opened during the Middle East Oil Crisis and OPEC Embargo of the early 1970’s. After operating the park for the 1973 and 1974 seasons, Hall sold the park to Family Leisure Centers Inc. (FLC), an Ohio-based joint venture of Taft Broadcasting and the Kroger Company. At the time, FLC also owned Kings Island in Ohio, which opened in 1972. Taft Broadcasting brought new life to the park with their Hanna-Barbera characters, coupled with the inclusion of several rides aimed to appeal to younger guests. Carowinds added its second roller coaster, and first wooden coaster, with the addition of Scooby-Doo in 1975.

In 1976, Carowinds opened Thunder Road, a Philadelphia Toboggan Company “racing” wooden coaster, designed by Curtis D. Summers. It was Carowinds’ largest and most expensive ride built in the park’s short three years of existence. The coaster featured over half a million board feet of treated wood, 5500 gallons of paint, and 60-70 tons of nails, bolts and track. The $1.6 Million cost of the coaster in 1976 would roughly translate to nearly $6.7 million today. Thunder Road’s original paint job featured a red, white and blue color scheme.



Built at a cost of $1.6 million, Thunder Road was an all wood racing coaster that opened to the public on April 3, 1976. It opened in what would 3 years later become the County Fair section of the park. A quick history lesson here. The name Thunder Road was taken from the 1958 Robert Mitchum movie depicting moonshining in the Carolina mountains. Route 9, going north from Atlanta, was nicknamed Thunder Road during the prohibition when bootleggers with souped up car engines would race to outrun the law & revenuers.

These photos display the original 32-seat rolling stock that operated on it between the 1976 & 1980 seasons. Two trains were purchased (one for each side) from Chicago's world famous Riverview Park's, Jetstream Coaster after that park closed in 1967. The front ends of the trains were modified to depict the Outlaw (yellow) & Sheriff (blue) as depicted in the lower photos above. The top photos show the trains with the original V-shaped front end, as it looked at Riverview Park.

The trains were particularly heavy, causing major stress on the wooden track over the years. Eventually, one 4-seat car was removed from eachtrain to help reduce track stress (top, right photo). Ironically, this also reduced hourly capacity for the popular coaster. To remedy this, Carowinds eventually bought 4 new matching trains from PTC in 1981 to increase rider capacity and the old Riverview trains were said to be scrapped. A very sad ending with unfortnuate foresight. Many enthusiasts would love to have preserved these classic coaster trains.

Thunder Road took it's last riders on July 26, 2015. Carowinds management decided to retire the 39 year old coaster in favor of a large water park expansion, announced in late August, 2015. The coaster still had many fans and the announcement about its removal didn't sit well with many. There were numerous "SAVE THUNDER ROAD" petitions and Facebook pages created to help save this iconic ride to no avail. The announcement caused quite a stir with the media and the ole woody got its share of air play in the final days of its existence. From a popularity standpoint, this is likely the biggest loss in Carowinds history.

Many may remember this cartoon advertisment that was used to promote the opening of Thunder Road in 1976.

This rare photo shows a worker replacing the original front end of the Thunder Road train with the modified version shaped like a car. It was a short-lived venture. Apparently, they had a hard time keeping these new fronts properly secured and the original fronts were eventually put back on the trains as seen in the photo on the right.

The “back stretch” of Thunder Road.


Until next week!


Email me at chris@704shop.com if you have interesting Charlotte facts you’d like to share or just to provide feedback!

Information taken from:

https://www.coaster101.com - "A History of Carowinds' Thunder Road"




“We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and the future.” – Frederick Douglass

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