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The working titles of the film were Jack O'Diamonds and The Whippoorwill. Thunder Road was the first film produced by actor Robert Mitchum's company, D.R.M. Productions. Mitchum co-wrote the song "Whippoorwill" for the movie, which is sung by Keely Smith (wife and partner of popular band leader Louis Prima), who plays "Francie Wymore." Mitchum himself later made a recording of the song, which found mild success on the "pop" radio charts.
According to modern sources, including Mitchum's autobiography, the role of "Robin Doolin" was initially offered to Elvis Presley. Presley's high fee, however, precluded his accepting the role, which then became the feature film debut for James Mitchum, Mitchum's sixteen-year-old son. Thunder Road also marked the motion picture debut of actress Sandra Knight. According to a Hollywood Reporter news item, Robert Mitchum broke his ankle during filming, but resumed work after only a brief hospitalization. According to Hollywood Reporter production information, Larry Scruggs was slated to appear in the film, but his appearance in the finished film has not been confirmed. Thunder Road was shot on location in Asheville, NC.