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Eighteen-year-old Louise Blake, a hot rod enthusiast who has just moved to town, meets fellow hotrodders Jim Donaldson and Fred Armstrong after they are chased by a motorcycle policeman for racing on city streets and hide in a garage. Later, at a pizzeria, police lieutenant Bradley reminds the boys and other hot rod owners present that the city has provided a dragstrip for them and warns them not to race on the streets. Jim and Fred become rivals for Louise's affection and when they visit her home, Jim, the son of a bricklayer, impresses her father by showing him the car he designed while Louise's mother is much more interested in Fred because he comes from a prominent, wealthy family. When Jim takes Louise for a ride in his car, she encourages him to speed and he narrowly misses hitting a mother and baby. While out on a date with Fred, Louise learns that he and Jim have always been rivals despite their very different social backgrounds. Jim hopes to acquire a college scholarship by winning an upcoming, officially sanctioned racing tournament, while Fred intends to install an expensive, powerful engine in his car and beat him. Louise tells them both that she does not want to become romantically involved. Later, when Fred accuses Jim of being sympathetic to the police who are now threatening to close the dragstrip, a fight ensues in which Jim knocks out Fred. After Fred recovers, he challenges Jim to a "chicken run" race, but Jim declines because the big tournament begins the following day. Fred then provokes Jim by calling him a coward, forcing him to accept the challenge. After Jim wins the first race, Fred demands a rematch and asks garage attendant Rick Camden along to be his co-driver. As the race progresses, Rick is thrown from the car and suffers a broken leg. When Fred expresses no interest in Rick's condition, Louise chastises him. Later that night, Fred bribes Rick, whose leg is now in a cast, to let him test-drive Jim's car, which is housed in the garage in which Rick works. Fred and Rick drive off at top speed and, after they hit and kill a driver changing a tire, they return to the garage without stopping to replace a hubcap lost at the accident scene. A small piece of Rick's cast breaks off and lodges in the car. The next morning, Louise tells Jim that she really cares for him. Meanwhile, Bradley investigates the driver's death and determines from the tire marks on the road that the victim was hit by a hot rod. At the racing trials, Fred and Jim are among the four drivers who qualify for the final heat and, just as they are about to compete against one another, Bradley arrives with news of the fatal accident and the hubcap he found at the side of the road. While Bradley escorts Jim to another area of the track to examine Jim's supply of hubcaps, Louise discovers the piece of Rick's cast in Jim's car, surmises what transpired and decides to substitute for Jim in the race. After Rick tells Fred that Louise can implicate them in the hit-and-run fatality, Fred replies that he will make sure that Louise will never be able to incriminate them. The race, one hundred miles around a circular track, begins and soon the two other cars drop out, leaving only Louise and Fred in competition. After Fred tries to run Louise off the track, the police order the race stopped and Louise hands the piece of Rick's cast to Bradley. Crashing through a track gate, Fred attempts to escape on foot, but is caught by Jim. The police arrest Fred and Rick as Jim and Louise resume their romance.