On one of the last summer nights of 1962, teenagers cruise the main drag of their small California town as rock and roll music and the wry comments of disc jockey Wolfman Jack blare from their car radios. At Mel’s Drive-in, a favorite gathering place, waitresses on roller skates serve food to customers seated in their cars. For two recent high school graduates, popular senior class president Steve Bolander and his more studious friend, Curt Henderson, this is their last night in town, as they are flying east to a prestigious college in the morning. Steve, whose father is prominent in the Moose Lodge, delivers the organization’s scholarship check to Curt, but his friend is having second thoughts and confides that he may instead attend the local city college for a year. Ready for change, Steve is surprised by Curt’s revelation and suggests to his girl friend Laurie, who is Curt’s sister and the head cheerleader, that they should date other people while he is away. Presenting the keys of his Chevy to his gawky former classmate, Terry “the Toad” Fields, Steve asks him to take care of the car. Curt chats with their twenty-two-year-old friend, John Milner, an auto mechanic and amateur racer who has remained in perpetual adolescence and suppresses his feelings of being left behind. While looking at the young women around him, Curt longs for the “dazzling beauty” of his dreams and, while on his way to a school sock hop with Steve and Laurie, he spots a beautiful blonde driving a white Thunderbird automobile. When she mouths the words “I love you” and drives away, Curt wants to pursue her, but his companions refuse to change their course. John is cruising the streets in search of companionship when several people tell him that Bob Falfa, an out-of-towner driving a 1955 Chevy, wants to race him. While waiting at a red light, John flirts with the occupants of a car full of girls and one of them, Carol, agrees to join him. To his disappointment, Carol is only twelve years old, but having nowhere to leave her, he feels resigned to her company. At the dance, Laurie, feeling hurt and angry with Steve, provokes a quarrel on the dance floor, but when the emcee introduces Steve and Laurie to the crowd and asks them to lead off the slow dance, the couple feigns ardor. While dancing, Laurie reminds Steve of how they initially got together and when the music changes to a more lively number, they continue to cling to each other. Still undecided about his future, Curt roams the halls and confides in a young teacher, Mr. Wolfe, who urges Curt to experience life and relates his own experience of returning home after only one semester. Seeing a white car in the parking lot, Curt hopes to find his mysterious blonde, but finds instead a couple inside necking. However, later, while riding with his former girl friend Wendy and her friend, he sees the blonde drive past them. After Curt makes a a mischievous remark, the girls eject him from the car and as he wanders on foot, the blonde in the Thunderbird drives past him again, always elusive. Meanwhile, John feels burdened by Carol and, embarrassed when his friends see them together, says she is a cousin he is babysitting. Crushed, Carol leaves his car and runs down the street, but John drives over to her rescue when a car full of young men taunt her. Terry, whose usual transportation is a Vespa motor scooter, is thrilled with the status of driving Steve’s car. After a minor traffic accident, an encounter with a sleazy automobile salesman and various attempts to pick up a girl, he spots a poufy-haired blonde named Debbie, who he says looks like actress Connie Stevens. Pleased with the comparison, she gets in the car with him and asks for alcohol. Too young to buy whisky, Terry waits outside a liquor store for someone to purchase it for him. Although a drunk takes his money and sneaks away, another man agrees to help him and then holds up the store, throwing a bottle to Terry as he escapes from the storekeeper’s gunshots. Later, Terry and Debbie are necking on a blanket in a field when Steve’s car is stolen. Although Carol and John bicker a lot, they also play pranks on other drivers and he takes her to a car dump, where he points out different cars and tells her stories of the inevitability of collisions and death. Although John has never been beaten in a car race, he feels the pressure of defending his “number one” reputation. Consequently, when Falfa begins to follow him, John decides to take Carol home before facing off with him. When Carol refuses to divulge her address, John feigns uncontrollable passion for her, frightening her into telling him where she lives. After he takes her home, Carol asks for something to remember him by and John gives her a piece of his car as a token and a peck on the cheek. Meanwhile, Curt is approached by a gang of hoods, called the Pharaohs, who order him to accompany them or face bodily harm. Trapped inside their automobile, Curt again sees the blonde driving the Thunderbird, but is unable to take action. Needing gas money, the Pharaohs rob the arcade of a miniature golf park, as Curt nervously chats with the owner who is a member of the Moose Lodge. Afterward, their leader gives Curt a chance to “join” the Pharaohs and orders him to chain the axle of a policeman’s car to a post. Pleased with Curt’s work, the Pharaohs drop him off at Mel’s, where his car is parked. The blonde drives by, but Curt cannot get his car started in time to follow her. Elsewhere, Steve tries to convince Laurie to have sex with him, but she pushes him out of the car and drives away. Steve returns to Mel’s alone, where a waitress invites him home, and although he refuses her, Laurie sees them together and presumes that he is already dating others. Terry, after throwing up from the liquor and excitement, finds Steve’s car, but while he is hot-wiring the car, the thieves catch him and beat him up. While driving by, John sees the attack and fights off the thugs. Terry and Debbie then return to Mel’s to get ice for his bruised face, and Steve, who has realized he does not want to leave Laurie, learns from others that she is riding around with Falfa. Desperate to get her back, Steve takes possession of his car, forcing Terry to admit to Debbie that he does not own it. Debbie, unfazed by his confession, says she had fun and suggests they meet again the next day. Curt, desperate to reach the blonde, finds the radio station that broadcasts Wolfman Jack’s program to request that the Wolfman send a message over the air asking her to call him. When the disc jockey on duty claims that Wolfman’s shows are pre-recorded, Curt explains that it is urgent because he may be leaving town the next day. After Curt admits to indecision, the DJ tells him to “get his ass in gear,” and agrees to air the message. As Curt is leaving, the man broadcasts live on the air, and Curt realizes he has just met the mysterious Wolfman. Eventually Falfa, accompanied by Laurie, finds John and they agree to face off at dawn on an isolated road. Word spreads and a few spectators congregate to watch. As the sun is rising, the race begins and although Falfa is in the lead, he loses control. His car flips several times and catches fire, but miraculously neither he nor Laurie is injured. Although John retains his racing reputation, he senses the fickleness of fate. Steve and Laurie are reunited after he helps her out of the wreckage. After Wolfman reads Curt’s message on the radio, Curt receives a call from the blonde, who says she will be cruising Third Street that evening. However, Curt has come to a decision and knows he will not be in town at the end of the day. A few hours later, Curt’s family and Steve say goodbye as he boards the plane. After taking off, Curt sees the Thunderbird driving along a road below, while his plane flies out of range of the radio station.