Toupees, tube tops, car keys, cameras, cares, inhibitions and
lunch: A great many things are routinely lost on roller
coasters, as demonstrated by the items found on, near or beneath
the tracks. These include glass eyes, hearing aids and--in
quantities that resist rational explanation--underpants.
"False teeth," adds Ronald V. Toomer, revered architect of
approximately 80 coasters worldwide. "They find lots of false
teeth." In 1994 workers at the Blackpool Pleasure Beach
amusement park in England drained the reflecting pool beneath
two coasters and found 25 sets of false teeth.
At historic Kennywood amusement park in West Mifflin, Pa., a
passenger on SkyCoaster parted with his false teeth, and they
pitched, in a hideous parabola, into the french fries of a
passing pedestrian. "That person showed up at the lost and
found," park spokesperson Mary Lou Rosemeyer reluctantly
confirms, "with the teeth"--how shall she put this?--"still in
the fries." While the disembodied dentures did not, alas, devour
the fries, they remain a coffee-stained symbol of what man will
sacrifice to stir, if but for a moment, his jaded viscera.
This is a story about roller coasters, so throw your arms in the
air. Not literally, mind you. "I am told," Toomer says with
neither pride nor embarrassment, "that someone's prosthetic arm
was found under one of my rides."
August 8, 1999
Workers at Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio, last year collected
more than $11,000 in loose coins and bills shaken free from
riders of the park's 12 roller coasters (there are now 13). But
the most valuable item ever found on a coaster belonged to
Emilio Franco. In 1949, Franco, a West Virginian coal miner
rendered mute by a nervous disorder, rode the terrifying Cyclone
at Coney Island in Brooklyn and found, for the first time in six
years, his voice. He screamed on the Cyclone's second descent
and, upon disembarking at the platform, spoke his first words
since World War II.
While those words were I feel sick, a larger point remains.
"Riding a roller coaster," says Phil Hettema, who designs these
diabolical devices for Universal Studios theme parks, "is a way
of telling yourself, I'm alive."
"We are living in a roller-coaster Renaissance, a second Golden
Age," says industry analyst Paul Ruben, North American editor of
Park World magazine. The 50 most popular amusement parks in
North America hosted a record 242.9 million visitors in 1998,
vastly more than the attendance at all NBA, NFL, NHL and Major
League Baseball games combined, and a number close to the
"There's an industry saying: A carousel is the soul of an
amusement park, but a roller coaster is its heart," says Jim
Futrell of the National Amusement Park Historical Association
(NAPHA). The roller coaster is the vital organ, the
indispensable engine, the Great American Scream Machine (or
GASM), and it has never been more robust. There are about 1,000
roller coasters operating in the world. While the U.S. alone had
more than 1,500 in the late 1920s--the end of the first Golden
Age--by the mid-'70s they had dwindled to 145. Think about that:
Twenty years ago, the U.S. roller coaster was nearly extinct.
You may now lift your jaw off the ground with both hands.
Mercifully, the late '90s have been a time of unprecedented
construction, and Futrell says 520 coasters, more than half the
world's total, are operating in the U.S. About 80 coasters
opened around the world last year, and at least 90 more have
debuted in 1999, including one in the Micronesia Mall on Guam.
All of them do unspeakable things. "The idea is to knock your
socks off," says Hettema, whose newly opened Incredible Hulk
Coaster at Universal Studios Islands of Adventure in
Orlando--with its catapult launch into an immediate 180-degree
barrel roll--also tends to knock off bikini tops.
Swimsuits are recommended on the amphibious BuzzSaw Falls
coaster, which opened last month at Silver Dollar City in
Branson, Mo. There are 27 varieties of roller coaster, including
stand-up coasters such as The Riddler's Revenge, at Six Flags
Magic Mountain in Valencia, Calif. More preposterous
contraptions are on the drawing board, such as the coaster set
to open next March at Paramount's Great America in Santa Clara,
Calif., on which passengers will lie back and be propelled into
concentric circles of hell. In Utah there is one prototype for a
coaster on which the car itself turns, and another for a ride on
which the car races through the threads of a cylindrical track
like an Archimedes' screw.
Already running is Superman The Escape, a "shuttle coaster" at
Six Flags Magic Mountain. Though it's not everyone's idea of a
roller coaster, it meets the technical definition: It uses
gravity and rides on rails. Superman is not a continuous loop
but an L-shaped track on which passengers are shot down a
straightaway and then up a tower before pausing and falling
backward to earth, all in 30 seconds. Its 15-passenger car
travels from 0 to 100 in seven seconds, exerts 4.5 G's on the
rider and is roughly equivalent to taking off in an F-16 from
the deck of an aircraft carrier. At the top of the tower, 415
feet above suburban L.A., riders experience six seconds of
weightlessness before plunging back whence they came.
"You can let go of your sunglasses at the top of the ride," says
Magic Mountain spokesperson Andy Gallardo, "and they will remain
there, floating in front of you." Trouble is, you can "let go"
of anything at the top of the ride, and it will remain there,
floating in front of you.
If we are living in a roller-coaster Renaissance, the U.S. is
its Florence. This nation's technophilia and leisure worship
have joined in unholy matrimony to sire an astonishing
subculture of coasterdinks and rollerwonks, men and women for
whom roller coasters have become a lifestyle--or something more
closely resembling life itself. This is not the case with Rich
Rodriguez, a 40-year-old man who last summer spent 22 hours a
day for 47 consecutive days on the Big Dipper at Blackpool
Pleasure Beach, breaking his own Guinness world record for
marathon coastering. "I do it in a Lindberghian spirit of
adventure," says Rodriguez, an earnest Brooklyn native who is a
teaching assistant in the communications department at Miami.
"I'm not one of these roller-coaster obsessives who can tell you
what kind of bolts are in the track."
Rodriguez is eager to distinguish himself from the likes of
Dreadlock Jim, a multiply pierced, Rasta-haired coastermane from
Saginaw, Mich., who practically lives in his car. Dreadlock Jim
reportedly drove 80,000 miles and visited 101 amusement parks in
1998. He has the elusive quality (and personal hygiene) of
Bigfoot. "I saw him in Tampa yesterday, on Montu at Busch
Gardens," a 22-year-old rollerphile named Walt Breymier told me
last January in Orlando as we stood in the construction site
that would become Islands of Adventure.
The theme park wouldn't open for another four months, but the
Incredible Hulk was up and running, and, as Breymier explained,
"There's something called ERT: Exclusive Ride Time." It is a
privilege extended to people like Breymier, of the
Virginia-based Coaster Zombies club, whose members were given a
no-expenses-paid trip to Orlando to test-ride the Hulk in
exchange for the good word of mouth they were certain to spread.
For some Zombies it was the second trip to the construction site
in as many months. "I came down at Christmas and watched Hulk
run from the outside," said Sam Marks, 41, a customer service
manager at Pitney-Bowes in Arlington, Va., which is "24 miles
from Six Flags America," where Marks spent at least 28 days last
"I'm giving up a week's worth of work to be here," said
Breymier, a night supervisor at the Target department store in
Bel Air, Md., who lives within a five-hour drive of 15 amusement
parks. "I took a bus here to save money. I've been serious
hardcore since '97."
American Coaster Enthusiasts (ACE) has 5,800 members, not all of
whom are serious hardcore. "Our membership runs the gamut from
casual to 'coasters are my life,'" says ACE public relations
director David Escalante, whose surname suggests ascents and
descents and whose signature ends with a line drawing of a
roller coaster. (Such salutations are common among coastermanes:
Park World's Ruben ends telephone conversations by saying, "Go
"I'm a gawker," a man in a sweatshirt bearing a likeness of the
roller coaster called Raptor told me at Raptor's home, Cedar
Point, on the banks of Lake Erie in Sandusky. The Raptor fan, it
turns out, was not a gawker but a GOCCer, a member of the
Greater Ohio Coaster Club. GOCCers and ACErs and Coaster Zombies
gather in cyberspace to discuss first drops and chain lifts and
lateral G's and brake runs and camelbacks, and to exchange
intelligence about new coaster construction.
"You'll read, 'There are reports of a truck carrying blue track
north on I-95: Where is it going?'" says the Zombies' Marks.
"It's kind of pathetic. Some people have broken into parks just
to look at the construction of a new coaster." He pauses, lost
in thought beneath a beige Gilligan hat with a blinking red
light and the souvenir pins of myriad coasters. "By the way,"
Marks says of such break-ins, "I didn't really do that once,
when I was 16 years old."
For 18-year-old Jeff Tolotti, coasters are not life itself. "I
also enjoy free falls," he says of rides like the Cedar Point
Power Tower, in which human cargo is hoisted in a harness up a
24-story obelisk, then dropped to earth in 2.3 seconds.
"And I like really big, really fast spinning rides," says
"These are known in the industry," says Kennywood's Rosemeyer,
To barf, on the serious-hardcore coaster circuit, is to lose it,
and nearly everyone loses it eventually. "It takes me a lot of
rides," says Marks, "like 27 consecutive at Six Flags St.
Louis." When a Los Angeles helicopter pilot--a Vietnam combat
pilot turned traffic reporter--loses it on Viper at Magic
Mountain, as happened a couple of years ago on the world's
tallest looping coaster, what chance do the rest of us have?
While marathon champion Rodriguez was living in the sixth car of
the Big Dipper in Blackpool last summer, a press photographer
joined him to take his portrait with the coaster in motion. As
Rodriguez said "Cheese," the photographer lost it. Says
Rodriguez, who has an almost courtly way of speaking, "I've also
had regular passengers get ill near me."
"I lost it on Akbar yesterday," Breymier said in Orlando last
January, referring to Akbar's Adventure Tours, a "simulator
ride" at Busch Gardens in Tampa. "There's one scene where you're
riding on a camel, up and down, up and down on a tour through
Egypt, and I just lost it." He said this in the manner of a
fullback facing the press after a fumble. Then Breymier boarded
the Hulk for a 10th straight time, before his ERT expired.
What, exactly, is the appeal? Several enthusiasts told me that
riding a coaster is better than sex. In some cases, this was
clearly a matter of conjecture. In others, evidently, it is sex.
"The back car is for your heavy-metal S&M crowd, people who like
a lot of whip action," says Ruben, to which we can only say
that, in addition to ERT, there is something called TMI: Too
Gerald Menditto practices abstinence. He has operated the Coney
Island Cyclone for 25 years but has, astonishingly, ridden the
infernal thing only twice. Menditto is what is known in the
trade as a chicken. Ask coaster architect Toomer, whose 80 rides
include the superlative Magnum XL-200 at Cedar Point, to name
his favorite machine, and he responds with a good, long chuckle.
"You mean to ride?" says the 69-year-old former mechanical
engineer. "Oh, I don't ride 'em. Oh, no. Haven't for years. I
get motion sickness real bad. The bigger ones, I get sick as a
dog on those."
These coasterphobes play a vital role in the amusement-park
ecosystem. "They're a good thing," says Ruben, who has ridden
more than 4,000 miles on 525 coasters. "Someone has to hold our
"We don't laugh at people who are afraid of snakes," says Brian
Newmark, a Harvard-trained psychologist in suburban Boston, "but
we laugh at people who are afraid of roller coasters." We should
not. Newmark, who has treated coasterphobia, cites the case of a
55-year-old man married for several years to a rollerweenie
whose passion he desperately wanted to share. "It was an
obstacle in his life," says Newmark. "The question with a phobia
is, Does it interfere with daily function? When parents are
fearful, children sense that and become habitually fearful of
the world around them."
Coasterphobia has not always been an irrational fear. When the
infamous Crystal Beach (Ont.) Cyclone opened in 1927, a
full-time nurse was employed at the unloading platform. The
coaster had a 97-foot first drop into an 85-degree right turn.
"Hats, purses, combs and false teeth all flew out on that turn,"
says Ruben, 62, who grew up in nearby Niagara Falls, N.Y.
"Riders were thrown into their seatmates and cracked their
ribs." By the end of the Cyclone's run, in 1946, more people
were watching this ghoulish spectacle than participating in it.
Such a coaster, alas, couldn't leave the station in today's
litigious society. "When a new ride opens up, you get a lot of
lawsuits," says Toomer. Retired from Utah's Arrow Dynamics Inc.,
Toomer spends much of his time in trials, testifying about
coaster safety. "We have 200 million riders a year on coasters
designed by our company," says Toomer. "When someone comes to me
and says our ride hurt his back, I say, 'Would you believe that
15 million people rode it before you did, without a problem?'"
In the past 11 years, there have been 11 nonoccupational
roller-coaster-related fatalities in the U.S., few of them
involving mechanical malfunction. Last September at Paramount's
Great America in Santa Clara, Calif., a Mexican tourist lost her
hat on an "inverted coaster," the kind that speeds its suspended
passengers, feet a-dangle, around a high-speed glorified
dry-cleaning rack. The woman's 24-year-old husband didn't speak
English and thus didn't heed warning signs when, after finishing
the ride, he entered a restricted area to retrieve the hat. He
was struck in the head and killed by the dangling feet of
another rider, a 28-year-old woman, who suffered a broken leg.
The point is, while you might have your face bloodied by the
occasional dive-bombing goose (as happened to Fabio this spring
in the front car of Apollo's Chariot at Busch Gardens in
Williamsburg, Va.) or be stuck upside down for two hours
awaiting rescue by the fire department (as happened to 23
passengers on Demon, at Six Flags Great America outside Chicago,
in April 1998), riding a roller coaster is much safer than
riding a bicycle. "We all look for things that push the
boundaries of our daily existence," says Hulk designer Hettema.
"Roller coasters are a safe way to do that. Riding a coaster is
a more practical way to feel alive than jumping off a cliff."
More practical than a cliff dive, coastering better approximates
mountaineering. Rodriguez had "surreal visions" during his
47-day Blackpool marathon last summer. "You can experience a
kind of natural high while riding," confirms Ruben.
Enthusiasts speak of rides the way climbers talk of the Seven
Summits. On every coastermane's "lifetime list" are Dragon Khan
(at Port Aventura, near Barcelona) and Monte Makaya (at Terra
Encantada, in Rio de Janeiro). Both have eight inversions, the
world record. Oblivion (at Alton Towers, in England) makes an
87.5-degree drop into a 100-foot hole in the ground. "I've
heard," one rollerphile told me lasciviously, "it's terrifying."
The names of the world's great modern coasters are conceived to
heighten such terror: Megaphobia, Mind Eraser, Exterminator,
Alpengeist and--at Parc Asterix outside of Paris--Tonnerre de
Zeus, which means, sounds and feels like the thunder of Zeus.
None of these, however, have the exotic, elusive appeal of
Fujiyama, King of Coasters, at Japan's Fujikyu Highlands fun
park in the northern foothills of Mount Fuji. "Fujiyama is the
one I want," Tolotti told me, as if it were a white whale. It
might as well be.
Fujiyama is the world's tallest traditional complete-circuit
coaster, 259 feet at its high point. The ride's toupee-ravaging
first drop of 230 feet is also a complete-circuit record. And
Fujiyama shares with the formidable Steel Phantom at Kennywood
the Guinness mark for the fastest complete-circuit coaster, with
a top speed of 82 mph.
What's more, I resolved not merely to ride Fujiyama but also to
do it immediately after speed-eating bowls of soba noodles with
another Japanese phenomenon: Hirofumi Nakajima, the Black Hole
of Kofu, the former world champion of competitive eating, a man
who once consumed 24 1/2 hot dogs in 12 minutes, as if feeding
pencils into an electric sharpener.
In the days leading up to my trip, I thought many times of
hurling. But I also thought of Kipling:
If you can meet with Gluttony and Gravity
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can ride with Kings--of coasters--and not lose it;
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And--which is more--you'll be a Man, my son!
There is no clown. That is the first panicked thought of every
noodle-gorged gaijin in line at Fujiyama: There is no cutout
clown bearing the traditional disclaimer, YOU MUST BE TALLER
THAN ME TO RIDE. What if I am too tall, thinks an anxious
American who is nine inches taller than the average Japanese
male. All of the recorded warnings played in the serpentine line
to board Fujiyama--and these warnings are manifold, believe
me--are, unhelpfully, in Japanese. All the signs are in kanji.
That changes when you at last approach the loading platform
after 90 angst-inducing minutes in line: Adjacent to the
platform is a small door painted with the leering cartoon
likeness of a barnyard fowl. This is your last chance to exit
before you are swept, like a cork on a fast river, onto
Fujiyama's malevolent rails. The sign on the door is in English.
It reads: CHICKEN GATE.
The Chicken Gate thumbs its beak at current coaster etiquette,
according to which parks attempt to allay, not inflame, a
rider's anxieties. Near the Hulk at Islands of Adventure,
passengers can pick up a pamphlet titled Anxious about Riding.
No such luck at Fujiyama, where the only sound on the platform
is the metallic echo of the train's lap bars locking into place.
It is the sound of finality, like lockdown at Leavenworth.
With a temperamental lurch, the train pulls away from the
platform and begins its inexorable climb, 235 feet up the first
hill. The angle of ascent leaves the rider in roughly the same
position--and disposition--as a dental patient. The only sound
now is the ratch-ratch-ratcheting of the chain lift. It recalls
to me the rattling chains of Marley's Ghost.
When at last you crest the first hill, there is a pause, long
enough to let your knuckle hair stand at attention as you take
in the view. Twenty-five stories above the Fujikyu Highlands,
you are staring straight at Mount Fuji, and it is
breathtaking--so perfect a mountain that it almost seems a
theme-park contrivance, like the Matterhorn at Disneyland. You
can only gape at it and whisper, "My God, what a lovely...."
Then the bottom falls out of your world.
The first drop at Fujiyama is, in essence, a plane crash. When
you pull out of the near-vertical 20-story plunge, your car is
traveling about 80 mph toward a course canopied with wooden
beams, which appear to be no more than six feet above the track,
offering sufficient clearance only to the average Japanese,
whose culture promotes something called Tall Poppy Syndrome, in
which heads that jut above the crowd must be cut back down to
size. Only later do you learn that Tall Poppy Syndrome is a
metaphor and that these low beams are a calculated optical
illusion known in the coaster trade as Headchoppers. Indeed, a
similarly terrifying specimen exists on Shivering Timbers in
But in the moment, as you hurtle toward presumed decapitation,
your thoughts turn to many things: To the vindictiveness of
Japanese engineers, to the criminally negligent absence of
clowns and to Hirofumi Nakajima, with whom you imprudently
engaged in an eating contest scant hours earlier. But before you
know what hasn't hit you, you are suddenly--to your profound
relief--coasting on small camelbacks into the brake run leading
back to the station. You have survived Fujiyama. You have not,
moreover, lost it.
Or have you? The souvenir photograph offered at ride's end
doesn't lie: Somewhere on the first drop I let fly a
Tourette's-like torrent of involuntary profanity. To judge by
the photo, in which ampersands and exclamation marks practically
billow from my mouth in a cartoon balloon, these epic
obscenities came as a revelation to the plaid-skirted Japanese
schoolgirls seated in front of me. Each of their mouths is
forever frozen in a rictus of disbelief.
For one brief shining moment of American ingenuity, in 1991,
Kennywood's Steel Phantom was faster than Fujiyama is today. For
its first seven days of operation, the Phantom was the fastest
coaster of all time, doing 90 mph, a speed quickly deemed too
uncomfortable for humans to endure without lifelong 24-hour
chiropractic supervision. So this creature, another spawn of
Toomer's evil genius, had to be retrofitted with additional
brakes. The Phantom is now more spine-chilling than
spine-killing, particularly when it passes beneath the tracks of
the Thunderbolt coaster, with which it is entangled.
Such is the Phantom's menace that park officials made me ride it
with a 15-year-old from Mars, Pa., named Ed Murphy. The kid, a
veteran of 20 Phantom rides, could only stare grimly from our
front seat as I babbled nervously. When I blurted that I had
just eaten a chicken-salad sandwich, young Ed said, as we
ascended the chain lift, "I wish you hadn't told me that."
The Phantom is frequently cited as the second-best steel coaster
in existence, after Cedar Point's Magnum XL-200. Cedar Point has
the highest concentration of coasters anywhere in the world.
What's more, the park is on the beach where Knute Rockne
invented the forward pass with Notre Dame teammate Gus Dorais
while the two worked as lifeguards in the summer of 1913. The
historic spot, marked with a plaque, is now part of the Soak
City water park.
I rode Magnum with Cedar Point public relations director Robin
Innes, who wore a shirt and tie and carried on, with consummate
professionalism, a business conversation as we climbed the
205-foot first hill. "This was the first coaster to break the
200-foot barrier," Innes said casually as we crested. "This
first drop is 195 feet and aaiiieeeyeaaah! Hoohoohoo!
Wahahaheee! celebrating its 10th anniversary this summer and oh
man! Oh man! Woooooo! Yeaaahh! top speed of 72 miles an hour,
which is approximately yes! Whoahoho! Woohooee! Hey hey! the
tubular steel track eee-heee-hoo-ha-haaaa! be happy to if you
have any questions." I had no idea what he was talking about,
but I nodded frequently in response.
Toomer designed Magnum but never rode it. Still, he is aware
that it remains the favorite of a great many coasterphiles,
whose reasons are largely intangible and perhaps best
articulated by Innes when he said, "Wahahoohaheeeeee!"
"Ten years after opening," says Escalante, the ACEr, "Magnum
still hasn't been improved on." At the coaster's anniversary
party in June, Toomer signed 1,000 autographs.
"I never expected that I'd become some kind of nut-club cult
leader," the designer says. But he has become just that, with 80
wildly popular coasters stretching from Indonesia to Spain to
the interior of Buffalo Bill's Casino in Primm, Nev. "These
rides," he says, pondering a legacy, "will be around for a very
long time." To say the least. Leap-the-Dips opened in 1902 and
runs to this day at Lakemont Park in Altoona, Pa.
Not far from Leap-the-Dips is the Wildcat, at Hershey Park. It
gives riders the most instances of air, or negative G's: 11
times passengers are lifted from their seats. "There's an arms
race for everything now," says industry analyst Ruben. The list
of superlatives is seemingly endless, much like the venerable
Beast at Paramount's Kings Island, near Cincinnati. The Beast is
by far the longest wooden roller coaster in the world, both in
track feet and in ride time. It travels a tortuous 7,400 feet
and covers an area more than twice that of Kennywood's
Thunderbolt. The Beast lasts an unheard-of three minutes and 40
seconds. And "no man," as Dr. Johnson said about Paradise Lost,
"ever wished it longer."
STRIKE THAT: One man has ever wished every ride longer. A
coaster jockey of exceedingly rare gifts, Richard Gregory
Rodriguez now takes his place beside Ted Williams and Jascha
Heifetz as a 20th-century titan whose skills simply overwhelm
our powers of analysis. Twelve times Rodriguez has set the world
record for marathon coastering, but last summer was his Beamon
leap, his Secretariat-at-Belmont moment: He rode the Big Dipper
in Blackpool for 1,013 1/2 hours over 47 days, from June 18
until August 3, nearly doubling his own record of 549 hours, set
in Blackpool in 1994. "The three big questions I get," Rodriguez
told me solemnly, while sitting for an interview in a sidewalk
cafe near his home in Miami, "are Why? Do you get paid? and How
do you go to the bathroom?" We will try to answer each of these
questions in due time, but for now you need understand only that
Rodriguez's life is a cat's cradle of coaster history. In him
all of the industry's threads intersect.
He was born to greatness, blessed genetically and
geographically. For starters, young Rich grew to the minimal
acceptable standard of 48 inches, then kept going, eventually
leveling off at 5'8" and 160 pounds--"The perfect size for
riding," he says. "Like a Formula One driver's."
Even more propitious, Rodriguez was born in Brooklyn, the cradle
of American amusement, home of the original Luna Park and Coney
Island, where the first commercially successful roller coaster
was built, in 1884. The Gravity Switchback Railway was the
brainchild of LaMarcus Thompson, who had made a fortune
inventing seamless hosiery. More than a century later, in
unintentional homage to the stocking magnate, an astonishing
number of women would toss their underwear from roller coasters,
in the same spirit in which unmentionables are flung into trees
from chairlifts on ski slopes. It is a dirty little secret--a
Victoria's Secret--of the family entertainment industry. But we
Rodriguez was raised in the shadow of the great coaster jocks of
the '70s, men such as Jim Bruce, who made his reputation on the
Swamp Fox in Myrtle Beach, S.C., and Noel Aube, who tamed the
Wildcat at Lake Compounce in Connecticut. But Rodriguez's true
heroes were aviators: solo balloonists such as Ed Yost and Steve
Fossett and, above all, Charles Lindbergh. Two years after
crossing the Atlantic in the Spirit of St. Louis, Lindy rode the
Cyclone at Coney Island and said, "A ride on Cyclone is a
greater thrill than flying an airplane at top speed."
So, in the summer of 1977, 18-year-old Rich Rodriguez set out to
commemorate the 50th anniversary of Lindbergh's flight--and the
50th birthday of the Cyclone--with an audacious act of his own.
"I don't want to overdramatize this," he would say years later,
"but Lindbergh was a longshot in '27. He would have been 20-to-1
in a horse race. He wasn't well financed. And here I was, not
wealthy, from Brooklyn, and I thought, What can I do in
Lindbergh's spirit of adventure? Can I accomplish something?"
Carrying only a pillow, a blanket and a note from his
doctor--plus the blessing of management at Coney Island's
Astroland--Rodriguez set out on Aug. 18, 1977, to break Michael
Boodley's world record of 45 consecutive hours on a roller
coaster. He selected the sixth car from the front. "It's the
most stable ride," says Rodriguez, who would soon make the sixth
car his signature. As he traveled 50 mph in the frigid Coney
Island nights, with the wind whipping off the Atlantic, his face
swelled grotesquely. He resolved, then and there, that next time
would be different. Next time he'd bring lotion.
There would be a next time, too, for Rodriguez shattered
Boodley's record, set on the Cyclone, by staying on that angry
mechanical bull for 103 hours and 55 minutes to enter the
Guinness Book of World Records. Then, between 1977 and 1982,
Rodriguez would break his world record nine times, the last two
on corkscrewing coasters in Quebec and Germany.
Under Guinness guidelines, a rider can spend an average of five
minutes of every hour off the coaster--or a total of two hours a
day, to be divided as the jockey sees fit. Rodriguez used his
time to eat and go to the bathroom, which is to say, he did all
of his sleeping on the coasters, snoozing through every
terrifying turn of the corkscrew. Soon the word went forth:
There was an undisputed King of Coasters, a man the British tabs
called Queasy Rider, a misnomer if ever there was one. "I was
blessed with a strong stomach," says Rodriguez. "I never get
sick." He was, in short, the Natural, and the trade magazines
all headlined his ONE TRACK MIND.
But his one-track mind was wandering. In 1982, after spending
328 hours on the Super Werbil at Holiday Park in Hassloch,
Germany, to set his 10th world record, Rodriguez walked wobbily
away from marathoning. There were, simply, no more Magic
Mountains to climb. For the next 12 years, the Natural
squandered his gift. He matriculated at Columbia, receiving a
bachelor's degree in history and political science. In 1987 he
joined the Army, serving his country for 2 1/2 years before his
diabetes was diagnosed and, at his request, he was honorably
discharged. He then moved to Chicago to educate America's youth
as a substitute high school teacher. It was all very wasteful,
this attention to duty, and Rodriguez watched his record fall to
a younger jock, the Quebecois upstart Normand St. Pierre, master
of Le Monstre at La Ronde Park in Montreal.
By 1991 Rodriguez was a 32-year-old diabetic injecting himself
with insulin four times a day, and it appeared that his train
had long since left the platform. Or had it? "George Foreman had
come back to boxing," recalls Rodriguez. "Mark Spitz was trying
to return to the Olympics, and I began to wonder, Why not? At
first it was hard to find a park to train in, but I'd buy some
ride operators at Coney Island a couple of beers, and they'd let
me ride all day."
He went to Blackpool in 1994 and rode for 549 hours to reclaim
the record that St. Pierre had held, in his absence, for 11
years. Rodriguez returned to form on the Big Dipper, which was
built in 1921. Today's brakes are almost all hydraulics, but at
Blackpool, as at Coney Island, large men still pull enormous
hand brakes. "If he misses the brakes, I could be dead," says
Rodriguez. "If my hand falls out of the car when I'm asleep, I
could lose a limb. I'm going around something like 12,000
circuits, and any number of things can go wrong."
In 1979, at the Vancouver Pacific National Exhibition, Rodriguez
was on a coaster that was "double training," or running two
trains on one track. When his train pulled into the platform,
the train behind it failed to brake. Rodriguez bailed out before
impact. "Otherwise," he says, "I would've broken my neck."
Last summer, feeling stronger than ever, Rodriguez returned to
the Big Dipper to go head-to-head against his nemesis, St.
Pierre, who would be riding Le Monstre in Montreal in a kind of
transatlantic staredown. In all fairness, the Francophone never
stood a chance. Rodriguez forever lowered the lap bar on his own
place in history. "The first couple of days are always a
shakedown period," he says of the marathon. "It's almost
impossible to sleep. By the fourth day, my body has a will to
adapt. After two weeks, it feels more normal to be on the
coaster than off." (When he is off, Rodriguez still feels the
ride, like the phantom leg of an amputee.)
St. Pierre withered in the white-hot heat of such greatness and
disembarked from Le Monstre after an otherwise astonishing 670
hours. But Rodriguez, already in possession of the world record,
refused to stop. He rode for gratuitous hours, then days and
finally weeks, until he passed the 1,000-hour mark and put the
record forever out of reach. On the final lap of his odyssey, he
breasted a tape at the platform, a U.S. flag on his sweater, and
then swigged from a champagne bottle. He was bussed by a pair of
Blackpool belles. Then, spent, he called his mother from a cell
His legs were badly bruised. His knees, though padded, were
cross-hatched with cuts from the violent jostling of the steel
car as he slept. His face resembled a peeled tomato, rubbed raw
by the wind off the Irish Sea. Imagine driving from Miami to
Juneau and back at 65 mph with your head out the window, and you
only begin to comprehend the man's 11,362-mile ride to nowhere.
Ensconced that night in an English hotel, Rodriguez couldn't
sleep. "I kept waking up in bed," he says, "bracing myself for
the first drop."
The next morning, England awoke to a bizarre and lengthy
editorial in The Times of London denouncing Rodriguez. "If
futility can be graded," the piece said, "surely this bizarre
bid to turn entertainment into tedium might almost set a record."
The first time Rodriguez heard this was when I mentioned it to
him recently. "I know I'm not Neil Armstrong," he said. "I keep
this in perspective. I know there's a lot of humor here. I'm 40
years old, and it will be easy for people to say, 'This guy is
missing a few bricks.' But you know, I don't get paid, I have
slept in airports, I try to raise some money for diabetes
research. I just want to keep my dignity, if that is possible.
This is not a glamorous life."
So why live it? "I think it's the connection to people,"
Rodriguez says. "Most people don't understand what I'm doing,
but they want to be a part of the fun. They ask, 'Can I bring
you a blanket?' 'Will you come to dinner at the house when it's
over?' At Blackpool, a family brings me candy. I rode with a
little girl and a little boy when I set a record in Blackpool in
1979, and I wrote them a note. They came back in '94 and rode
with me again."
The kids had, of course, grown up. One of them still had his
yellowed note, and she showed it to Rodriguez 15 years after
he'd written it. It said, "Thanks so much for riding with me."
His life had come full circle. But then it did so 505 times
every day on the Dipper, 22,725 times in all last summer.
The traditional complete-circuit roller coaster always returns
to its station, to where it began. So it is with all of
roller-coasterdom. In the way that cities are building retro
ballparks, neoclassical wooden coasters are now going up, and
ancient amusement parks--such as 101-year-old Kennywood--are the
envy of the industry. "The '50s saw urban decline and the flight
to suburbia," says Futrell, the NAPHA historian, "and the '60s
became a real struggle for the old-time traditional parks. The
'70s brought theme-park development. Now we're getting back to
the vintage parks. Kennywood is almost the Wrigley Field of
Kennywood's Thunderbolt was named the top roller coaster in the
world in a highly publicized Discovery Channel special that aired
over Memorial Day weekend. The wooden coaster opened in 1968.
"There are a lot of people who don't even count steel as
coasters," says Breymier, the Coaster Zombie.
"Ride operators like the older rides," says Futrell. "They're
solid but simple pieces of machinery, with pulleys and gears and
"You know how you remember the Top 40 songs from high school,
what you heard when you were driving around in your car at
night?" Rodriguez said out of the blue in one of our last
conversations. "I remember the song that was playing at Coney
Island the first time I rode the Cyclone, in 1976. It was Turn
the Beat Around by Vicki Sue Robinson. The summer of '77,
Afternoon Delight was the big one. The summer of '78 was all Bee
Gees and Donna Summer. At most of these parks, a deejay plays
the hit songs 10 or 15 times a day. I can still hear Fly, Robin,
Fly and Love to Love You Baby. Remember a song called Magnet and
Steel? When I hear that, I think of riding the Rebel Yell in the
summer of 1978, and it makes me happy and wistful."
Not long ago a woman called me from Premier Rides, a space-age
design firm that builds roller coasters with linear induction
motors, powered by magnets. I couldn't bring myself to call her
back. Whatever lies in the future, I realized, the charm of
roller coasters is in their evocation of the past. In addition
to the Big Dipper, Blackpool Pleasure Beach has one of the
world's last surviving Tunnels of Love. One of the last.
I finally understood Rodriguez and his white-knuckle attachment
to roller coasters. It has nothing to do with magnets and steel
and plenty to do with Magnet and Steel.
COASTER MARATHON CHAMP RICH RODRIGUEZ'S TOP 10 LIST
10 PNE COASTER, Pacific National Exhibition, Vancouver
Though the PNE was the site of his NDE (near-death experience),
Rodriguez (below) loves this "rickety wooden workhorse."
9 SWAMP FOX, Family Kingdom Amusement Park, Myrtle Beach, S.C.
The rare train with legroom. "What I call Southern comfort,"
says Rodriguez, who rode the Fox for 110 hours in 1979.
8 BIG DIPPER, Blackpool Pleasure Beach, Blackpool, England
The classic bare-bones, complete-circuit wooden coaster: "My
first choice for competitive coaster marathoning."
7 WILDCAT, Lake Compounce Theme Park, Bristol, Conn.
Meek, scenic and Skippy-smooth: "Like riding a piece of antique
6 MAGNUM XL-200, Cedar Point, Sandusky, Ohio
The world's first megacoaster is still the best: "My favorite
steel ride. It sparked the current industry arms race."
5 TEXAS CYCLONE, AstroWorld, Houston
A steel-and-wood-hybrid homage to the Coney Island Cyclone,
"with a frightening character all its own."
4 MR. TWISTER, Elitch Gardens, Denver
"A masterwork with fantastic spiraling and hairpin turns." And
that was before Elitch moved and became a Six Flags, and Mr. T
was rebuilt as Mr. Twister II.
3 THE BEAST, Paramount's Kings Island, Cincinnati
"Riveting helix, rock-face steepness, precipitous drops and a
2 THUNDERBOLT, Kennywood, West Mifflin, Pa.
"Its surprising opening descent and superbly orchestrated twists
and turns make this an extraordinary experience."
1 THE CYCLONE, Astroland, Coney Island, N.Y.
"The Mount Everest in my backyard. The first drop still rocks me
22 years after my first marathon."
YOU MUST BE AT LEAST 48 INCHES TALL TO READ THIS STORY. DO NOT
READ THIS STORY IF YOU ARE PREGNANT OR ON MEDICATION. READERS
WITH HEART, BACK OR NECK AILMENTS ARE STRONGLY CAUTIONED. HOLD
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THE NAMES OF GREAT MODERN COASTERS ARE CONCEIVED TO HEIGHTEN
TERROR: MEGAPHOBIA, MIND ERASER, EXTERMINATOR
TO BARF, FOR THE SERIOUS HARDCORE, IS TO LOSE IT, AND NEARLY
EVERYONE LOSES IT
AN ASTONISHING NUMBER OF WOMEN HAVE TOSSED THEIR UNDERWEAR FROM
A MUTE WEST VIRGINIA COAL MINER RODE THE CYCLONE AND SUDDENLY
FOUND HIS VOICE
COASTERMANES SPEAK OF RIDES THE WAY CLIMBERS TALK OF THE SEVEN