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One-Track Minds 

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One-Track Minds

By Rose Spinelli

In salon B the lighting is muted. A hush hangs in the air. The audience has yielded to the speaker. They're in search of something ephemeral. They've traveled from all over the country in the hopes of finding it. Most were young and wild, but a few found the rapture in later life. Since then they've all tried to recapture it. That surge in the solar plexus that takes the breath away. A sensation seductively evocative of that first time, when time and space blurred, suspended in an uncertain place between euphoria and something akin to death.

They're uncloaking the latest in undulating thrills, breathless and rising and plunging. Uninterrupted pulsing action and the rare exhilaration of riding a "woodie." Such are the prodigious promises made by Mind Eraser, the Serpent, Deep Throat . . . no, wait, not Deep Throat. It's a sensation every normal, red-blooded member of the human race wants to experience as much as possible, whenever possible. Normal? Perhaps that's a relative term. When I think of slipping into the chasm, I'm not held down by a harness and locked lap bars, or sitting in a train with 24 other people, surrounded by several tons of wood or metal.

Confession: I've never ridden a roller coaster.

On a Saturday afternoon at the Marriott Hotel in Oak Brook, I'm the only person who can lay claim to this. They've gathered for an event dubbed "No Coaster Con," a conference about roller coasters with no actual rides. It's sponsored by American Coaster Enthusiasts, and it's one of several events they host throughout the year. Today's lack of rides does nothing to thwart the enthusiasm of the membership. A full ten hours have been dedicated to discussing their beloved roller coasters, imparting the latest in construction and technological advances.

In the words of president Jan Kiser, ACE's mission is to "promote to the public the value of roller coasters as a piece of architectural history." To that end, it's established a preservation fund to support the renovation of older coasters that have been left standing but are no longer operating. They donated $25,000 to restore Leap the Dips, a turn-of-the-century ride at Lakemont Park in Altoona, Pennsylvania. They also bought the defunct Rocket from Play Land Park in San Antonio and trucked it all the way to Knoebels Park in eastern Pennsylvania, where it was renamed the Phoenix to signify its rebirth.

Though the group's divided between preservationists and thrill seekers, these enthusiasts all share a few hot buttons. One is air time--that intoxicating flash when the coaster has pushed just past its pinnacle and begun its wipe-that-smile-off-your-face descent from as high as ten stories up. That brief interval before gravity yanks them back from their weightless romp is air time. It's called "negative Gs." To maximize the effect they lift their arms in exultation.

Much of the discussion is also devoted to the benefits of wooden roller coasters compared to those made of steel. Most ACEers are pro wood. There's something rickety feeling, they say, about the clack, clack, clack of the cog teeth catching on the wooden tracks that recollects the sense of danger in their virgin ride. But steel coasters have G forces to be reckoned with, and what's lost in artistry is gained in state-of-the-art multi-inversions, barrel rolls, 360-degree loops, and hard-line spins. Some claim that with today's technology you can achieve pretty much the same effects with wooden coasters, but others contend wood limits maneuverability. Some say wood is cheaper; others protest that the upkeep is murder and the wood tricky to bend into complex curves.

Paul Greenwald holds court directly under a wall-sized homage to Riverview, the amusement park at Belmont and Western that was obliterated in 1967. Greenwald cofounded ACE 11 years later. Their first convention took place at a Busch Gardens near the Virginia coast. A former physics teacher, Greenwald proves to be evenhanded on the wood-versus-steel debate. "They're all basically designed with the same principle. You tow something up to its highest point and then just let gravity take over. Period." To illustrate the righteous simplicity of the wooden track, he draws an upside-down "L" on paper and delves into the finer points of coaster design. "I've ridden 500 roller coasters over a total of 1,000 times," he says. "After all these years, riding coasters is almost too much of a good thing. What's fun for me now is the sophisticated technology used and the materials developed to make them." Though he's still "looking for a roller coaster to do what the Crystal Beach Comet in Buffalo, New York, did to me," he's veered from participant to voyeur, photographing coasters for their "visual appeal." He's here hawking his silk-screened T-shirts and videos of various rides.

"Hey, Marty," someone calls out, "I barely recognized you without your Bermuda shorts."

"I hope you didn't have a hard time finding me," says Marty Moltz, who is dressed in a brightly colored Hawaiian shirt and stands just a smidgen over five feet tall. Moltz is a kidder. On first impression, you'd never guess he's an Illinois state appellate prosecutor. He speaks in a stream of one-liners, often not bothering to pause between punch lines. As master of ceremonies, he holds the honor of raffling off some of the booty donated by amusement parks. "From Cedar Point, a set of four Mantis cups and coasters goes to Chris Johnson of Kalamazoo, Michigan! A 1997 calendar of rides, Howard Gilooly, Cincinnati, Ohio!"

One by one, the winners file up, excitable and proud, like the highest bidder at a Sotheby's auction. The man to my left pops out of his seat, delighted to be the new owner of a press kit on the Steel Force roller coaster at Dorney Park in Allentown, Pennsylvania.

The next presentation is by Holiday World--home of the Raven--in Santa Claus, Indiana. Since he couldn't make it in person, owner Will Koch talks via cell phone, evaluating the ride's "first-drop value" and "lateral forces." Many in the audience are veteran Raven riders, and there's an insider's intimacy to their questions. "Is a family of raccoons still living in the rafters?" someone shouts. Bob Prentki, a conference organizer, holds the phone and dutifully passes on each question. Koch has supplied a snappily produced video in which he greets us standing high on the coaster's track. The Raven is rated as the third best wooden roller coaster by Inside Track magazine. He says it cost $2,000,000. This isn't bush-league; the video includes a climactic segment in which Koch discusses roller coasters with Dan Rather on 48 Hours.

The day is packed with amusement-park functionaries explaining their latest hair-raising additions to existing structures and plans for new rides. Though not on the lineup, Nick Laskaris impulsively drove down from Wisconsin, where he and his father own and operate Big Chief Cart and Coaster World in the Dells. In black cashmere and leather, he looks out of place, a cosmopolitan sorbet against a hefty slice of middle-American apple pie. Laskaris is constructing a new roller coaster called Zeus and he's here to promote it. "Is it going to have two laps, like Cyclops has?" an ACEer asks, referring to another Dells ride. Laskaris hesitates to commit "until I actually get up there and ride it a few times and time it." He's brought his wife Eva and their teeny seven-week-old daughter Fotini. Looking at the tranquil mother and daughter, it's hard not to wonder what a typical day at Big Chief is like for them.

"Is your father's name Ralph, by any chance?"

I'm stunned to be recognized by anyone in this roomful of coaster geeks. This ACEer seems to know a lot of details about my family. Her name sounds familiar, but I can't pinpoint a connection. We shoot genealogical quizzes at each other. Sara Dura and her husband Jon take me under their wing, bringing me up to speed on who's who in the group. They've been ACE members for 17 years, keeping a precise "track list" of rides they've visited. It includes 125 coasters--85 steel and 40 wooden--located in 19 states and Canada. By all other accounts, they seem to be nice, well-adjusted, conventional folks--he's an assistant vice president at LaSalle National Bank, she's a customer service rep. They greet my admission of coaster fright with a consoling tale of how Jon learned to overcome his own fear. It was 1981, the official unveiling of the American Eagle--a woodie--at Six Flags Great America. Unable to summon the courage to ride the coaster, he watched from a helicopter as Sara lunged and curled on the red, white, and blue tracks. Afterward Jon reasoned that if he could bear the queasy zigzagging of a copter ride, why not take the coaster plunge? Since then, the Eagle has held a special place in their hearts; they've been on it a record 27 times in one day. Their personal best, however, was during a trip to New York, where they visited three amusement parks in one day and rode every single coaster. "It wasn't easy, but fortunately the last park stayed open until 10 PM," Jon says. To Jon and Sara, chasing all over the country in search of another coaster is normal behavior. Our talk is interrupted by the tinging of a spoon against a glass. A man commandeers the microphone and announces to the woman next to him: "Pat, I'd like to challenge you to the biggest roller coaster ride ever. Will you marry me?" This is normal?

"They're just crazy," says Connie Costello, a voice of reason. She's here to update the group on some planned improvements at Six Flags Great America. "Don't you think it's a little crazy to plan your weekends around a roller coaster? But ACE members are our bread and butter. They spend lots of time at the park. They're very knowledgeable and they'll let us know how they feel about things. They like to give us feedback."

"Imagine the forces on your body going from zero to 100 miles per hour in seven seconds," marvels one member. He's talking about linear induction motors, the kind the government has adopted from roller-coaster engineers to better catapult rockets into space. That's about what I had in mind during my one and only aborted coaster ride many years ago. After being strapped into place by the park attendant, my breathing became short and labored. Just before the dry heaves kicked in, I got cold feet and unbound myself, jumping out before the ride began.

Once again my instincts take over. It's time to leave. By now, Sara and I have traced our roots, and it looks like we are blood relatives after all, perhaps proving that roller-coaster phobias are not genetic. As we say good-bye we're not sure when we'll meet again. Of course, I know where I can find her. She'll be at Stark Raven Mad '97 along with just about everyone else in the room. But I won't be there because I'm not.

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