CHICAGO — Alan Schilke’s job is to make people scream.
As a hotshot roller-coaster designer, Schilke promised to build a massive, record-setting wooden coaster at Six Flags Great America in Gurnee, Ill. When he saw how small the construction site was, crammed between a railroad track and other rides, he knew he would have to do back flips to squeeze shrieks out of his customers.
“Necessity is the mother of invention,” he said. “We had to make a crazy ride just to get it to fit on the site.”
The resulting attraction will set three records for wooden roller coasters. Goliath will be the fastest and steepest wooden coaster in the world, with the longest drop. It will hurtle riders at 72 mph down an 85-degree, 180-foot cliff before rocketing them into hairpin curves, two upside-down twists and a zero-gravity stall to make passengers feel momentarily weightless.
Goliath is the latest creation in a revolution in roller-coaster construction, aficionados say. Its patented new construction technique manipulates wooden tracks into shapes never before seen, with inversions, over-banked curves and whip-crack reversals of direction.
The rising coaster structure is still a few weeks from completion. The Goliath is due for its public opening May 31, with a preview for season ticket holders the day before. Roller-coaster lovers are already planning group outings.
“We are definitely excited to ride this thing,” said Scott Heck, a spokesman for American Coaster Enthusiasts. “I know a lot of people across the country want to come. I can’t wait.”
The coaster is being built by the upstart innovator in wooden coasters, Rocky Mountain Construction Group, out of Hayden, Idaho. Before launching the business with his wife, co-founder Fred Grubb was a carpenter and welder building coasters at Silverwood Theme Park in Idaho. Frequently working to repair old wooden coasters, which often wore out where the wheels made contact, he and his engineers decided there must be a better way.
While traditional wooden roller coasters like the American Eagle or Little Dipper at Great America have simple steel plates lining the track where the wheels go, Rocky Mountain instead built a steel trap that encases the wood track and is much stronger.
The company then developed a method of building new wooden coasters that prefabricates computer-designed tracks. Rather than building tracks on-site, as done in the past, Rocky Mountain cuts, flexes and welds the steel into whatever shape is needed and fastens it to laminated pine in the shop, while curving it to within a sixteenth-of-an-inch margin of error over 40 feet of track.
That technique allows the track to bend in ways traditional wooden rides wouldn’t. The company used its new design to retrofit two coasters in Texas — though one site was marred by the death of a person who fell off the ride last summer.
The company wowed riders last year after it built the new Outlaw Run coaster at Silver Dollar City in Branson, Mo. The ride won a Golden Ticket Award from Amusement Today as the best new amusement park ride of 2013.
Using similar techniques as Outlaw Run, Goliath’s wheels will ride on a metal covering that is also filled with grout to provide more strength and a quieter run — an important concern to neighbors who live near Great America. In addition, the cars will run not on traditional steel wheels but on nylon wheels in the cold and urethane in the heat.
The construction crew of about 35 men from Idaho included former tradesmen, loggers and rock climbers who had worked in more commonplace forms of commercial and residential construction. But as owner Grubb said, “Square (construction) is much easier than what we’re doing but not near as much fun.”
The workers are used to winter temperatures in northern Idaho that often drop below zero, but even they were taken aback by the latest Chicago winter, one of the worst on record.
“Our guys are tough,” Grubb said. “Even they said this is absolutely brutal.”
Since September, they’ve worked 11-hour days, six days a week through the snow and cold, missing only two full days of work because of weather. But with the wind chill and snow numbing workers’ hands and making footing on high structures treacherous, the crew members had to stop frequently to recover in warming shelters, cutting down productivity by more than half, supervisors said.
Crews still must finish building the track and installing the mechanicals, like the chain that lifts the cars and the magnetic brakes that stop it. Then will come hundreds of test runs, featuring water-filled dummies wearing accelerometers to ensure that riders can tolerate forces exceeding three times the pull of gravity.
Despite the winter work, crew members say building coasters is a lot more rewarding than building an office or a sewage treatment plant.
“It’s better,” supervisor Matt Whiteman said, “because when you’re done, you get to ride what you’re working on.”
Park officials wouldn’t say exactly how much the coaster cost but said it was more than $10 million. One-time admission to the park for an adult will be $64.99 this year, up $1 from last year, which is a typical yearly increase and not due to the cost of Goliath, spokeswoman Katy Enrique said.
Replacing the stand-up Iron Wolf steel coaster, which moved to another park, the Goliath will make Great America the wooden roller coaster capital of the world, park officials say, with more feet of wooden track than anywhere else. When finished, the 3,100-foot ride is expected to last about a minute and a half — though the moment riders plunge over the top may seem to last an eternity.
Steel coasters at the park like Raging Bull can bend crazily and go faster and higher, but traditionalists love the look and ride of wooden coasters, which are increasingly rare. Schilke, the designer, says wooden coasters feel faster in a tight space, as riders whip by support structures and roll with less friction.
“It’s a different feel,” he said. “Everybody knows the difference. If you closed your eyes, you’d say, ‘I’m on a wooden coaster here.’ ”
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