The Fahrenheit roller coaster slowly climbs 121 feet straight up a steel track that appears to disappear in the sky over Hersheypark in Hershey, Pa. (pop. 12,771).
"Where'd the track go?" passenger Mark Cole shouts as the coaster plunges toward the ground at 58 mph, whips around an inverted loop, hurtles over hills, and flips riders upside down through two corkscrew rolls.
When the 85-second ride ends and Cole is back on solid ground, he gives two thumbs up to the surprising plummet on the newest roller coaster at Hersheypark.
"It was definitely unexpected," says Cole, 48, president of the American Coaster Enthusiasts who's flipped and dipped thousands of times on more than 500 roller coasters around the world.
During the group's spring preservation meeting in May, the middle-school math teacher from Winter Haven, Fla., braved the Fahrenheit along with 400 other club members, including Christian Bruggeman, 19, of Butler, Pa.
Bruggeman couldn't stop smiling after the exhilarating ride. "Fantastic the whole time," he says. "It was like being in an ejector seat."
Those prized seconds of airtime keep roller coaster fans lining up to ride the Fahrenheit and Hersheypark's 10 other coasters again and again.
A ride through history
Roller coasters are descended from 16th-century rides called Russian Mountains, which were ice-covered wooden slides in St. Petersburg and other Russian cities. In the summertime, thrill seekers rode in wheeled carts, instead of sleds, down the undulating wooden ramps, some as high as 70 feet.
In the United States, the first successful commercial roller coaster opened in 1884 at Coney Island in Brooklyn, N.Y., and attracted crowds from the get-go. For a nickel, passengers rode the Switchback Railway, which traveled up and down a short track at 6 mph over mild hills and valleys.
The ride yielded $600 a day for the amusement park and inspired other builders and inventors to erect similar attractions. The first roller coasters had railroad-style wheels that rolled on iron rails, but innovations in the early 1900s locked the wheels to the track and led to faster coasters with steeper drops and curves.
By the 1930s, nearly 2,000 roller coasters were operating from coast to coast. Two survivors from that golden age are the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk's 1924 Giant Dipper in Santa Cruz, Calif., and the 1927 Coney Island Cyclone, both National Historic Landmarks.
Then came the Great Depression, television and rising land values. Many amusement parks closed, and hundreds of roller coasters were demolished during the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.
The bumpy ride wasn't over, however. In 1972, the wooden Racer opened at Kings Island in Mason, Ohio, and proved so popular that it sparked a new appreciation for roller coasters. Americans went head over heels again with both the classic coasters with wooden-plank tracks and contemporary coasters with steel tracks that could be bent into ever-more-terrifying shapes.
Today, 114 wooden coasters and 535 steel coasters operate across the nation, and their most passionate fans and preservationists are the 7,000 members of American Coaster Enthusiasts (ACE).
"Wooden coasters are rare and we want to keep them," says Richard Munch, 55, a Cleveland architect who helped form the club in 1978. "They're a very major part of American culture."
Through publicity and donations, ACE members have helped save, restore and relocate three endangered coasters. Successes include the restoration of the world's oldest wooden coaster, Leap-the-Dips, which opened in 1902 at Lakemont Park in Altoona, Pa., and relocation of the 1947 Rocket from a defunct park in San Antonio, Texas, to Knoebels Amusement Resort in Elysburg, Pa., where it was rechristened The Phoenix.
"Saving an old roller coaster is no different than saving an old movie house," says Howard Gillooly, 44, of Twinsburg, Ohio, and ACE's preservation director. "They're part of our heritage."
Though they come from diverse backgrounds, club members are united in their craziness for coasters. Some spend their vacations at ACE conventions, including the six-day Coaster Con each June, and thousands of dollars to ride roller coasters around the world. They've forged lifelong friendships and romances at roller coaster get-togethers from coast to coast.
"I have good friends in the club that I've known for over 20 years," says Bill Linkenheimer, 42, of Pittsburgh, who joined ACE in 1980.
Club members Dave Altman, 58, and his wife, Maggie, 61, of Pittsburgh, even renewed their wedding vows on a roller coasterthe Flight of Fear at Kings Dominion in Doswell, Va.
Most enthusiasts have their favorite coasters and, for Torrence Jenkins, 42, of Denver, Pa., it's the classic wooden rides. "With a steel ride, you're going to get the same ride every time," Jenkins says, "but a wood coaster can live and breathe and change. The temperature can affect it. So can humidity."
Coasting since childhood
For most coaster fanatics, the clank-clank-clank of a roller coaster climbing a steep hill is a happy sound from childhood summers.
"My oldest roller coaster memory is the Runaway Mine Train at Six Flags at age 6," says Tim Baldwin, 47, an elementary school art teacher from Grand Prairie, Texas, who as a child built roller coasters with Tinkertoys.
Marty Moltz, 64, a Chicago judge who swaps his black robe for Hawaiian shirts and hot-pink socks for ACE events, also got hooked on roller coasters as a boy. "Every Saturday when I was 8 and 9, I'd ride my bike to Riverview Park," he says. "It cost a dime to ride and a nickel to re-ride."
Whether it's an old-fashioned wooden coaster navigating gentle dips or a 200-foot-high coaster with cars that hang beneath the track and leave riders feet dangling in the air, roller coasters throughout history have served the same purposea ticket for fun.
"All of us want to relive our childhood to a certain degree," Cole says about ACE members, "and some of us just never grow out of it."