Spending the day at Kings Dominion with Ray Ueberroth proved one thing for certain: He is not like normal people. At least not when it comes to riding roller coasters.
Our suspicions about him developed during our first ride of the day aboard the hair-raising Anaconda. Maybe you've seen the television commercials promoting it. Carloads of young people are shown returning from the 90-second ride with white hair and wrinkles. For once, there could be truth in advertising.
The Anaconda is the only coaster in the world to plunge riders through an underwater tunnel; it's the only one in the country with a twisting butterfly turn. The average person feels a little apprehensive about riding it. I am an average person. I was terrified.
Still, when the train pulled up, Mr. Ueberroth and I hopped into the rear car. My husband, who loves roller coasters and who begged to accompany me on this assignment, got in behind us. The line of cars jolted forward onto the tracks. a ratcheting noise kicked in as we were dragged up (clack), up (clack), up (clack), to the top of the first drop. We balanced there, 130 feet in the air, for a tense, stretched second. Then the ride released us.
Whoooosh! We dove down the track, hurtling toward a pool of water and a very tiny black hole. It appeared as if -- no, it was true! The coaster could not fit through that tiny opening!!
The car blasted back into blinding daylight, and that's when I noticed the maniacal laughter. Wild and strange, I heard it in surround-sound as we spun madly into a 360-degree-loop. Waaaaaaaa ha-ha-ha-ha! Waaaaaaaa ha-ha-ha-ha!!! We dangled upside down for a split second, defying gravity, held in place by our shoulder harnesses. I noticed another sound, a yell that tripped briskly up the scale and back down it: WoooOOOooo!
Wham! We were forced through the sidewinder loop, then bounced hard over a series of dips. It dawned on me that the mad laugh was emanating from my husband, the Coaster Head, a hearty guy, the one who was supposed to take notes in case my stomach betrayed me all over Mr. Ueberroth's shoes. Waaaa ha-ha-ha-ha-ha! And his brave-looking seat partner, a man with bulging biceps, was the one singing the scales in terror.
In contrast to those and the other animalistic shouts punctuating the ride, Mr. Ueberroth was letting loose with an oddly casual yelp, followed by -- I swear -- a chuckle. Sort of like: Whoa! Heh heh. Whoo! Ha ha. The sound said: Gee, isn't this a bit of fun?
We careened into the butterfly configuration, a turn that throws you 60 degrees to the side but doesn't flip you over. I gripped the lock-in bar, and braced for the corkscrew, two final nerve-racking, upside down twists. The ride slowed and stopped. I pried my fingers from the bar, and my stomach mercifully slid back to its normal spot. I turned to look at my husband. His hair was standing straight on end.
Then I looked at Ray Ueberroth. Not one hair on his head was out of place. He looked as mild-mannered as Clark Kent, as relaxed as a baby lost in slumber. He was grinning.
SHOULD WE HAVE GUESSED THAT Mr. Ueberroth's pulse would barely blip as we rode five coasters in a row, some of them twice? He is, after all, president of the American Coaster Enthusiasts. Each year, we learned, he leaves his Baltimore home and spends from 30 to 60 days riding coasters. His age: 54. Three years ago, he retired from a career in the public school system. (He had moved up the ranks from English teacher to principal to director of Anne Arundel County senior high schools). This past April, in Tulsa, Okla., he rode his 300th coaster.
"I rode my first coaster at 6, and I've been riding ever since," Mr. Ueberroth told us during our only break of the day. "My aunt is the one who made me do it. My parents didn't like to ride coasters, and neither did my sister or my aunt's husband. So she grabbed me. And I loved it."
The first trip the young Ueberroth made after being licensed to drive was to a roller coaster 50 miles from his native Bethlehem, Pa. Every chance they got, he and his sister and their friends explored amusement parks throughout Pennsylvania and up and down the Jersey Shore, the Ueberroth family's summer stomping grounds.
Back then, amusement parks and piers were everywhere. Many had been built by trolley car companies trying to attract nighttime and weekend riders. With a park at the end of the line, people had a fun place to ride to. Parks were smaller then, with a set of standard rides: one that tilted, one that whipped, one that spun, plus bumper cars, roller rinks, carousels, Ferris wheels, and two or three coasters.
It wasn't until 1983 that Mr. Ueberroth heard of ACE. He sympathized with the club's goal of preserving old wooden coasters, the kind he grew up with and still prefers. Countless woodies have been destroyed and replaced by steel coasters, or sadly, have not been replaced at all.