The Joker's Wild

From zero to 60 mph in a heartbeat, 'Joker's Jinx' at Six Flags in Largo roars to the front in a banner year for new roller coasters. And you should see what's just over the next hill.

May 06, 1999|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

Flick Vaaa-ZOOOOOOOOM!

Cracklin' coasters, Batman! Those diabolical Gen-X roller coaster designers at Premier Rides Inc. are about to launch a new gut-wrencher at Gotham City, part of the Six Flags America park in Largo!

That's right, kids. The new "Joker's Jinx," the Maryland coaster-builder's eighth tower of torment, opens for business Saturday, making the former Adventure World part of the biggest boom year for roller coasters since the Depression.

The $10 million ride's hot new linear induction motors will launch coaster fanatics from zero to 60 mph in just over three seconds. As they whip through a "spaghetti bowl" of 55 curves and dips and four upside-down loops, some may wish the half-mile-long ride could last a lot longer than just two minutes. Others may pray that God -- and not one of the steel supports whooshing past their skulls -- will put a quick end to their terror.

But that, says Premier Rides' chief engineer of fear, is a good thing. "You do want people to be scared," says Jim Seay, the 38-year-old president of Premier Rides. "That's the great thing about our business. Our No. 1 goal is to scare people."

Well, not exactly.

Talk with Seay (pronounced "shay") long enough and another, even more important objective emerges. In his quiet headquarters tucked away in a nondescript office park in Millersville, he'll admit that safety comes first. Safety -- and making sure that the park's "guests" can assume that any perceived danger is a carefully engineered illusion. "The business is, on the surface, all imagination and amusement," he says. "But as you go below that layer, the whole focus is on providing a safe environment. All you're thinking about is fun, while all the people who work at the park are thinking about is your safety."

It seems to be working. Occasional roller coaster accidents do occur, and amusement parks do get sued. But riders continue to line up, and parks are on a coaster-building binge. "This year in North America we are seeing the introduction of 60 new, moved or renovated coasters," says coaster historian Paul Reuben, editor of Park World, an amusement industry trade magazine. "That is the most new coasters in a single year since the Great Depression." It's a sort of roller coaster arms race among the parks, with each one hyping its claims to this season's newest, highest, fastest, wildest or most high-tech new coaster.

For his part, Seay offers a different sort of hyperbole for Premier's latest creation. It's "relentless," he says.

"Of all our rides," says Seay, "Joker's Jinx is probably one of the most intense layouts, a tremendous amount of activity in a very small amount of space."

Fear without fright

At Premier, it's Seay's job to produce the thrills without sacrificing safety or comfort.

While the technology may exist to push coaster speeds over 200 mph, to reach heights beyond the current 200-foot "megacoaster" category, and to drive G-forces to levels where fighter pilots blanch, pushing a design too far drives construction costs too high -- and scares away too many potential paying customers.

"Six Flags is known for its thrill rides," Seay says, said, "but they still don't want you to have to be between 16 and 30 to enjoy the thrills."

G-forces -- that sense of being crushed into your seat or safety restraints -- occur as the coaster's acceleration and curves clash with the physical laws that try to hold your body still or keep it moving in a straight line.

You experience one "G" -- the force of gravity times one -- just waiting in line. But seconds after the Joker's Jinx zooms out of its loading tunnel and turns skyward at 60 mph, you'll feel 3 1/2 Gs. That means a 150-pound person will feel, briefly, as if he's suddenly porked up to 525 pounds.

That's about what space shuttle astronauts feel during their launch, but far below the 8 Gs John Glenn experienced during his 1962 Mercury liftoff. Fighter pilots can "pull" 8 or 10 Gs in combat maneuvers. Without an assist from their pressurized flight suits, they would risk blackouts as their blood became too heavy to pump to their brains.

"We tend to keep our G-force levels fairly low," Seay says. "But there are no absolute parameters."

His coaster engineers are more concerned about keeping people comfortable. That means limiting their high-G time, smoothing their transitions from normal gravity to high-Gs and back, and regulating their time in negative Gs -- that sense of floating "hang time" prized by coaster fanatics.

Premier designs its coasters around a "heart line." That means the track is shaped and banked so if seen from behind, your body would appear to rotate around a spindle through your heart -- near your center of gravity.

"In the old days, they would bank it around your feet," Seay says. But that amplified the stresses on head and neck. By pivoting around the heart, the ride is smoother and more comfortable.

Adding to the illusion

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