The few, the fearless, the fanatical
VALENCIA, CALIF. — They are, in their own estimation "madcap" even "rash." Many admit openly to unresolved issues with (gulp!) ... restlessness. Usually lifelong lovers of roller coasters, they travel the country more weekends than not. Of all ages, races, and creeds, they sample the highest, fastest, and scariest coasters worldwide. Then they huddle en masse via website and chatrooms to pronounce judgment.
Some observers say they're fearless. Others say they're shameless thrill-seekers who lack the good sense God gave a gnat. Still others credit them with being a major force in the multibillion-dollar theme-park industry beating the drum for dozens of famous coasters whose host parks have teetered on the economic margin, losing billions in revenue in the travel-wary post-9/11 economy.
They are American Coaster Enthusiasts (ACE) an 8,000-member roller-coaster fan club.
This month is the 25th anniversary of ACE. And as the busy summer coaster-riding season opened last week with the close of schools, members kicked off a year of celebration with ACE's 25th annual conference here at the Six Flags Magic Mountain park the largest roller-coaster collection in the world (15 of them, with 3 built in just the past 12 months).
They're using the moment to make their message resonate anew in terror-wary America: Good old-fashioned thrill seeking is more than just ok it's really good for you.
Scurrying like ants at a picnic to the park's arsenal of wood, steel, looping, and backwards-falling coasters, ACE members are irrepressible in their quests. They search for the best in air time (seat liftoff), G-forces (the press of centrifugal force), speed, fake-outs (menacing obstructions/ tunnels/low-hanging beams) and vertical drop.
Members' seem outwardly normal, say those who know and love them, but their inner motivations and esoteric ways are strange. They wear such garb as whirligig hats and scream uncontrollably. They're the ones doing prayerlike prostrations from the front rows of passing coaster cars while shooting in and out of tunnels or around sharp curves.
"Many people think we're just whacked, but we just enjoy living on the edge more than most," says Jess Novak, a Ford Motor Company technician who has ridden 350 different coasters since he was six years old.
Interviewed after his 10th straight ride on "Goliath" a 255-foot-high, 85 m.p.h. mega-coaster Mr. Novak, a Michigan resident here for the ACE conference explains the appeal: "What I like about this ride is the G-forces make your vision get pixelized and conical at the edges, but you come out of it just before you black out."
Serious afficionados have serious criteria for evaluating their rides. Each ride must be sampled from different seats, they say, because a ride is far different from front, to middle to back. They say they have to ride at different hours of the day to get a comprehensive reading of the coaster's capabilities and quirks.
"Back seats give the best liftoff, front seats give the most fright, the middle is best for bunny hops," says Mike Thompson, a computer programmer from Maine who visits theme parks 35 times a year.
"Sometimes you ride a car in the morning and by nighttime it's completely different," says Thompson. "Sometimes the chain grease heats up, which can make it faster or slower; sometimes the maintenance is bad that day. The general public isn't really aware of how much these things can dramatically change the experience."
If that sounds like overkill, ACE members don't care. They're intent on the search for the heart-wrenching dropoff, the mind-bending turn, the stomach-churning twist. Many say it amounts to simulated fear in an ultimately safe setting.
"I love the feeling of feeling completely free ... it's so thrilling to have controlled chaos in your body that you know won't hurt you," says Amberly Neece, from Avondale, Ariz.
"For most of these people, this is their complete thrill in life a release from tension, stress, fear," says ACE veteran John Kavanagh, a TV news anchor from Fresno, Calif. "They don't do drugs, they don't do alcohol. Basically, they're saying, 'Treat yourself right. Get on a good roller coaster and you'll be happy."
But even though ACE is often viewed as a group of people who like to get together to ride coasters, they also work to promote and preserve coasters and older parks so today's children's children will have the chance to enjoy them.
"ACE is the most organized and elite group of fans in the industry," says Andy Gallardo, spokesman for Six Flags Magic Mountain. "They provide great word-of-mouth [advertising] throughout the industry but they are also our most vocal critics. We know we better have our rides running smoothly and our park in shape or they will tell their friends. We get constant feedback on what kind of rides our clients are looking for, which ones will be popular and which ones won't."
Every year, members attend a preservation conference at older, smaller, endangered parks to enjoy the classic rides and help teach the public about the historical treasures they have in their neighborhoods.
The organization had a direct role in saving and restoring the world's oldest coaster "Leap the Dips" at Lakemont Park in Altoona, Pa. They got the coaster recognized as a national historic landmark and raised more than $100,000 to help restore it to operating condition.
Several other parks are in serious danger of closing and two have recently shut down. But ACE is leading efforts to save Americana park in Middletown, Ohio, and Whalom Park in Lunenberg, Mass.
"Both are excellent examples of amusement park history with classic old rides and coasters, and it will be a terrible loss of American culture if they can't be saved," says ACE spokesman Ric Rumba.