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100 MPH, Then Free Fall; Are We Having Fun Now?

May 14, 1996

VALENCIA, Calif. (AP) _ Frightful new attractions are popping up across the country this summer, luring youngsters on high-speed joyrides and flouting the fundamental law of the land.

The law of gravity, that is.

A new roller coaster opening June 1 at Six Flags Magic Mountain is designed to break the 100 mph barrier for the first time. The ride, called Superman the Escape, propels riders from a standstill to 100 mph in seven seconds up a 415-foot tower, where they float in zero gravity until they drop backward.

That happens at 100 mph, too. Weightlessness lasts about 6.5 seconds, another record, the park says.

But Superman isn’t the season’s first superlative, and it won’t be the last. Competition is pushing designers to make rides like Olympic athletes: faster, higher and _ one hopes _ stronger.

``We’re in the roller coaster arms race,″ said Paul L. Ruben, whose job as North American editor of the trade magazine Park World has sent him aloft on 400 of the world’s major coasters. ``I’ve seen this occurring for 20 years or more. Every park likes to have bragging rights to the fastest, wildest ride for at least one year.″

Las Vegas made its bid with The Big Shot and The High Roller, both atop the new 1,149-foot Stratosphere tower. The High Roller coaster tools around a track near the top of the tower. Connoisseurs call the ride tame, the views spectacular.

Some people squeeze their eyes shut on The Big Shot. It shoots riders 160 feet up toward the top of tower at 45 mph, then drops them back to the 921-foot level.

``This is the most exciting thing I’ve ever done next to jumping out of an airplane,″ said Chuck Manuele, 64, of San Bruno. ``The view is spectacular. I would recommend it to anybody.″

Bruce Ratajczyk, 27, of Seattle pronounced the experience ``awesome″ and ``just unbelievable″ before rushing back for his third trip up Tuesday.

Superman and Big Shot use new ``Star Wars″ military technology. Electromagnetic propulsion has already replaced chains and motors at rides in Mexico City, Kentucky Kingdom in Louisville and Wisconsin Dells. Other such rides are opening at Worlds of Fun in Kansas City, Mo.; Universal Studios Florida; and Dreamland, near Sydney, Australia, Ruben said.

Promoters in the hype-happy amusement business have been bragging about 100 mph coasters since the 1920s. But that was before radar guns and truth-in-advertising laws.

Actually, 82 mph is the record right now, claimed jointly by the Desperado at Buffalo Bill’s Casino in Stateline, Nev., and the Steel Phantom in Kennywood, outside Pittsburgh.

The new tallest standup coaster, Mantis, debuted last week at Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio. It’s the 12th at Cedar Point, which boasts the most roller coasters of any park in the world.

The world’s loopiest roller coaster opened last year: Dragon Khan in Port Aventura near Barcelona, Spain, inverts riders eight times.

Superman is a ``shuttle″ coaster, meaning the cars cover the track forward, then backward. A new Japanese ride about to open at Fujiku Highlands in Yamanashi Prefecture is the highest and fastest of the ``continuous-track″ coasters _ but because of the twists and turns, its speed will be nowhere near Superman’s.

Providing the speed and the scares are electromagnet motors developed for the military, said Jim Blackie, head engineer at Magic Mountain, north of Los Angeles. The motors _ white boxes spaced along the tracks _ pull magnets on the cars, shooting them faster as they cross each one.

Scientists experimented with them to shoot satellites into orbit on tracks aiming skyward. On Superman, people are the payload.

Blackie said he’ll be getting the first crack at Superman.

``I’m going to be the first person in the front seat of the first car,″ he said.

Scared? ``Absolutely.″

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