New Coasters Push Thrills, and the Body, to the Limit

May 24, 2006

It's supposed to be fun—throttling down a track like a rocket, climbing towers taller than the Statue of Liberty, and slingshotting through corkscrews and loops.

Now, thanks to cutting edge research and engineering, roller coasters, always tortuous, are edging ever closer to torturous. The key question: How much can the body handle?

For decades roller coasters were mostly wooden. The use of tubular steel track, beginning in the 1970s, ushered in a sort of arms race, with amusement parks vying aggressively for the titles of fastest, tallest, and scariest.

(Watch a preview of the National Geographic Channel's SuperCoasters TV special, which premieres Sunday at 8 p.m. ET/9 p.m. PT in the United States. National Geographic News is part of the National Geographic Society, which is part owner of the National Geographic Channel.)

Coaster Wars

One of the first parks to lay claim to the speed title was Cedar Point amusement park in Sandusky, Ohio.

In 1989 the park inaugurated one of the world's first supercoasters, the Magnum XL-200.

At a height of 205 feet (62 meters) and racing at speeds of up to 72 miles an hour (116 kilometers an hour), the ride was the first so-called hypercoaster and set the standard for roller coaster design.

But by the late 1990s these height and speed records were shattered by 300-foot (91-meter) "gigacoasters" that launched passengers at speeds of over 100 miles an hour (185 kilometers an hour).

Monty Jasper, vice president of maintenance and new construction at Cedar Point, has overseen much of the development for the park's extreme roller coasters.

"Roller coasters are big potential energy machines," Jasper said.

"Traditionally they involve releasing [the train] from a chain at a great height. That is a classic roller coaster. Now roller coasters are getting extra things."

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