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The Racer introduced the second coming of the Golden Age of the wooden roller coaster

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The second coming

John Keeter

Kings Island Blog Contributor

Coney Island’s Shooting Star roller coaster was immensely popular with guests. However, after years of flood damage, and general operational wear and tear, it could not be relocated to Kings Island for the park's opening in 1972. Besides, park designers wanted something bigger and better.

When Kings Island was being conceived, Gary Wachs (Coney Island Vice-President) had recalled the “racing” type coasters that were popular back in the early part of the century. The new Coney Island section would be a nostalgic nod to Turn-of-the-Century parks, so that style coaster would lend itself perfectly. Problem was, they needed someone to build it.

So Wachs turned to John Allen, the president of The Philadelphia Toboggan Company. Allen’s work building amusement rides and coasters was well known among park owners. However, well into his 60’s, Allen had been in the business for 50 years and was preparing for retirement. So he turned the project down.

But Wachs didn’t take no for an answer. At an industry trade show in Chicago, he and his father, Ralph Wachs, invited Allen for drinks and by the end of the evening, they had convinced him to design and oversee construction of their coaster.

What none of them realized is that the coaster would revolutionize the industry – literally breathing a second life into a dead art form. Prior to The Racer’s opening, there had been a drastic decline in interest of roller coasters. Of the estimated 1,500 that once dotted the country in the 1920’s, only around 120 were left. In the 1940’s-1960’s, construction of new coasters had slowed to less than a handful being built per decade. That all changed once The Racer opened.

When it premiered on April 29, 1972, The Racer was the longest, tallest and fastest roller coaster in the world. It stands 88 feet high, has a 45-degree first drop of 83 feet and reaches a speed of 53 m.p.h. It has four trains (two Red, two Blue) that were timed to “race” along two tracks, each nearly 3,500 feet in length. It was built using over 600,000 board feet of virgin Douglas Fir lumber shipped from the West Coast. Originally budgeted for $700,000, The Racer’s final price tag was $1.2 million.

Allen designed what he termed a ”negative gravity experience.” He calculated the height and speed of the hills to raise riders an average of 7/16 inches off their seats. The design and engineering started in December of 1969, construction began in September of 1970. 

The Racer holds the little-known distinction of being one of the first coasters where sections called “bents” were first assembled on the ground then raised by crane and bolted in place. It’s a process by which all modern wood coasters are built today. In addition, the coaster was painted as it was being assembled, rather than after construction was complete.

The Racer took its maiden voyage in September of 1971, to which Allen exclaimed “It rides like a baby coach!” It opened to the public with Kings Island on April 29, 1972.  John Allen was present at Kings Island that day to see the public react to his ‘baby” and he couldn’t have been happier. It was an immense success, and garnered such national media exposure that park owners across the world clamored to build new coasters of their own. This is what amusement industry leaders, and coaster enthusiasts, refer to as the beginning of the “Second Golden Age of Roller Coasters.” 

In the 45 years since The Racer made its debut, there’s been hundreds of new coasters added to parks – and it is all thanks to Allen’s Racer.

Allen would design and oversee the build of five more wooden coasters after The Racer, including Woodstock Express (originally the Scooby Doo) for Kings Island. 

In 1977, the Kings Island management once again asked Allen to design another coaster. Unable to take on a project of the size and scope they were planning, he instead gave them his engineering calculations. That gift enabled the park to design and build The Beast, which opened in 1979.

Allen passed away at the age of 72 in August of 1979 but his “Baby”, and his legend, lives on.

 

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John Keeter

Kings Island Blog Contributor

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