The Beast is celebrating its 40th anniversary at Kings Island this year. This coaster, when it first opened April 14, 1979 was the longest and fastest roller coaster in the world. It still holds the title as the longest wooden roller coaster in the world at 7,359 feet. We’ve all heard about The Beast; now it’s time to meet one of its makers. Jeff Gramke started out as a surveyor before he embarked on the ride of his life.
Sitting across from Jeff in his office, with one of the original Beast train fronts framed behind him, he reminds me of Jeff Goldblum as Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park, except instead of being fascinated with chaos theory, this Jeff is all about The Beast. As the interview began, his eyes lit up when I started asking him about it, and he talked about the coaster as though he were talking about his favorite grandchild.
Jeff, what was your first reaction when John Allen handed Al Collins the menu with formulas on it and said, “You guys can design the ride yourself.”?
“Our first reaction was we thought he was kidding, so we didn’t think much of it that night. We just thought it was the wine and beer at dinner talking. After we looked at the plans and all the formulas written on the back of the menu, we realized that dissimilar from what we were doing as surveyors. We talked about it the next day, the company talked about it, senior management at the time talked it over, we talked to John and he gave us a whole bunch more information, I have a book that he sent us and it had everything that he had ever learned about roller coasters. He shared it with us because he was retiring, so we had that. The company decided to go ahead and let us design it with John’s oversight. As soon as we got started, we sent John some information, and John said “You guys got it, you don’t need me.” So he got out of it and stepped aside.”
What was one of your favorite memories during construction?
“Oh my gosh, I have a ton of them. One of the bad memories I had was there was a huge tree that was near the first drop and we actually redesigned the ride because of that tree. When we dug the first tunnel, we piled a bunch of dirt up in the woods, near that tree. The excavator that we had doing the job was just finishing up back filling the tunnel, As he getting ready to load his big dozer onto the back of a truck to take it out of here, he spun around hit that tree with his push bumper and barked it up about 30 feet, just ripped the bark right off the tree. So we went to the landscapers that were here and asked them if they could save the tree and they said “nope”. That was one of the bad memories, but the good one was after we got it built, after we ran it, and it went around the first time, you know we knew it would because we were calculating that it would, but always in the back of your mind you’re wondering, “will it work?” Especially when it was coming up out of the helix and make it back and it did, so that was pretty exciting to see that happen.”
If you could go back and change an element of the Beast or even redesign it completely, would you?
“Yeah, I probably would. I would probably make the helix bigger, make it wider, to have more room inside the helix, that’s about the only thing. We had the luxury of having a lot of space, so we were able to straighten the train out. John recommended making sure you were on straight track for at least half the length of the train. So if a train is 55 feet, you want it to be half of that, but we had the luxury of straightening out the whole train, so I think that’s what’s made The Beast so good and lasting over the years. We were just very lucky to have John Allen. We called him a genius, I used to tell everyone that we felt he had forgotten more about roller coasters than most people ever learn. He just knew everything.”
What was your first ride on The Beast like? Did it exceed your expectations?
“Uh yeah, it was a little wild because we didn’t have it done yet. When I first rode it, it wasn’t 100% complete, we hadn’t put all of the bracing on it yet. We don’t do that anymore, we don’t test them until they’ve been run through accelerometer testing done on them over and over again, but back then people did. Most coaster designers did it by the seat of their pants. They just tried it. So it was pretty exciting the first time, because the first time we ran it, it didn’t have any brakes.”
Settle the argument: is The Beast better during the day or at night?
“I’d say night, because you can’t see what’s coming, it’s good during the day too. Fortunately you can ride it with your eyes closed because we’re straightening you out, we aren’t racking you around back and forth, back and forth. So you can ride it in the dark and your body will make the adjustments it needs to make from having your head bang around too much.”
Is the front of the train or the back of the train a better ride?
“The back. I think that’s true with just about any coaster because you get a little bit of everything. Since it’s an attached train, when you’re going up a hill, everything is gravity, so gravity is slowing the train down. As the front of the car crests over the top of the hill, its now going downhill, so theoretically it should be getting faster, so the people in the front car, because the people in the back cars are still going uphill and gravity is trying to slow them down, they aren’t going as fast as they should be. So when you’re in the front of a coaster car and go over the hill, it feels like someone is putting on the brakes, you actually slide forward in your seat because you are not attached to the car. When you’re in the back of the car, it feels like you’re accelerating all the time, because you’re going faster up the hill than you should normally be so you’re pushed back in your seat. We designed the ride to be perfect in the middle.”
Tell me one thing about The Beast that hardly anyone knows.
“Probably the biggest thing is that we re-banked the first curve coming out of the tunnel overnight to get the ride able to run. So we actually built the ride, tested it, realized there wasn’t enough bank in that turn and decided before we opened it up to the public that we needed to fix it. We actually rebuilt that whole first curve in one night, it was like an army out there. We had probably 50 people, we had people taking the stuff apart, we had people doing measurements, Al and I calculated where all the bends needed to go, so we told them how high to go, and where to drill the holes. We had other guys plugging the old holes, we had guys changing the handrails and then we had guys that were doing nothing but cutting wood. It was a huge joint effort.”
There you have it, friends! Make sure to ride The Beast during its 40th anniversary season. Use the comments section below to share some of your favorite Beast memories.
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