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The Beast: 40 Years of Terror

Don Helbig

Area Manager, Digital Marketing - Kings Island

Twitter: @DonHelbig

Forty years ago, the phenomenon known as The Beast debuted. The ride’s opening in 1979 shook the roller coaster world to its very foundations, breaking all existing records as the longest, the fastest and, well, just plain baddest ride in the world. In roller coasters, there had been nothing else like it anywhere and it took riders to a place they’d never been before, delivering the next level of big thrill, adrenaline-pumping excitement. For sheer size, speed and thrills, The Beast stood alone in a class by itself.

The record-breaking features of The Beast included a 7,359-foot long track (1.4 miles) and ride time of four minutes, 10 seconds; vertical drops of 135 feet (at a 45-degree angle) and 141 feet (at an 18-degree angle); a 125-foot long underground tunnel at the bottom of the 135-foot drop; eight banked turns, some to 45 degrees; a massive, 540-degree helix tunnel near the end and speeds up to 64.77 miles per hour.

So where did it begin, this idea to build The Beast? It actually began as a dream of recreating one of the Midwest’s most popular old roller coasters.

When Kings Island construction and engineering personnel began planning to build a new coaster, their aim was to reconstruct the old Shooting Star, an immensely popular ride at Cincinnati’s Coney Island before the park closed in 1971. Charles Dinn, Kings Island’s director of construction, maintenance and engineering at the time, had surveyed the Shooting Star before it was torn down and had recorded each measurement of the ride. Dinn and his crew had even chosen a site, right next to The Racer roller coaster. 

But Kings Island officials decided that rebuilding an old roller coaster was not the answer. While agreeing that a new Shooting Star would be great for nostalgia buffs, they reasoned that a newer, better roller coaster would be even more popular and have more of a universal appeal. But where would it be built, and what would it be like?

That’s when Kings Island’s management explored many options, and realized that a wooded area at the southeast corner of the park had terrain that could accommodate a very special coaster. The biggest roller coaster in the world; a roller coaster for the ages.

For direction, the park turned to the most famous roller coaster builder of them all, John C. Allen of the Philadelphia Toboggan Company, who had designed and built The Racer.

Mr. Allen, while intrigued about the project, was on the verge of retirement and decided not to take on such a massive long-term task. He did, however, provide inspiration for the project and jotted down velocity formulas and wood dynamic calculations for Kings Island engineers and designers on the back of a menu in the park’s International Restaurant, telling them they could design and build the ride themselves.

The following day, the park’s surveyors, Al Collins and Jeff Gramke, looked at the formulas and found that they weren’t that dissimilar to what they were used to doing with railroad curves, highways and things of that nature. With 35 acres to work with, there were virtually no limitations on space or length of ride. And with the natural cliffs, ravines and gullies, the rough topography could be utilized to build a very long structure with not a lot of materials by keeping the structure very close to the ground to minimize the height of the overall structure.

Collins and Gramke, however, quickly discovered why Mr. Allen didn’t want to do the job; it was very labor intensive.

“The most unique challenge in building The Beast was having to do all of the calculations by hand,” said Gramke, who today serves as Kings Island’s manager of facilities, engineering and construction. “Not only the calculations by hand, but also the field layout of the ride by hand. That was at a time when there weren’t any computers; we didn’t have scientific calculators. We had slide rules and logarithm books. We would have to do one math problem – primarily trigonometry – at a time, and we had to write everything down.

“Another challenge was surveying. At that point we just had a transit which was basically not a distance measuring unit but just to shoot angles with. Because of the roughness of the terrain, there were often times we couldn’t take a measurement of more than six feet.”

After nearly three years of planning, design and building, The Beast was ready to be unchained in the spring of 1979. Like a parent with a newborn, Gramke and others on the Beast project could stand back with pride and look at what they had accomplished.

"One of the biggest pride factors for me when we first ran the ride was to see the reaction of Al Collins," Gramke said. "Al Collins was a very dry, not real emotional kind of guy. For him to be the major designer of this mega roller coaster and not wanting any credit for having done that, he actually got excited and tears came to his eyes when that thing went around. To see that and having worked with that man for all those years (since 1971), that was a great excitement for me too."

The ride was officially, and quite appropriately, “unchained” in a steady downpour on Friday, April 13, 1979, for hundreds of media representatives from around the U.S. and Great Britain, and made its highly-anticipated public debut the following day.

Overnight, The Beast became the gold standard upon which other roller coasters would be measured against for decades to come and built a world-wide reputation as one of the best roller coasters on the planet. And still today, after 40 years, The Beast continues to be listed in the prestigious Guinness Book of World Records as the longest wooden roller coaster in the world at 7,359 feet.

Since 1979, The Beast has given more than 54 million rides (third-most in park history) and remains as popular as ever with park guests and roller coaster enthusiasts around the world.

As The Beast celebrates its 40th anniversary in 2019, there aren’t many rides out there you can look at with that kind of longevity and guests still come off raving about it. Simply put, when you talk about The Beast, you’re talking about the holy grail of wooden roller coasters.

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Don Helbig

Area Manager, Digital Marketing - Kings Island

Twitter: @DonHelbig

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