Cover Story - Outside the Box - August 2018

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Rocky Mountain Construction reimagines and redraws the roller coaster

by Arthur Levine

There are a number of roller coasters perched against the picturesque quarry wall that encircles Six Flags Fiesta Texas in San Antonio. However, the park’s latest thrill machine, “Wonder Woman: Golden Lasso Coaster,” looks quite different from the rest of the arsenal. It has a sparse steel structure that supports a single, winding, electric-yellow ribbon of track. And instead of wide-body trains, narrow carriages of one-passenger cars straddle the monorail.

Welcome to the world’s first-to-open single-rail IBox coaster, the latest creation to emerge from the mad-scientist laboratory at Rocky Mountain Construction (RMC).

In relatively short order, RMC, the young Hayden, Idaho, company has disrupted coaster orthodoxy with a number of innovations. In the process, it has produced rides that have yielded effusive acclaim.

Funworld takes an in-depth look at RMC in the same year the company debuted an impressive five new rides.

KINGS DOMINION
“Twisted Timbers” at Kings Dominion is one of three wooden-steel hybrid transformations facilitated by RMC this year. (Credit: Kings Dominion)

A Revolution Begins

The RMC revolution began in 2011 when the company re-profiled and replaced the wooden tracks of the aging “Texas Giant” at Six Flags Over Texas in Arlington with newfangled, all-steel rails it calls IBox Track. Instead of traditional tubular pipe track, RMC’s  “I”-shaped rails are flat on the top to accommodate the trains’ running wheels. The upstop wheels fit into the track’s side channels. With its silky-smooth ride and amped-up thrills, the rechristened “New Texas Giant” was an immediate hit.

Through 2017, the success spurred RMC to overhaul six additional wooden coasters, including the “Rattler” at Six Flags Fiesta Texas. Reopened as “Iron Rattler” in 2013, it became the second ride to receive IBox tracks. The San Antonio park is now the only place to feature two RMC coasters. Why would Six Flags assume the risks of buying prototype rides that are unproven? “There is a lot of science, math, and engineering that allow us to take a leap of faith,” explains Jeffrey Siebert, president of Six Flags Fiesta Texas. “It takes years of engineering and precision combined with crazy and great ideas to pull off something that is truly unique.”

RMC also built four wooden coasters from the ground up and outfitted them with a second “crazy and great” rail design breakthrough, Topper Track. Instead of conventional wooden coaster tracks, which have thin metal rails embedded in the top layers of the wood stacks, Topper Track features steel boxes that completely cover the stacks. Both Topper- and IBox-outfitted coasters are capable of delivering inversions, which have been something of a Holy Grail for wooden coaster designers and fans.

In rare display of productivity and chutzpah, RMC rolled out five of its coasters at parks across the United States in 2018. (Piling on to its banner year, the company also manufactured the track for a sixth ride, “Harley Quinn Crazy Coaster.” Debuting at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in Vallejo, California, the ride represents the first Skywarp model from Skyline Attractions. Read more on p. 61.) To accommodate the frenzy of activity, the growing company employs 115 full-time employees.

Three of this year’s rides are wooden-steel hybrid makeovers: “Twisted Cyclone” at Six Flags Over Georgia in Austell, “Twisted Timbers” at Kings Dominion in Doswell, Virginia, and the towering “Steel Vengeance,” the newest midway maven at Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio. Making this year’s burst of new rides all the more impressive, two of them represent RMC’s latest coaster prototype, the single-rail Raptor Track. In addition to “Golden Lasso,” California’s Great America in Santa Clara welcomed “RailBlazer.” The California addition includes a tunnel, and its track is painted bright orange. Otherwise, the California coaster is identical in layout to its Six Flags Fiesta Texas counterpart.

SIX FLAGS DISCOVERY KINGDOM
In addition to opening five of its coasters at parks across the United States in 2018, RMC also manufactured the track for “Harley Quinn Crazy Coaster,” debuting at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom. (Credit: Six Flags Discovery Kingdom)

These Guys Have a One-Track Mind for Innovation and Success

The two gentlemen dreaming up new ways to ride the rails are Fred Grubb, RMC’s CEO and owner, and Alan Schilke, a structural engineer and ride design veteran. It was Six Flags that initially brought them together and later suggested their alliance.

Separately, the park chain had hired Schilke as an engineering consultant and Grubb as a building consultant to re-track some of the aging wooden coasters in its portfolio. The first time the two of them kicked around the concept of a wooden-steel hybrid coaster was when they were both brought in to work on “Psyclone” at Magic Mountain in Valencia, California. After discussion, Six Flags ultimately decided to bulldoze the woodie. But when the company later contacted Schilke and Grubb about the “Texas Giant” project, Six Flags recommended they consider pairing up and submitting one joint bid. They’ve been partners ever since.

To get a sense of their creative process and remarkable lack of ego, neither Grubb nor Schilke take sole credit for their groundbreaking developments—or even remember which one of them came up with the breakthroughs. 

“I thought there had to be a better way to build a smooth track,” Grubb says about repairing wooden coasters only to see them deteriorate again. “Alan and I got to talking. I don’t even know how it happened, but we put our heads together and came up with [the IBox concept].”

Similarly, neither of them remembers who is responsible for the single-rail IBox idea. It was the result of another informal brainstorming discussion.

Among the secrets to their success are their easygoing demeanors, their simpatico affection of roller coasters, and their drive to shake things up in the industry.

“I love to build things and try new things,” says Grubb. “Alan is very creative. We work well together. We listen to one another and just make stuff happen.”

Schilke wanted to make coaster stuff happen from an early age. Growing up in Indiana, he and his family regularly visited Kings Island and Cedar Point, where the parks enchanted him. 

“I told people when I was 12 years old that I was going to design roller coasters,” Schilke says with a laugh. 

He dismissed his adolescent career goal as a kid’s dream and went on to become an engineer. As fate would have it, Arrow Development contracted with the engineering firm where Schilke first landed after college, and he ended up consulting with the legendary ride manufacturer. He eventually left the company for a full-time position with Arrow. Sometimes, kids’ dreams do come true.

One of the rides Schilke designed while at Arrow was “Road Runner Express” for Six Flags Fiesta Texas. With the two RMC coasters, the Six Flags park holds the distinction of hosting three of the designer’s creations.

SIX FLAGS FIESTA TEXAS

On Six Flags Fiesta Texas’ “Wonder Woman: Golden Lasso Coaster,” one-passenger cars straddle a single, winding, yellow ribbon of track. (Credit: Six Flags TEXAS)

It’s No Wonder this Coaster Is a Singular Sensation

Nearly everything about Rocky Mountain Construction’s (RMC) first Raptor track ride, “Wonder Woman: Golden Lasso Coaster” at Six Flags Fiesta Texas in San Antonio, challenges conventional wisdom about roller coasters. 

The female superhero, who is something of an anomaly herself, stands like a solider in front of the attraction named for her with the Lasso of Truth tucked into her uniform. The ride structure, with its gaggle of thin, convoluted, golden-hued track, seems to be an extension of Princess Diana’s trusty weapon of choice.

The train doesn’t stop in the station as passengers disembark and load into the slowly moving cars. Eight riders sit single file in low-slung, stripped-down cars. A set of running wheels, mere inches from one another, balances on an oddly narrow, 15-inch-wide single rail. Perched precariously above the slender track, passengers ride alone and ruminate about the singular ride about to unfold as the train climbs the 113-foot lift hill.

Rounding a bend at the top, the train takes a satisfying 100-foot plunge down and then floats up and into a “raven inversion” that both imparts some giddy airtime, even as it treats passengers for a loop. That’s followed, in rat-a-tat fashion, by a flurry of elements including a corkscrew, an over-banked curve, a cutback, and a mid-course dive.

The ride experience is somewhere between a snow sled slaloming through a wacky course and a roller coaster—a wonderfully smooth roller coaster. 

Despite the thin monorail, the relatively light train, and the nonstop torrent of challenging maneuvers, “Golden Lasso” remains delightfully smooth. That’s due to RMC’s clever design and execution of the prototype attraction. The company built steering axles for the trains. And the Raptor version of IBox further demonstrates that RMC’s distinctive I-beam-style tracks deliver precise, smooth, and satisfying rides (even when there is only one of them).

Smooth Operators

What makes the single-rail concept so compelling? It helps advance RMC’s relentless pursuit to deliver smooth ride experiences (Grubb is quick to point out that the company’s two-rail coasters are pretty darn smooth).

The rides’ narrow rails and smaller, lighter trains make an impact on stability, but Schilke says the IBox tracks’ precision is so high, it more than compensates. He adds that there are so many elements crammed into the relatively compact layouts, and they come in such quick succession, the new rides would be brutal if they weren’t so smooth.

Compared to working with pipe rail, which by design requires some wiggle room and interpretation in the manufacturing process, Schilke notes IBox track gets burned in RMC’s shop directly from his coordinates. “It is exactly what I design,” Schilke adds.

The single-rail rides are essentially pre-gauged and therefore foolproof to build in the field.

In addition to being smooth, the Raptor Track coasters deliver unique ride experiences. With single-row seating, they offer solo journeys for passengers. There isn’t anybody or anything to the left or right to distract riders. And the unencumbered cars have low centers of gravity. 

“Your butt is almost sitting on the track,” notes Grubb.

Beyond the ride experience, cost is another factor driving RMC’s push into single-rail rides. The coasters use considerably less steel than a typical ride, and the trains are much smaller. Grubb estimates that the price tag for a Raptor Track ride is about half of what a comparable two-rail coaster would cost. By sticking with RMC’s stock production model, the price point could be especially accessible for smaller parks (although the company is happy to build custom Raptor Track rides to customers’ specifications).

Schilke cites another surprising motivation to develop Raptor coasters: fear. The duo understands there are only so many large wooden coasters around the world that would benefit from an IBox hybrid makeover. To remain relevant, they needed to come up with something new.

CEDAR POINT
RMC refashioned Cedar Point’s “Mean Streak.” The ride re-emerged as “Steel Vengeance,” a roller coaster with a wooden structure and steel rails. (Credit: Cedar Point)

Making Coaster History

While RMC designed the IBox to replace wooden track, Schilke discovered the rides were actually smoother than many standard steel coasters. 

“We need to start thinking of [IBox] as something to replace pipe rail,” he says—an ironic statement from the man who used to work for Arrow, the company that pioneered the first tubular steel coaster.

As the company veers into all-steel coasters, it continues to refashion existing wooden ones. Grubb knows the stakes are particularly high for “Steel Vengeance,” and that the showcase ride is a flagship in RMC’s portfolio. 

“We’re competing against some of the best coasters in the world at Cedar Point,” he says. “I’d like people to think ‘Steel Vengeance’ is the best one in the park.”

While the jury may be out on “Steel Vengeance,” consensus is building about RMC’s body of work. 

“There’s no doubt that we are looking at living legends,” Six Flags’ Siebert says, comparing Grubb and Schilke to landmark coaster designers such as John Allen, John Miller, and Anton Schwarzkopf. “We are witnessing coaster history. They are geniuses. It’s artwork that you can ride.”

As for the future, the mavericks say they have plenty of other ideas to explore. In the near term, the company plans to develop T-Rex coasters. They would feature a wider version of the single-rail IBox Track and larger trains that would seat three across. The T-Rex rides would be able to climb higher and go faster than Raptor coasters.

Based on the positive response the rides have been getting, it’s likely RMC will be rolling out additional Raptor Track coasters. The company already has one on order. Tentatively slated for next summer, it will be built at Grubb’s house.

You read that correctly. Among his many wild ideas, the man who owns RMC is putting a full-size Raptor coaster in his backyard for his three grandkids. That smooth move should guarantee him a place in the Grandpa Hall of Fame.