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Built for Thrills!

How engineers use forces and motion to design extreme roller coasters

©Yelo34/Dreamstime.com

Riders zoom down a hill on the Leviathan, a roller coaster in Ontario, Canada.

You wait in line, your excitement building. Finally, you take a seat. Your heart pounds as a safety bar locks around you. Suddenly—WHOOSH! Your seat shoots forward. You’re off on a record-breaking roller coaster ride!

That’s the idea behind Maxx Force, a new coaster opening this summer at Six Flags Great America in Illinois. Maxx Force will launch riders from 0 to 126 kilometers (78 miles) per hour in just two seconds. That’s the fastest start of any coaster in North America!

It takes a team of engineers to build a roller coaster like Maxx Force. One of them is Lee Stellhorn. He’s been designing rides at Six Flags for more than 20 years. It’s Stellhorn’s job to harness the forces that affect passengers during their ride. “You need to understand physics to create a ride that’s both fun and safe,” he says.

You wait in line. You’re getting more and more excited. Finally, you take a seat. Your heart pounds. A safety bar locks around you. Then, WHOOSH! Your seat shoots forward. You’re off on a record-breaking roller coaster ride!

That’s the idea behind Maxx Force. It’s a new coaster that opens this summer at Six Flags Great America in Illinois. Maxx Force will launch riders from 0 to 126 kilometers (78 miles) per hour. It happens in just two seconds. That’s the fastest start of any coaster in North America!

It takes a team of engineers to build a roller coaster like Maxx Force. One of them is Lee Stellhorn. He designs rides at Six Flags. He’s done so for more than 20 years. It’s Stellhorn’s job to harness a variety of forces. They affect people during their ride. “You need to understand physics to create a ride that’s both fun and safe,” he says.

The Need for Speed

People have been seeking out thrilling rides for hundreds of years. In the 1600s, people in Russia built ice-covered ramps up to 21 meters (69 feet) tall. They pushed sleds to the top. Then the force of Earth’s gravity sped them down the hill.

Over time, engineers replaced the sleds with wheeled carts. A second set of wheels attached from below kept the cars from veering off the tracks. 

In 1884, one of the first roller coasters, called the Gravity Pleasure Switchback Railway, opened in New York City. Passengers coasted along a hilly wooden track. The ride was a hit, even though it reached just 10 kilometers (6 miles) per hour—about as fast as a jogging pace. Engineers have been making coasters faster, taller, and more exciting ever since.

People have been seeking out thrilling rides for hundreds of years. People in Russia built ice-covered ramps in the 1600s. These ramps were up to 21 meters (69 feet) tall. People pushed sleds to the top. Then the force of Earth’s gravity took over. It sped them down the hill.

Engineers swapped sleds for carts with wheels over time. These carts had a second set of wheels underneath. Those wheels kept the carts from flying off the tracks.

One of the first roller coasters opened in 1884. It was in New York City. It was called the Gravity Pleasure Switchback Railway. Riders coasted along a hilly wooden track. The ride went just 10 kilometers (6 miles) per hour. That’s about as fast as a jogging pace. But the coaster was a hit. Engineers have been making coasters ever since. The rides keep getting faster, taller, and more exciting.

Wild Rides

Modern steel tracks allow engineers to build much more complicated coasters. But the basic principles have not changed. Engineers rely on gravity to keep cars moving.

Today, most coasters use a motorized cable to pull cars up the first hill. On other rides, like Maxx Force, a blast of compressed air launches cars to the top (see Design of Maxx Force). The cars gain potential energy as they rise. The taller the hill, the more energy they have.

Modern rollercoasters have steel tracks. These tracks allow engineers to build more complex rides. But the basic ideas haven’t changed. Engineers rely on gravity to keep cars moving. 

Today, most coasters use a cable pulled by a motor. The cable pulls cars up the first hill. Other rides, like Maxx Force, work differently. They rely on a blast of air. It launches cars to the top of the hill (see Design of Maxx Force). The cars gain potential energy as they rise. The taller the hill, the more energy they have.

Ernest Marquez Photograph Collection/Huntington Library

The Gravity Pleasure Switchback Railway, one of the first coasters in the U.S., opened in 1884.

As riders tip downward, gravity takes over. The cars gain speed, as well as kinetic energy, as they zoom down the track.

Turning up the next hill, riders can feel the acceleration, says Becky Thompson. She’s a scientist at the American Physical Society—and a roller coaster fan. According to Thompson, you may even feel like you’re leaving your guts behind. “Your stomach wants to continue down,” she says, “but the force of the track is saying ‘Nope, we’re going up!’”

Gravity takes over as riders tip downward. The cars zoom down the track. As they do, they gain kinetic energy. They also gain speed.

Riders can feel the acceleration as they turn up the next hill, says Becky Thompson. She’s a scientist at the American Physical Society. She’s also a roller coaster fan. Thompson says you may even feel like you’re leaving your guts behind. “Your stomach wants to continue down,” she says. “But the force of the track is saying, ‘Nope, we’re going up!’”

Smooth Moves

To design a new coaster, engineers like Stellhorn plot out the track on a computer. That helps them plan the shape they want it to be.

Once a coaster is built, engineers test it to make sure it’s safe. They fill plastic dummies with water to mimic the weight of riders and load them onto the ride. Seeing how the dummies move allows engineers to fix problems before real people take a turn.

Engineers began building Maxx Force this past fall.
If the towering coaster passes all of its tests, Stellhorn will be one of its first riders. It will open to the public after that. “I get to do things daily that we charge people to do at our parks,” says Stellhorn. “It’s such a fun career.”  

Engineers like Stellhorn design new coasters. They first plot out the ride’s track. They do this on a computer. That helps them plan the coaster’s shape.

Once a coaster is built, engineers test it. They want to make sure it’s safe. They fill plastic dummies with water. The dummies mimic the weight of riders. Then engineers put the dummies on the ride. The engineers see how the dummies move. That allows the engineers to fix problems before real people take a turn.

Engineers began building Maxx Force this past fall. Stellhorn will be one of the huge coaster’s first riders. That’s if it passes all of its tests. It will open to the public after that. “I get to do things daily that we charge people to do at our parks,” says Stellhorn. “It’s such a fun career.”  

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