One of the things I’ve learned over years of tightly packed coaster trips is the importance of having at least some slower-paced days in an itinerary. The exact definition of such a day is flexible, but a good start point is to schedule arrival at a hotel at least twelve hours before it’s time to leave. Yesterday was supposed to be one such day; if everything had gone to plan I'd have arrived at my Chicago hotel before 7:00pm with a relaxed dinner stop en route. Unfortunately, the embuggerance with the rental car completely kiboshed any hope of relaxation. I was able to use my unplanned break by the side of the road to catch up on trip report notes and photo editing, but it definitely wasn't the same as unwinding in an air-conditioned hotel room.
The resultant late night meant that I was more than a little groggy when I set out for Six Flags Great America. All available brain power was focused on staying in my lane and avoiding the vehicles around me, which perhaps explains how I missed the exit from I-94 despite clear signage and visible coaster track. My acute sense of embarrassment was short-lived, however; the Chevrolet directly behind me made the same U-turn at exit 2, and indeed was still in my rear-view mirror when I turned into the parking lot entrance some ten minutes later.
The silliness continued at the park entrance gate, when the corporate computer decided it wouldn't accept my season pass voucher. I joined a short queue at guest services for troubleshooting, where after much back and forth (and assistance from a supervisor) the issue was identified as the lack of a zip code attached to my purchase. The nice man behind the counter insisted that I give him one, refusing to even contemplate the possibility that my residence outside of the United States might not have one assigned – and that, dear reader, is why my Six Flags season pass is registered in Beverly Hills 90210.
I'd been waiting in front of another enthusiast who matched many of the most embarrassing stereotypes associated with the hobby: a corpulent physique, a ridiculously colourful Cedar Point t-shirt, a glasses strap, a heavy-duty camera, and two fanny packs. My relatively restrained Conneaut Lake Park polo was recognised and used as the springboard to a lively conversation that I just wasn't in the mood for. Fortunately he was still talking to guest services when my issue was solved, allowing me to slip away quietly. I headed across the midway to meet Duane, who had been kind enough to take a day off work to meet up, and the two of us headed directly to the first and most important coaster of the day.
The idea of using compressed air to launch a roller coaster dates back to the late nineties, when Pattaya Park Funny Land constructed an in-house knock-off of the Intamin Reverse Freefall. The home-spun hardware featured a single car with six seats, and a sixty metre high vertical spike that was one of the tallest rides in the world at the time. Unfortunately there’s no evidence that the system actually worked properly; I’ve never been able to find footage of it in operation, and it certainly never opened to the general public. (It's worth noting that Mr. Daeng Terdkiet [the owner of Pattaya Park] designed a number of more traditional coasters that were successful, such as Slalom and Tornado; it was only the air launch that failed.)
At around the same time the company then known as S&S Power developed a prototype called the Thrust Air 2000, which repurposed the proven compressed air system from the company's tower rides to launch vehicles along a horizontal track. The acceleration was faster than anything else on the market, and perhaps unsurprisingly two coasters were sold right away: Hypersonic XLC and Dodonpa, the latter using larger tanks that allowed an eight-seat train to reach an incredible 107 miles per hour in less than two seconds. The technology was also used for a short-lived drag-racing attraction at Old Town with a quoted top speed of 110 miles per hour, reached over a distance of just two hundred feet.
Sadly the maintenance challenges associated with these installations limited the potential opportunities for the product line. A scaled back version of the system was used on the successful (and highly regarded) Powder Keg in 2003, but that was effectively it for almost a decade. An attempt to break speed records at the Nürburgring in September 2009 resulted in explosions, shattered windows, and seven injuries – hammering further nails into the coffin for the technology.
The writer thought that the end of the proverbial road had been reached, especially as hydraulic launch technology became commonplace during the noughties. However, in a surprise move the China based OCT Group rolled the dice with the installation of Extreme Rusher in 2011, followed a year later by Bullet Coaster. Neither ride was a record-breaker, which perhaps explains why both succeeded in a way that previous installations had not. Further sales to China followed, and in late 2018 the Six Flags chain made the decision to install their own version in the United States.
Maxx Force (#2916) is a ride that is short and to the point, lasting just 23 seconds from launch to brakes, and while a lot happens in that time it doesn’t take away from the fact that the experience is not so much half a coaster as one third of a coaster. That’s not to say it’s bad; the kick of the launch makes the acceleration on rides like Formula Rossa feel understated, and the rest of the track is smooth and thrilling; it’s just way too short. We took two rides, the first in the middle and the second in front, and the latter was definitely the place to be.
The highlight of the experience is of course the launch, which accelerates from zero to a top speed of 78 miles per hour in 1.8 seconds – a rate of 19.37m/s2. This is significantly faster than any other coaster in North America; for purposes of comparison, Kingda Ka manages just 16.35m/s2, and Xcelerator is even slower, coming in at 15.938 m/s2. As of this writing the only coaster anywhere in the world to go faster is Do-Dodonpa, which does 31.24m/s2 – but that ride was recently shut down after a series of injuries. So far Maxx Force has a clean record; with luck it will stay that way.
Our next port of call was the front row of Goliath. I’d been looking forward to seeing how the park's tallest wooden coaster had held up, given that it is now seven years old. Today there were no problems at all; it was smooth, fast, and thrilling – in short, everything a wooden coaster should be. The ride is one of just four coasters in the world to be built using so-called Topper Track, yet despite its obvious calibre a documentary on the manufacturer recently reported that no more are planned, as the technology has been superseded by something even better.
Stop three was at Joker (#2917), ridden primarily to increment the coaster count by one. As I’ve said before the experience of the S&S Free Spin is that of a flat ride on a track, and at this stage in my career I am definitely not a flat ride person. By the end of this trip if all goes to plan I’ll have ridden seven of the nine operational models, though regrettably this is a moving target: three more are under construction and no doubt there will be more in due time. (I realised later that this ride was my 2700th steel coaster; there's no doubt that Maxx Force would have been a better choice.)
The only other ride for us today was Raging Bull, where we were able to claim a back seat. I was very pleasantly surprised by this, having not ridden it since 2012. Most of the B&M hypers are sequences of perfectly engineered parabolic hills with no real variety; Great America's installation is the exception to the rule and much better for it. The pre-drop at the top of the lift was particularly dramatic today and this set the stage for the rest of the course which was as close to coaster perfection as anything I've ridden this year (faint praise perhaps, but what can you do).