Lightning Racer

"It's like thunder, lightning, the way you love me is frightening... you better knock, knock, knock... on wood."

Knock On Wood - Eddie Floyd & Steve Cropper

In the short time since it's been on the scene, Great Coasters International has fast become the Tiger "Woods" of lumber-railed roller coaster design. The company's very first effort, Hersheypark's esteemed Wildcat (pictured at left), was an unqualified blockbuster, drawing heaps of praise for both its achingly gorgeous layout and flat-out phenomenal ride. I can't name another thrill ride creator that's had a debut as sweet as that.

Just two years later, in 1998, GCI hit us with Six Flags America's (then Adventure World's) Roar. And though it may not be quite as outrageous as the Wildcat, Roar was a second dazzling whirlwind that had folks recalling twisters from the coaster's Roaring Twenties glory days. Another tough act to follow.

They did, and then some, with a second Roar, this time for Six Flags Marine World out in California. This 1999 powerhouse raised the bar by getting just a bit more convoluted, thanks to GCI's new hubba-hubba-sexy "Millennium Flyer" trains. Sensational in both form and function, these retro-styled, single-row-per-car conveyances writhe through every sweeping drop and radical curve with savage agility, making SFMW's Roar as fine a twister as any I've ever ridden.

And that same year, Great Coasters served up its first twin-tracked machine, Busch Gardens Tampa's dueling Gwazi (pictured at right). With two completely independent, intertwined, 3,400-foot-long courses, Gwazi was still another awe-inspiring revelation: 50 mile per hour fly-bys, flawless pacing, and the kind of sinuous trackwork that surely has Harry Traver crying tears of joy up in Coaster Heaven.

Five monumental courses in four years, each of them a trophy-winner. And GCI, like the young Mr. Woods, is just getting warmed up.

For 2000, Great Coasters has returned to the Pennsylvanian playground where their short but astounding career began, this time to produce America's first "racing/dueling" woodie, a sprawling out and back-twister combo called Lightning Racer. If you thought Hersheypark's Wildcat was purty, let your eyes wander all over this:

Friends, they don't get any foxier.

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Hersheypark's Midway America is one sweet little park-within-a-park, a tastefully presented collection of vintage attractions like the Whip and the Merry Derry Fun Slides, and post-modern scream machines like the Chance Chaos. And then there's the steel Wild Mouse, a contemporary take on an old favorite. Of course, high on a hill overlooking Midway America, stands the Wildcat, once Hersheypark's finest coaster.

Not anymore.

At the far end of Midway America, you'll find the Lightning Racer and its classically inspired boarding station, bright white with suitably patriotic red and blue trimmings. If you take the long way around to get there, you can start at the back end of the LR and stroll along its entire length, savoring every seductive foot. Gets ya feeling just a bit... aroused.

After hoofing around the outer portion of the queue, we approach the final ramp up to the load platform. To the left, the green Thunder trains; to the right, the red Lighting. Makes little difference which you choose. Just do yourself a favor and spend an extra few minutes waiting for the forward car, at least the first time you ride.

As each incoming pair of trains enters the station, the winners are greeted with a hearty announcement over the loudspeakers and a flashing color-coded light. It's plenty festive and enough to get those competitive juices flowing through yer veins.

And look at those sweet, open-front cars leading the charge... PTC trains are always a pleasure, but it's my sincere hope that every GCI coaster from this point on sports these comely coaches. Settling in and pulling down the lap bars, you know these snug puppies were designed by people who love what they do. Thumbs way up.

Each train drops out of the station and whistles around a turn before mounting its respective chain lift, Thunder on the inside, Lightning on the outside. Those lifts are staggered by quite a few feet, so we aren't quite "racing" yet.

But you wouldn't want your attention distracted by the other cars anyway. Off to the right, gaze down in wonder at the LR's insane snake-pit tangle of naked yellow pine. One word: stupefying.

Finally, we're at the 90-foot pinnacle and the race is on!

We plunge down a glorious GCI fall, diving and tipping to the right. Hitting 50-plus, the two trains soar all the way to ground level and motor right back up to the left, cresting another pair of staggered hills, smooth and graceful as a pair of synchronized swimmers.

Call it a sign of my advancing age, but I'm less and less enamored of woodies that beat the heck out of me. And like all of GCI's creations, the LR knows how to play just rough enough to keep things enjoyable. We're makin' plenty of noise, but it's all good, baby. And it's going to get much, much better.

We race back down and each train splits off to enter the outside legs of the Lightning Racer's sumptuous "Siphon Drops."

Up and around we go, sweeping over these architecturally stunning structures, preparing to dive into the maw of a waterfall-covered tunnel. Thunder and Lightning veer right towards each other, plunging closer and closer.

Hooking up at the bottom of this exquisite descent, we slam into the darkness, where a tasty little bunny hop is waiting to give our hineys a solid boost. Jumping side-by-side over this unexpected treat, the two trains speed back into daylight and the racing starts to get hot and heavy.

Soaring through another feisty turn, we're runnin' like the wind back towards the station through what they've properly nicknamed "Sideswipe Alley:" up and down, left and right, careening like there's no tomorrow through the furious core of a lumber maelstrom. This, people, is "The Perfect Storm." Boo-yah!

Making another set of completely independent moves, both trains whip up into opposing turns alongside the lift hill for a second "near miss" fly-by. Round and round and then it's back down for another headlong, chaotic sprint towards the far end of the Racer's course.

And sprint these two most certainly do. Slashing low and mean over the ground, it feels like we haven't lost an ounce of velocity, another testament to GCI's prodigious talent.

Thunder and Lightning go at it with ever greater intensity, lashing around each other like irate anacondas. Lightning leaps over Thunder as the two trains head for the last fly-by, a revolution that'll poise us for the Finish Line dash.

Growling around these U-turns, we plow down to joust and then hasten to meet up again.

Dead ahead, the checkered flag! There's a quick dive and a rise back up to the brake run, each trainload tryin' to will itself to victory. It's going to be a photo finish!

And the winner is... !

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Hey, on these two, everybody wins. Put a gun to my head and I couldn't tell you which track I preferred. Maybe the Lightning, first car... No, Thunder's rear car... No, waitaminit, lemme think... In all honesty, any row in either of 'em makes for a completely intoxicating experience.

Is the Lighting Racer the best GCI has created to date? Could very well be.

When it comes to steel machines, there are a whole bunch of companies that deliver the goods: Arrow, Bolliger & Mabillard, Giovanola, Intamin, Mack, Pinfari, Reverchon, Setpoint, Togo, Vekoma, etc., etc. But in the realm of the wooden coaster, there are far fewer we can name, and that's a cryin' shame.

Which is all the more reason to appreciate the work Great Coasters does. And Hersheypark, which can now claim to have more coasters that any other funzone in Pennsylvania (eight by a strict measure, nine if you count the two LR courses separately), must be applauded for the wisdom of inviting GCI back so soon. Bravo!

So, where's the next Great Coaster headed? Man, if I knew that already, I'd be there now. Cuz if GCI continues to make the same strides forward, their sixth outing is going to be something beyond incredible.

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Lightning Racer

  • TRACK LENGTHS: Each approx. 3,400 feet
  • TOP SPEED: 51 Miles Per Hour
  • MAX. G FORCE: 3.6
  • MAX. HEIGHT: 90 feet
  • RIDE DURATION: 2 minutes, 20 seconds
  • CARS: "Millennium Flyer" trains composed of 12 cars. Each car accommodates two passengers across.
  • MANUFACTURER: Great Coasters International, Santa Cruz, California




© Robert Coker.
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