Thrill-seekers on the fast track

RICHMOND — Richmond -- Life has its ups and downs. But for Ray Ueberroth the ups are much higher and the downs come really fast -- so fast they make him want to scream.

Still, he can't seem to get enough.


So this week he traveled from his apartment in Baltimore to Doswell, Va., looking for more opportunities to go downhill in life -- life in an amusement park, that is.

Mr. Ueberroth, 55, is a former principal of Severna Park High School and is the retired director of the Anne Arundel County High Schools. Today, he has the very different title of president of the American Coaster Enthusiasts (ACE), a 4,600-member, non-profit club founded in 1978 to promote the preservation, appreciation and enjoyment of roller coasters.


"Some people collect stamps. We like to ride coasters," explained Mr. Ueberroth, who says that ACE members represent 49 states and 15 countries on five continents.

This week an estimated 700 ACE members are meeting at Kings Dominion for their 15th annual international convention, dubbed Coaster Con XV. Convention-goers are attending meetings and workshops, but the real attraction is the exclusive early-morning and late-evening rides just for ACE members.

Kings Dominion was chosen as the site of this year's convention because "the variety of coasters at Kings Dominion is outstanding -- from a wooden kiddie coaster to the Anaconda -- the only looping coaster in the world that tunnels underwater while performing its acrobatics," said Mr. Ueberroth.

ACE members also have a special fondness for Kings Dominion because it was there in 1977, during a marathon on the Rebel Yell, that three coaster-lovers conceived the idea of an organization for those who shared their enthusiasm for roller coasters. The next year, ACE was founded at Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Va., home of the Loch Ness Monster.

When Mr. Ueberroth heard about ACE in 1984 he joined, making his 49-year love of coasters official. The silver-haired man, who smiles warmly when he talks, has ridden 316 coasters since the age of 6 when his aunt, Joyce Frick Simons, took him on his first coaster at Central Park in Bethlehem, Pa. An old trolley park, Central Park has since been torn down, but Mr. Ueberroth's appreciation for coasters continues.

"I don't drink, I don't fool around, I don't buy a lot of videos -- I collect amusement park memorabilia," he said.

At the park Sunday night, Mr. Ueberroth joined hundreds of like-minded enthusiasts while they escaped from the pressures of life, scrambling onto the rides like children and grinning from ear to ear. One of these "kids" was Marie Miller from Washington, N.J., a very young-looking 77-year-old charter member of ACE who still throws others for a loop.

"I like to go fast and bounce. I like the ones that bounce me out of my seat," Ms. Miller said after riding the Grizzly, one of Kings Dominion's bouncier wooden coasters.


Riding in the first car -- her favorite spot for getting the full effect -- this former vaudeville performer said, "There isn't much that I'm afraid of."

As with any hobbyists, coaster enthusiasts have a language all their own.

They talk of "positive and negative Gs," those feelings of being lighter or heavier than one's actual weight as a result of the G-forces explained in the study of physics.

But fear plays no part in their vocabulary.

For them, the thrill of coastering comes when they get "air time," a feeling that Mr. Ueberroth described as "floating out of your seat."

Even 9-year-old Jeff Stevens of North Olmsted, Ohio, understands this concept, although he may not use physics terminology.


"It's just a funny feeling to them," Jeff said, admitting his favorite part is going down hills and turning upside down. Jeff has been an ACE member for two years, representing the younger portion of the group who are tall enough to ride the big coasters.

He's not the youngest member, though, said Mr. Ueberroth. ACE has members who are still infants, although these tiny coaster enthusiasts won't be able to ride for quite a few years.

Still, according to club statistics, it appears that the 35-year-old, single, college-educated man -- who has ridden 60 different roller coasters and who makes an average of 11 trips per year to amusement parks -- is the average ACE member. And,according to Mr. Ueberroth, the group is composed of doctors, lawyers, professors, teachers and church organists, among others.

And the reasons they give for their passion for living on the fast track sound much the same. "I like the feeling of freedom, I like to be out in the fresh air and I like the anticipation of being scared," Mr. Ueberroth said.

"It makes you feel like a child. Where else can an adult scream and no one thinks you're weird?" explained Randy Geisler, a claims representative for the Social Security Administration in St. Paul, Minn. "You need romance novels and stupid sitcoms and roller coasters to just let go."