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Roller Derby

The inside story of the race to build the fastest, wildest, screamingest roller coaster in the world, and how it almost went off the tracks.

Author Stephan Talty

RANDY SMITH HAD BEEN IN MARANELLO, ITALY, touring a local factory until he knew every lathe and workbench. By the time he stepped outside one day, he was almost bored. Yes, the factory belonged to Ferrari and the engineers designed cars of unearthly beauty, and, yes, he was now on his way to a meal at one of the local restaurants that specialize in the rich cuisine of the Emilia-Romagna. But he’d been in Maranello for weeks, and behind all the red Ferrari paint, it’s actually a factory town like almost any factory town. And there is only so much prosciutto one can eat.

Then a sudden din erupted behind him. The sound was apocalyptically loud and metallic. It was so intense that Smith became convinced he was going to die. “I thought it was a car crashing,” he says. “Right behind me.”

Smith pivoted to look and realized that it wasn’t a car hitting the wall behind him and tearing itself to a million pieces behind a plume of fire. It was just an Ferrari FXX braking to a stop after a test run.

Smith was relieved, but the relief quickly faded. The experience only underscored the enormity of the task ahead of him. The 52-year-old American was in Italy to duplicate, in a small way, the experience of driving a Ferrari—a vehicle that, when the brakes are applied, sounds pretty much like it’s exploding. He had to make something this terrifying and strange in the shape of a roller coaster.

And he had to make it safe for 10-year-olds.

Smith works for Jack Rouse Associates, which in 2005 was given the job of designing Abu Dhabi’s new Ferrari World theme park— including the Formula Rossa roller coaster. The coaster was to be the fastest on earth. But in addition to having to make the fastest coaster on earth, Smith and his fellow draftsman were faced with a variety of odd tasks, such as finding a way to keep granules of desert sand from peppering its riders as the cars accelerated during sandstorms.

But first Smith had to beat another set of roller coaster designers who were at that very moment working on what they hoped would be the world’s fastest roller coaster, in Germany, at the famous Nürburgring race course. The ring°racer, as it was to be called, was scheduled to open in 2009, beating the Formula Rossa to the finish line.

It was the German challenge that registered first. “When you’re trying to break new ground, you’re always nervous about something going wrong, like being beat,” says Smith. “So we were definitely aware of Nürburgring.” S&S Worldwide, the American ride designers who were given the contract for the ring°racer, announced that their new effort “would surpass all roller coaster speed records.” The gauntlet had been thrown down.

In response to the ring°racer, Smith and his designers upped their target speed to nearly 150 mph. The track design they settled on was an enormous double figure eight with long straightaways settling into gentle curves that would give the ride the potential for record speeds.

A hydraulic winch—very much like the ones used to propel jet fighters off the decks of aircraft carriers— capable of generating more than 20,000 horsepower was chosen for the launch system. But acceleration generates G forces—1.7 G’s, in this case—and the only way to dissipate them would be to run the cars down long sections of gently undulating track. “The human body can withstand extreme G forces—if the time is very short,” says park manager Andy Keeling. “It can be very disturbing to accelerate that fast, but if it’s only for short periods, you’re fine.”

That much track eats up acres of land, so the Formula Rossa spreads out across a footprint twice as big as the average coaster, weaving through the grounds like a metallic thread. Instead of being a standalone structure, it is fused into the park grounds. Further complicating things, the Rossa happens to be partially housed in the world’s largest indoor theme park, which clocks in at more than 900,000 square feet. This huge building is packed with shops, restaurants, authentic Ferrari simulators, a racing pit where visitors can actually change a tire on an F1 race car—even a machine shop that makes new Ferrari parts. The original design challenge was to fit the coaster into this maze of attractions. “In some places,” Smith says, “it was like threading a needle.”

Smith faced other challenges peculiar to the locale. To avoid getting their eyes blasted with grit during haboobs—raging sandstorms—it was decided that all riders will wear goggles. Then there were the clothes, especially the dishdashas (or ankle- length robes) of the local customers, which could easily be swept into the gears of the Formula Rossa. (“Mechanical rides and loose clothing do not fit together,” says Keeling drily.) The park formed work groups of local residents and Indian nationals (saris were also a concern) and came up with a very simple solution: Ferrari World provides a jacket to every customer wearing long, flowing clothes.

Everything in the park has an intimate connection to the Ferrari brand. There’s a facsimile of the actual dining room where Enzo Ferrari, the founder of the company, used to take his workday lunch. Mama Rossella’s, the restaurant in Maranello, where Ferrari F1 god Michael Schumacher ate when he tested out new cars, has also been recreated.

The same ethic applies to the rides— which means the coaster cars have to somehow evoke Ferrari. It took months of computer modeling, trips to grand prix around the world and interviews with Scuderia Ferrari drivers to conjure the right emotions. One part of the solution was to rigorously avoid having the specs of the coaster cars—wheelbase, headlight size—match any specific model. That way the coaster would be of Ferrari without being of any single era.

As 2009 arrived, the park and its star attraction, the Formula Rossa, was taking shape—but the German monster, the ring°racer, was sprinting ahead of them. Then disaster struck. During tests, the ring°racer suffered two serious accidents, and the opening of the ride was delayed. When it finally opens in the spring of 2011, its designers announced, the ring°racer will hit only 135 mph.

The Abu Dhabi coaster was already testing at 149 mph, meaning the Ferrari Rossa had scored a double coup: It would be the first, and it would be the fastest.

In the months before its November opening, park manager Keeling and his team have been “burning in” the coaster. That is, running it hour after hour, day after day to make sure it’s completely safe. (And, for good measure, they’ve been training the ride operators to spot signs of stress and illness in riders.)

After five years of development, the ride is finally ready. And it is spectacular. The Rossa begins with a blast down a sloped track, as if you were being blown out the business end of a battleship’s guns, then launches you almost vertically up in the air until you top out at 170 feet, then plunge into a hellacious dive. “There are things you would never see or do in a normal life that you do in our park,” says Keeling. “This roller coaster is one of them.”

As thrilling as it is, the Rossa’s toughest critics are waiting in the wings: members of the worldwide subculture of coaster enthusiasts. They’ve been keenly anticipating the opening of the Abu Dhabi machine. “Speed and acceleration are what makes it special,” says Justin Garvanovic, founder of the European Coaster Club. “It will be an amazing, mind-blowing coaster.”

The Formula Rossa will impress even the discriminating rider, but the race to be the fastest inevitably brings up the question: How long will it hold the record? The answer hinges not on technology but on money, since these coasters are enormously expensive to design and build. “Rides like these are huge badges of honor,” says Garanovic, “and they put you on the map.”

Which means follow the money to find the next world record–beater. Like the Rossa, it most likely won’t be in America. “It will be a new park,” predicts Garanovic. “And I’ll bet it will be in China.”

Despite the persistent pressure to be fastest, the Ferrari Rossa team isn’t worried about Beijing overtaking them just yet. Instead, they’re having a brief victory lap and enjoying the perks that come with wearing Ferrari red. Though the park was kept under tight wraps until its opening in early November, Keeling managed to sneak in his five-year-old daughter to try out one of the park’s less threatening rides. Her response? Three words: “Again, Daddy. Again.”

When it comes to Ferraris, writer STEPHAN TALTY prefers to drive, not ride.

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