Don Worthington

Thunder Road reaches its end; Carowinds closes classic wooden roller coaster

Herald business editor Don Worthington, right, and Carowinds general manager Mike Fehnel, start one of the final rides on Thunder Road on Sunday.
Herald business editor Don Worthington, right, and Carowinds general manager Mike Fehnel, start one of the final rides on Thunder Road on Sunday. Josh Bosh

One ride.

One loss.

That’s my official record on Carowinds’ Thunder Road roller coaster, although I’m waiting on a videotape review, hoping for a photo-finish victory.

Our train might have been penalized for having too much weight – at least in the front car.

My partner in the first seat of the first car was Mike Fehnel, Carowinds’ general manager and vice president.

Mike and I are, well, stout guys. The two of us barely squeezed into the car Sunday afternoon, the last day to ride Thunder Road. Carowinds closed the ride to the public at 10 p.m. after 39 years of two coaster trains racing from South Carolina to North Carolina and back to see which one crossed the finish line first.

As our train clackety-clacked up the 93-foot lift hill, Mike and I tried to improve our chances, putting our hands outside the car and motioning as if we were paddling. Our pretend oars cut through the hot, humid Carolina air. “Row, row!” Fehnel shouted, and then, “We’re ahead!”

We reached the top of the lift hill, looked down and then the next seconds were a blur. We went down and up and down and then were thrown into the curve that sent us back toward the station. As we reached the series of undulating hills, Fehnel shouted, “Look over there, are we ahead?”

I forgot to look. When we stopped, it appeared the train on the right-side entrance to the station was about half a length ahead of us.

The only match for my one-and-done record I could find was James Smarr, 66, of Gastonia, N.C., who was outside the park with his camera, taking his final pictures of Thunder Road. Smarr said his first and last ride on Thunder Road was years ago when his son was about 6 or 7.

“I’m terrified of roller coasters. I don’t like the height or the speed,” he said.

Nonetheless, Smarr came for one final time Sunday to celebrate the history of Thunder Road and its memories.

Carowinds is in the business of making memories, but those made Sunday seemed more special.

Rider after rider exiting Thunder Road commented about the first time they rode the roller coaster, likely when they were teenagers three or four decades ago.

“It’s still a good ride,” said Steve Hicks, 59, of Charlotte. He wore a Thunder Road T-shirt he had purchased at the park featuring the words, “Celebrating a legacy, Last Ride, 7/26/2015.”

“It’s like riding a classic car of the 1950s, it doesn’t have all the bells and whistles of a modern car, but you want to ride it,” he said.

Hicks estimated that Sunday’s final ride was at least his 100th on the wooden coaster.

Brenna Sweigart, 7, and her dad, Andrew, 33, of Indian Land came with an ambitious goal for the last day. They wanted to ride in every row of every car. Each train carries 24 passengers, six to a car, four cars in all.

“Each seat has a different feel,” Andrew said. “In the front seat of the first car you feel the wind, and in the last seat of the last car you feel the slingshot effect,” he said.

Andrew tracked their rides on his cellphone. By Sunday afternoon they had made 150 trips and had about three or four rows left to check off. He was confident they would make their mark, as “we won’t leave the park until 10!” he said.

This was the first year Brenna met the 48-inch minimum height for Thunder Road. “She was sad when she heard they were taking it down,” Andrew said.

Nonetheless, on Sunday, in the the middle of her marathon, Brenna paused to say, “this is something!”

Those reactions are what Fehnel and other Carowinds officials wanted to hear. That’s why the park made the announcement early, on May 23, it was closing Thunder Road. Ridership, like it had been in recent years, was average until this weekend, when it picked up. Like days of old there were longer lines Sunday, but no one seemed to mind.

Fehnel said the Thunder Road experience – the sounds, all the wood, and the ride that’s a little rough – “that’s Americana right there.”

But Carowinds always has tried to seek the balance between old and new, Fehnel said. It’s time for the new in County Fair area of the park and Thunder Road is the first of the major changes for that side of the park, he said.

Sunday was the last day for public rides. There will be some extended ride time Monday morning for employees to ride Thunder Road.

For the remainder of the week Carowinds crews will salvage what they can from the ride, sending parts and coaster trains to either Kings Dominion near Richmond, Va., or Kings Island in Mason, Ohio. Those parks have older sisters of Thunder Road.

A contractor will then recycle what he can from the more than 539,000 feet of lumber used to build Thunder Road. Even the concrete footings will be dug up and recycled. Some of the footings from the Carowinds Monorail, which ran from 1973 to 1994, were dug up, crushed and recycled during the construction of Fury 325, Fehnel said.

Thunder Road’s replacement is scheduled to be announced in August. It likely won’t be a coaster, and Carowinds operative word for what’s coming is “wet.” But even with the closing of Thunder Road, Fehnel stressed that only five other parks worldwide have more roller coasters than Carowinds. “We still have an outstanding collection of thrills.”

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