Final days counting down for Carowinds’ Thunder Road roller coaster

Members of the Coaster Crew gather in the center of Thunder Road for a photo shoot Saturday.
Members of the Coaster Crew gather in the center of Thunder Road for a photo shoot Saturday. dworthington@heraldonline.com

The final days for the Thunder Road roller coaster are approaching without much fanfare. Soon Carowinds will remove the ride for what is expected to be an expansion of its water park.

The lines for the final rides haven’t been long, but the enthusiasts have been running to Thunder Road’s station to get the best seats – the two in the front car and the two in the back car. The front seats provide the best view and the last seats have a little more “air time,” riders say.

These faithful supporters – old and young – are proof, though, that Thunder Road still has the magic. Andy Hine, a British coaster enthusiast who rode Thunder Road in 1997, said the best coasters are the ones that have you smiling and laughing when you leave the station – and smiling and laughing when you return.

Kate Davis, 10, and her sister Morgan, 8, of Columbia had their arms raised before Thunder Road’s train even left the station Friday. Kate already had closed her eyes.

When they exited Thunder Road after their ninth ride of the day – smiling and laughing – Kate was willing to go on strike to keep Thunder Road rolling.

“It’s awesome,” Kate said. “It’s really fun, going up and down,” gushed Morgan.

Add 100 rides and you have the personal, one-day ridership record held by Richard Alexander and his friend Wayne Johnson. They came to Carowinds on a church excursion in either 1977 or 1978. Alexander said there were not many people at the park that day so they decided to ride Thunder Road over and over and over again.

Park officials say they won’t allow a similar coaster marathon these days, but “back in the day” it was likely possible.

Alexander, 51, of Albemarle, N.C., rode Thunder Road Friday with his 12-year-old son, Blake. Blake admitted he was scared as the train slowly made its way up the 93-foot lift hill – and he was beyond scared and screaming as the coaster’s car dropped at 58 mph, raced over a series of hills and then jerked to a stop at the station.

“I want,” Blake said, “to do it again.”

Carowinds’ other coasters are taller and faster than Thunder Road

Carowinds’ announcement on May 23 that it was closing Thunder Road on July 26 caught many off guard. They believed the charm of the wooden coaster made Thunder Road untouchable even though some of its sister coasters are taller, faster, even louder.

The new Fury 325 is taller – 325 feet compared to 93 feet.

Fury and the Intimidator are faster, 95 and 62 mph compared to 58 mph.

The adjacent Afterburn is louder. When the ride loops past Thunder Road’s entrance, Afterburn’s “woosh” makes it impossible to hear the iconic clackety clack of the wooden roller coaster.

The decision to close Thunder Road, said Carowinds general manager Mike Fehnel, was really made by park patrons. “People vote with their feet; (Thunder Road) ridership was down,” Fehnel said Saturday.

But there might not have been any of the 14 coasters that followed had there not been Thunder Road. It was the ride that helped save Carowinds.

Carowinds, the dream of developer E. Pat Hall, opened on March 31, 1973. Initial attendance was encouraging but it dropped after a gas crisis hit. Hall sold the park to Family Leisure Centers, which also operated the Kings Island theme park in Mason, Ohio, and Kings Dominion near Richmond, Va.

One of Family Leisure’s first decisions was to build Thunder Road – almost a duplicate of the Racer at Kings Island, which opened in 1972, and the Rebel Yell at Kings Dominion, which opened in 1975.

Jerry Helms, then a seasonal security guard at Carowinds and now the park’s vice president of operations, watched the construction of Thunder Road from a softball field that is now the site of employee parking. On May 25, 1975, Thunder Road topped out with the lift hill complete, flying the U.S., North Carolina and South Carolina flags.

Thunder Road opened on April 3, 1976. Among the first riders were NASCAR drivers Bobby Allison and David Pearson.

It was so popular that one weekend, the park had to close its gates at 12:30 p.m. as the line to get in stretched from the park’s gate to the shoulders of Interstate 77, according to news reports.

“It was the right ride at the right time,” Helms said.

Thunder Road is named for a movie staring Robert Mitchum

Over 39 years, there have been few changes to Thunder Road – the cars, which way the car’s seats face, and the ride’s entrance sign and facade.

The ride’s first cars came from the closed Jetstream coaster in the Riverview Park in Chicago. Designer Dan Holbrook created two fronts for the trains, one based on a 1955 Chevy and one based on a 1957 Ford.

The bootleggers – of Thunder Road movie fame – drove the Chevy while the revenue agents drove the Ford. The fronts ultimately proved to be too unwieldy and were removed.

In 1981 Thunder Road got a new set of trains.

From 1995 to 2008 one of the trains faced backward, the other forward. There was intense competition among riders to be on the winning train, said Robert Lovelace, 51, of Dallas, N.C. Riders said you had to ride Thunder Road frontwards and backwards to get the complete experience. “The racing train sure made everything fun,” said Lamar Baird, who supervised Thunder Road for several years and is now a food-and-beverage manager at the park. Baird, who rode the ride almost daily for inspections, said his favorite part was the tunnel at the end – a signal the ride was almost over and it was time to start it all over.

When the ride opened in 1976 the sign simply said “Thunder Road.” To complete the moonshine theme, two actual stills were procured from North Carolina officials who had seized them. One still was allegedly capable of producing 120 gallons of corn liquor and the other 1,000 gallons of apple brandy, according to news reports.

The new sign, installed in 1996, read: “Fast as Lighting Thunder Road.”

The changes haven’t altered the charm of Thunder Road. It is still a dynamic wooden coaster that, well, flexes.

The clackety clack gives the impression that the ride could be dangerous, said Tim Hollaran, a member of the Coaster Crew group of enthusiasts. The sound is made by the chain as as it passes over the anti roll-back mechanism while ascending the lift hill. The rough ride can sometimes toss you around in the car, resulting in screams and then relief when the car stops.

Thunder Road was often the first “adult” coaster may people rode, be it with parents or grandparents, said Josh Herrington of the American Coaster Enthusiasts. Herrington remembers his rides with his North Carolina grandparents. The Starkville, Miss., resident will be making a trip to Carowinds just to ride Thunder Road one last time before the July 26 closing.

Mike and Kris Leach of Baltimore, Ohio, came Saturday for a series of final rides as part of the Coaster Crew. They’ve ridden more than 350 coasters, including Thunder Road, at least 15 times. They just had to come one more time. “It’s a woodie and a lot of the woodies are going by the wayside. People want thrills and history doesn’t matter to them,” Kris Leach said.

The “old-school feel” mattered to Corbin Washington of Richmond. Washington is a senior at Virginia Commonwealth University and a member of the Coaster Crew. Saturday was Washington’s first Thunder Road ride although he has ridden its sister coaster, the Rebel Yell at Kings Dominion Park.

“It was just pure excitement,” Washington said as the car made it to the top of the lift hill. “The top was the climax and then ‘here we go!’ It was just wow! I don’t have the words to describe it.”

Like all of the coasters at Carowinds, Thunder Road gets a daily inspection. Because it is made of wood, the inspection crew are also carpenters. They check all the nails and bolts to make sure they are secure. They also check the track. When the park is closed for the season, they repair or replace sections. In 2008, Carowinds rebuilt each of the ride’s turnarounds.

There is also an evening inspection to find items riders have lost. Workers have recovered false teeth, watches and cell phones. The daily average for baseball caps found is about five, Helms said.

One man even lost his toupee. “We replaced the divot,” Helms said with a laugh.

40 million+ number of riders

Thunder Road has been the site for engagements, weddings and likely – but not confirmed – breakups.

Jerry and Debi Keck of Atlanta were married at the top of the lift hill on March 23, 1985. They rode the first car, the minister was in the second car, and the best man and maid of honor were in the third car. After the “I dos,” Debi Keck dropped a rose, the signal to restart the cars. “We then took the plunge,” Jerry Keck said Saturday.

The most intense Thunder Road memories, though, come from the first time you ride it, Helms said. All other rides are compared to the first one.

But whether it’s the first or hundredth ride, those coming to Thunder Road over the coming week are united by a single purpose. “We want to send Thunder Road off with a bang, take the ride and remember fond memories. . . It is one of the park’s icons, ” Herrington said.

Don Worthington: 803-329-4066, @rhherald_donw

Thunder Road by the numbers

2:10 ride time in minutes, seconds

48 inches tall, the minimum height for riders

58 speed in miles per hour

93 feet, the tallest point of the ride

30,000, number of bolts

3,189 feet of track

539,00 feet of lumber used to build Thunder Road

3,500 pounds of nails

$1.6 million cost

Source: The Herald and Carowinds

Thunder Road trivia

  • Built by the Philadelphia Toboggan Co., which also built the Woodstock Express at Carowinds
  • Before the ride opened, park employees were shown the Thunder Road movie
  • Featured in a 1976 commercial for Hardee’s
  • The lift hill once had “Burma Shave” signs that read (in order): Grit Your Teeth, Bear the Load, Enjoy the Ride, On Thunder Road, Burma Shave.”
  • In 1999 Thunder Road was a Jeopardy question: The Thunder Road roller coaster careens through both of these adjoining states. The question: What is North and South Carolina?
  • On Thunder Road’s 30th birthday in 2006, 30 sets of twins rode the coaster 30 times.
  • For more trivia and photos go to www.carowindsearlyyears.com

Source: www.carowindsearlyyars.com and newspaper clips

Want to ride Thunder Road?

The ride closes July 26. Carowinds is open daily 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Thunder Road memories

“It was the early 90's when Paula Abdul performed at the Paladium. As part of the contract, the park allowed her, her band, and anyone else associated with her group to ride some of the rides well after closing. Of course one of the main ones was Thunder Road. While being part of the security detail that night for Carowinds, I got the chance to escort them for an hour or so, before the shift ended. It was pretty funny, though, because before she got on Thunder Road, we all joked about her not meeting the height requirement.”

Editor’s note: Paula Abdul is 5 feet tall, which meets Carowinds’ height requirement.

Michael Clarkson

“August 1983, my younger sister and I rode Thunder Road for the very first time. I was not adventurous enough to ride in the first car as she had so eagerly hoped for so we sat somewhere in the middle. I remember the huge lump in my throat as the train of cars pulled out of the station. I didn't think we would ever get to the top of that massive hill, but once we did, oh boy. Pure exhilaration as we all but flew down each hill. I can still hear the sounds of the coaster as it swayed back and fourth on the wooden track. I never thought then that it would be on my bucket list to ride once more before it's gone forever.”

Terri Tillman

“In June 1975 my husband and I were married. The next month in July we accompanied a group of youth from the First Presbyterian church in York to Carowinds. We rode Thunder Road. On the way up the first big hill I asked my husband if he was going to kiss me when we got to the top, he replied, No way, I'm holding on for dear life". We have laughed about that many times over the last 40 years. I have rode it many, many times since then – last time last week – but I don't think I ever got him back on to ride.

Alice W. Smith