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THE DESCENT OF MANMETROCENTER 'COASTER STIRS DISCUSSION OF GREAT GRAVITY

Feeling jittery about the recent rash of roller coaster mishaps at the Arizona State Fair? Uneasy riders may want to steer clear of the construction currently under way at the Golf N' Stuff miniature golf course at Metrocenter. Now going up (so it can come down soon) is Phoenix's first permanent roller coaster.

Imagine a serpentine oil pipeline designed by Dr. Seuss and you begin to get an idea of what's in store for thrill seekers come January. The tubular-steel track will carry riders up a 95-foot hill before hurtling them downward--and through a double loop--at speeds of up to 50 mph. And, says Golf N' Stuff manager Brett Brimhall, a state-of-the-art safety system will ensure that it will only look as if you're about to plummet into the nearby Arizona Canal. The unnamed 'coaster is the centerpiece of a ride annex now being built on a lot just south of the north-central Phoenix miniature golf course, one of several courses owned by the Norwalk, California-based Golf N' Stuff chain. The annex will also feature a log flume, a Sea Dragon, a kiddie 'coaster and several other children's rides.

Although it won't open until next year and it's not the most spectacular 'coaster, the Phoenix white-knuckler has already attracted the attention of national roller coaster buffs.

"It's a very ambitious undertaking for a park that size," says Chicago 'coaster fan Allen Ambrosini, publisher of At the Park, a trade magazine covering the amusement industry.

Although Golf N' Stuff's Brimhall refuses to say how much the Metrocenter 'coaster cost, Ambrosini ballparks the price tag at $1 million, based on the cost of similar 'coasters designed by O.D. Hopkins, a New Hampshire manufacturer that specializes in 'coasters for smaller parks.

Even though nobody's ever ridden it, the Golf N' Stuff scream machine comes first in Ambrosini's book--which just happens to be Guide to Rides, a recently published directory of nearly 300 major roller coasters in North America. "The book is arranged alphabetically and Arizona is the first state mentioned," explains Ambrosini, a member of American Coaster Enthusiasts. Formed in 1978, the Chicago-based organization now boasts some 4,000 members in 19 different countries. The group's stomach-churning activities involve periodic conventions at various amusement parks.

Ambrosini himself is nothing if not dedicated. He claims his love of 'coasters brought him into the amusement-park business, and he recalls how he once raised money for charity by riding the 'coaster at Six Flags over Texas for 23 and a half hours. (Ambrosini insists the only ill effect from his marathon joy ride was weak knees.)

For the over-the-hill gang, Phoenix's admittedly minor league entry in the supercoaster sweepstakes is still notable, if for no other reason than it boosts the number of a once-rapidly-declining species. "During the Twenties and Thirties, what we call `the golden age of roller coasters,' there were up to 2,000 roller coasters around the country," says Ambrosini. "Beaches, piers, amusement parks--roller coasters were everywhere. People really loved these things." The 'coaster craze reached some sort of apex at an amusement park in Ontario, Canada: In a move that was probably more theatrical than therapeutic, a registered nurse met woozy patrons as they staggered off the Crystal Beach Cyclone. According to Ambrosini, World War II quickly threw the brakes on America's favorite downside risk. Because rubber, lumber and other materials were at a premium, some 'coasters fell into disrepair and closed for the duration. A lot of them never lived to see peacetime. And at least one roller-coaster nurse found herself looking for a new gig. "After the war, people just changed the way they spent their leisure activity time," explains Ambrosini, pointing out that postwar America preferred to get its kicks in front of a TV screen. "It wasn't until Disney breathed new life into the whole industry with the theme-park idea that you saw many new 'coasters being built."

But the revival didn't really get rolling until the widespread use of tubular-steel tracking. Disney's Matterhorn, built in 1959, put that trend on track.

Using technology that was impossible with older "woodies," roller-coaster manufacturers had by the mid-Seventies literally turned the industry upside down. In 1975, Knotts Berry Farm introduced its aptly named Corkscrew, the first 'coaster in the country to feature a 360-degree loop. A couple of years later, Disneyland threw the switch on Space Mountain, a two-and-a-half minute ride through a light show. It's been uphill ever since. At Magic Mountain, north of Los Angeles, daredevils now tempt fate on the Ninja, a free-swinging horror featuring cars suspended from an overhead track. At King's Island, outside Cincinnati, the big attraction is The Beast, a 66-mph hell ride through a forest highlighted by tunnels and a 540-degree spiral. Before leaving Ohio, don't forget to check out the nine--count 'em, nine--'coasters in Sandusky's Cedar Point park, including the awesome Magnum XL-200. Opening in 1989, the $8 million monster's 194.8-foot vertical drop was briefly touted as a world record.

"A few years ago, that was thought to be the ultimate," says Ambrosini, who has since learned the sky's the limit. "Some day there'll be a topping out, but right now there's no end in sight." Stop the whirl. I want to get off.

Ambrosini once raised money for charity by riding the 'coaster at Six Flags over Texas for 23 and a half hours.

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Dewey Webb