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Click of wooden coasters attracts enthusiasts

For a city built on steel, some of the most sought- after attractions in Pittsburgh are actually made of wood. Just ask the more than 400 members of the American Coaster Enthusiasts.
Image: Racer coaster
Riders on the \"Racer\" roller coaster soar down one of the hills as they pursue a second coaster on a parallel track on the wooden trestle ride at Kennywood Park in West Mifflin, Pa.Keith Srakocic / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

For a city built on steel, some of the most sought- after attractions in Pittsburgh are actually made of wood.

Just ask the more than 400 members of the American Coaster Enthusiasts, who have come to Kennywood amusement park for the 7,000-member group's annual convention. The highlight will be riding three of the oldest wooden roller coasters in the world — over, and over, and over again.

"There are very few, maybe no places, in the world quite like it," said Bill Linkenheimer, of Pittsburgh, the group's secretary and lifelong lover of the thrill of zooming over the rails, who joined the club in 1980 at age 13.

The gathering this week marks the fourth time that the group, founded in 1978, has held its annual convention at Kennywood. It also marks the first time the American Coaster Enthusiasts will honor two coasters at one park with plaques designating them ACE Roller Coaster Landmarks.

The rides — the Jack Rabbit and the Racer — were both built of wood in the 1920s by coaster designer John Miller. The Jack Rabbit is known for its 70-foot double-dip drop, while the Racer is the only single-track racing coaster in the U.S. Through its unique "reverse curve" design, riders start on the right side of the track and finish on the left.

"They are just examples of the way coasters were made back then and how a coaster can survive so long and be really fun and really enjoyable," said John Gerard, of San Diego, the group's public relations director.

Although coaster enthusiasts like the newer steel coasters, too, many are partial to the click-click of old wooden coasters. Modern coasters can be extreme and fast, but the ride tends to be the same every time, while everything from the time of day to the humidity can change the ride on a wooden one, Linkenheimer said.

"Every wood coaster truly is unique," said Linkenheimer, who has ridden more than 600 roller coasters all over the world. And he keeps them all listed on a spreadsheet to prove it.

Once dubbed the "Roller Coaster Capital of the World," Kennywood was founded in 1898 as a small trolley park, and many of its most famous coasters were built in the early 1900s. The park was designated a national historic landmark in 1987.

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In 2003, the family-owned park was sold to Parques Reunidos of Madrid, which manages dozens of amusement, animal and water parks in the United States and Europe. The Kennywood sale also included two other Pittsburgh-area attractions: Idlewild & SoakZone in Ligonier and Sandcastle Waterpark in West Homestead.

Earlier this year, Kennywood was named the world's favorite traditional park by the National Amusement Park Historical Association, a Chicago-based group dedicated to recognizing and preserving amusement parks.

The group cited Kennywood's mix of historic and new rides as a factor in its appeal. On Friday, the park will open its newest coaster, the Sky Rocket, not far from where the Jack Rabbit is celebrating its 90th anniversary.

This week's ACE convention started at Kennywood, but participants will also visit Idlewild, Waldameer in Erie, and Conneaut Lake Park, located about 90 miles north of Pittsburgh.

Conneaut is home to the Blue Streak, the sixth-oldest wooden roller coaster in the U.S. and the only Edward Vettel-designed coaster with a shallow track design that is still standing.

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The 72-year-old coaster hasn't been in operation for several years, and the park itself has fallen on hard times. The American Coaster Enthusiasts have donated $5,000 toward the restoration of the Blue Streak, and members say going to the park during the convention is one way to show their support for the preservation of these historic sites.

"Throughout the country, we've lost a lot of parks just like that," Linkenheimer said.

Perhaps the biggest attraction of the week, though, is what's known to coaster insiders as ERT — exclusive ride time. The parks will make time available before opening and after closing for conventioneers to ride the coasters.

"You just get to ride until you are fried," Gerard said.