Anton Schwarzkopf. Coaster enthusiasts react to that name like a Disney hyena reacts to "Mufasa." The man designed steel coasters that were intense, forceful, thrilling, and yet graceful. He also designed coasters that were portable, able to move from place to place, primarily to travel with the huge German fairs for Oktoberfest and other celebrations. In the early days of my fascination with coasters, I had several Schwarzkopfs within a day's drive of home. There was the double-looping Shock Wave at Six Flags Over Texas near Dallas:
The incredible Greezed Lightnin' at Astroworld in Houston, which launched into the loop, then reversed and did it all backward:
As the years went on, Astroworld added two more Schwarzkopf coasters, making the park something of a Schwarzkopf mecca for enthusiasts. In addition to Greezed Lightnin', you could ride Viper, a Looping Star model:
...and for a few years just before the park closed, you could ride the legendary Thriller, which stopped traveling the German fairs and landed at Astroworld, where it was given one of the dumbest names ever bestowed on a coaster: "Taz's Texas Tornado." Stupid name. Brilliant ride.
But even with all that Schwarzkopf goodness nearby, there was one ride that he built that had become legendary for its weirdness. It was so strange, he only made one of them. I first became aware of it in 1984, when it landed at a park in Florida. Back in those days, there was no internet. You kids today don't know how hard it was to be an enthusiast back then. It was nearly impossible to find any information on what coasters existed or where to find them. You couldn't just log onto one of a thousand coaster fan sites and see photos and read reviews. No, it was more like scouring the magazine racks in the store, hoping for a mention or (hope against hope) a photo of a coaster. I'm pretty sure we had to walk a mile in the snow to get to the store, too. Anyway, I read an article on this thing called "Wiener Looping." It was a shuttle like my beloved Greezed Lightnin', but instead of going in a long straight line, it was twisted and turned around on itself. It was bizarre. Check out the photo below. It's called "Bullet" in that photo, but it's the same ride.
I had to ride it. I was already a big Schwarzkopf fan and this thing was calling me to come to Florida. I was still in high school, though, so "hey, let's drive to Florida and ride a coaster" wasn't yet a thing for me. I could think it, I just couldn't do it. Eventually, though, with some saving and a lot of begging, the family took a trip to the Sunshine State and we arrived at Boardwalk and Baseball to ride Wiener Looping. There was a pretty nice wood coaster there and they had a shuttle loop coaster as well, but no Schwarzkopf. I asked someone and heard that the coaster had been sold to someone who ran a traveling fair. It was no longer at the park. Dammit.
Keep in mind that with no internet, tracking down who it had been sold to, which fairs he would set up in, when those fairs would be open, etc etc etc was next to impossible, not to mention that it took two years to save up for Florida. I knew that "hey, can we go to Germany and look for the coaster?" was going nowhere. I pretty much wrote off the possibility of getting to ride it.
That's when I saw another article with a photo of it, renamed Bullet, and it said that the coaster was at a park called Flamingoland in the UK. Woo hoo! It was many years before I got over there. By the time I did, it had moved again. Nobody knew where. Some digging at the library turned up a photo of it at Wiener Prater park in Vienna. I eventually visited that park, but discovered that it had only run for one season there, in 1982. That was even before Florida got it.
When the internet became a thing, I began searching. I found a wonderful site called RollerCoaster DataBase (rcdb.com) that had photos of it and listed all its previous locations. Then one day in 2014, I noticed there was another piece of info added to Bullet's page... a park in Mexico called Selva Mágica had bought it and was going to open it that year. Even better: an enthusiast group called Coaster Zombies was doing a Mexico trip that fall and the park was on the itinerary. I couldn't sign up fast enough!
Fast forward to October. The Coaster Zombie bus pulled into the lot and there it was.
As we made our way to the entrance gate to the park, I noticed a sign in Spanish. I don't read Spanish, but I know a "these rides are closed today" sign when I see one. Bullet was on the sign. My heart sank. Florida, England, Austria, and now Mexico... honestly, seeing it sitting there but not getting to ride it was worse than the other parks, discovering that it wasn't there at all. I had pretty much given up on it at this point. I didn't see myself heading back to Mexico any time soon and since Anton Schwarzkopf retired in 1995 and died in 2001, when a Schwarzkopf coaster finally dies of old age, you can't just buy a new one.
Flash forward again to 2017. American Coaster Enthusiasts did a trip called "ACE South of the Border." Selva Mágica was on the itinerary. I dared not get my hopes up, but I signed up anyway.
Testimony to the legendary reputation of this ride: look at all these coaster enthusiasts, gathered and taking photos of a coaster that isn't even doing anything because the park hasn’t opened for the day yet. We had some exclusive ride time on another coaster at the park, which we enjoyed, but my focus was on the Bullet. I spoke to the park manager, Humberto, during the ride time and told him that I'd be writing an article on Bullet. He seemed pleased.
As soon as our ride time was over, the park opened to the public. Bullet was scheduled to open an hour later. I made sure to plant myself in the queue well before that time. I wanted to be on the first train out, just in case. Shortly before eleven, a horn sounded and a test train rolled forward out of the station just a bit. Then it reversed and rolled backward up the first spike. The pusher tires reversed and catapulted the train through the station, around a big turn, through the loop, and up the second spike. Then it reversed and did it all backward. My god, it was a beautiful thing to watch. We all cheered. The unmistakeable sound of a Schwarzkopf coaster in motion wafted over to other parts of the park and the ACErs all showed up to the queue like cats who'd heard a can of tuna being opened. (Credit to Andrew Dickey at Cabin Crew Coaster Kings for that analogy. I couldn’t think of a better one!)
Another horn, another test run. The train raced through the layout, then up the spike... but not very far. It started into the reverse course quite slowly and as it approached the loop, I was afraid it didn't have enough speed. As it rolled into the loop, I watched with dread... "no, no, no, noooo." It didn't make it. The train rolled forward again, then back and forth between the spike and the loop, where it eventually just stopped. Darth Vader in Episode III had nothing on me at that moment. My "NOOOOOOOOoooooooooooooo!!!!!" was probably heard in Japan. I couldn't believe that I'd get this close again without being able to ride.
The ride crew came down to talk to the people in the queue. I don't understand Spanish, but "sorry, the ride is closed" was pretty obvious. People began to walk away. Dammit.
A bit later, I ran into Humberto again. I pointed at the dead Bullet, still resting on its side in the turn. He told me not to worry, that it happens sometimes in the morning test runs, and that it would be up and running in about an hour. That made me feel a bit better, but at this point I wasn't going to count my chickens. I kept an eye on the coaster while I did other things in the park. Eventually, I noticed that the train was attached to a winch cable. Good old Anton, designing his ride so that there was a solution to this problem already built in. The structure of the ride has a winch on the second spike and there's a tow hook on the front of the train. Slowly but surely, the train was being pulled up the spike. I wondered how they were going to release the train once it got high enough, but Herr Achterbahn ("Mr Rollercoaster," as he was known) had thought of that, too. When the train reached the highest point, it automatically released itself and rolled back through the course to the station. It was pretty neat to watch:
So the train was back in the station, but that's just the first step. If whatever caused the train to valley couldn't be fixed, it still wouldn't open. I got back into the queue, just in case. Several minutes later, another test train went out. It made it just fine! The distinctive sound of a classic Schwarzkopf brought everyone back over again and by the third test run, most of the ACErs were in the queue. The ride crew came down and opened the gate. I tried not to let myself get too excited. Some others clearly were not so restrained.
Have a look at the train there in the station. Notice how it sits all wonky.
The track in the station twists from left to right, so you board the train at goofy angles. It's all weird and wonderful and so very disorienting as you sit down. I couldn't believe that I was actually going to sit in the train, finally. I wanted a picture to mark the moment that Bullet and I met for the first time.
We all sat down in the train and held our collective breath. By this point in the trip, most everyone had heard how long I'd been trying to ride this coaster and everyone was really hoping that things would work out this time. The ride crew signaled an all clear and the train moved forward a bit. Then it stopped with just the first car outside the station.
The ride crew began a countdown. Diez! Nueve! Ocho! We tried to join them, but counting backward in Spanish is a lot harder than I thought it should be. Of course, part of me was thinking, "don't count, just go!" I had visions of them reaching the end of the countdown only to find the ride didn't work. Those last few seconds seemed to last forever.
"Tres! Dos! Uno!"
The train backed up out of the station and about halfway up the first spike. It seemed a lot steeper than it looked from the ground. You could smell burning rubber from the tires that spin against a fin under the train to push it up the hill. Then the tires reversed direction and the train was launched down the steep hill, through the twisty track in the station, and around the big turn. That's when you get your first glimpse of how close to the underside of the station your head is going to be. There's a reason the trains have those shoulder clamps - just like the Mindbender at West Edmonton Mall, those clamps keep your arms down and inside the car. This is important... you'd lose them if you stuck them in the air!
The loop is pure Schwarzkopf: bone-crushing G forces mash you into your seat as you race around the loop. The turn at the bottom is smooth and before long, you're staring right into the sun as you roll up the first spike. Everyone on the train was probably wondering the same thing: will it make it back to the station, or will it valley again? Back down the spike in reverse, it didn't feel nearly as fast as on the forward trip. Up into the loop, and the train slowed down. A lot. The crushing positive G forces from the forward trip were conspicuously absent this time, something that's almost unheard of on a Schwarzkopf machine. That's when the hang time kicked in.
Hang time is the opposite of airtime. Airtime is generated when you're right-side-up and the train is going fast enough over a hill to lift you up out of your seat. Hang time is when you're upside-down and the train isn't going fast enough to pin you to your seat. It's a disorienting, unnerving feeling of "falling up" and it's not something that I'd ever felt on a Schwarzkopf before.... and after watching that test train not make it back around the loop, there was nothing I could tell myself that would make me believe that we'd make it around this time, either. But we did. Back around the corner, through the station, and up the first spike a bit before reversing again and stopping. The whole trainload of ACErs cheered.
Two things made that ride one of the best coaster experiences of my life: First, after more than three decades of anticipation, the ride did not disappoint. In fact, it was even better than I expected it to be. Second, when I finally did get to ride it, I shared the experience with a whole bunch of ACE friends. These are people who absolutely understood what I was feeling and how happy I was to finally get that ride. People came up and hugged me and congratulations were tossed about freely. As excited and happy as I was, I think they were just as happy for me. It was a wonderful feeling I won't soon forget.
We had limited time left at the park before we moved on to the next stop, but I managed a total of fifteen rides on Bullet before we had to go. I discovered that the seats in the middle of the train gave the best ride, due to them being completely upside-down at the slowest part of the reverse trip. The hang time in those seats is absolutely wicked. When Bullet operated at the previous parks, it was run faster than Selva Mágica runs it. The trains were pushed farther up the spikes and the ride was faster and more intense. I've seen videos of it running like that and while I love a good, intense Schwarzkopf ride, I think Selva Mágica's slower operation offers the better ride. You expect the strong positive Gs in a Schwarzkopf looper, but hang time? That's a new one for me and it made the ride even more special and fun.
I was sad to say goodbye to Bullet as we left the park, realizing that it would likely be my last opportunity to ride it, but I can honestly say that I don't think I've ever been happier on a coaster than I was on that first ride. I will cherish that memory forever.