Coasting through life 

The Great American Scream Machine still thrills

It's not the tallest roller coaster in the park. It lost that honor in 1992, when the Ninja moved in practically next door. It's no longer the fastest, either. Déjà Vu, making its presence known in similar proximity, stole that glory back in '01. For nearly 23 years, it did have the park's longest track. Then along came the Goliath last year, stealing the record for height and speed and length from all of Six Flags Over Georgia's headiest rides.

None of that matters. Contrary to widespread belief, it's not size or speed that counts. Not this time. At 34 years of age, it's old as far as coasters go. Yet somehow, it exudes a timeless grace.

The Great American Scream Machine – or "GASM," as it's affectionately called – is still the most beautiful of them all.

Six Flags Over Georgia turns 40 years old this year, and in an industry that thrives on the constant introduction of ever-more testosterone-laden thrill rides, the Austell theme park holds its own. If you count the tyke-friendly Dahlonega Mine Train, the park boasts 10 roller coasters – from the kind where your legs dangle beneath you to the one where you ride standing up, from tracks with triple loops to those that literally traverse I-20 to ones that run both forward and backward. Most of the coasters are named for superheroes (Batman, Superman), cunning antagonists (Goliath, Ninja) or angry natural disasters (Cyclone, Scorcher). They are menacing, intense.

Then there's the Scream Machine.

First, it's neither made of steel nor painted neon green or DayGlo orange – just plain old wood and red, white and blue.

There's also its shape to consider. Nothing is distorted; there's no twisting back on itself like a show-off contortionist in a freak-show circus. No, the shape best resembles the swooping lines of a brontosaurus – as if the ride were some majestic, prehistoric beast, coming to graze at the park's quiet lake. With the water reflecting the backdrop of trees during the day, and at night the ticking Christmas-style lights that define the coaster's hills and swells, the vision of the Scream Machine is downright pastoral.

Back in the late '60s, park general manager Errol McKoy lobbied intensely for a wooden coaster. But Six Flags founder Angus Wynne wasn't game, according to a book about the theme park, Six Flags Over Georgia, published last year.

"By 1971, things had changed," the book points out, "and McKoy staked his career on the success of his dream: the Great American Scream Machine."

According to a Wikipedia entry on the subject: "Wooden roller coasters provide a very different ride and experience from steel roller coasters. While they are technically less capable than a steel coaster when it comes to inversions and elements, wooden coasters instead rely on an often rougher and more 'wild' ride as well as a more psychological approach to inducing fear."

Or as John C. Allen, the late architect of the Scream Machine once said, "You don't need a degree in engineering to design roller coasters, you need a degree in psychology."

While being pulled up the Scream Machine's first, 100-foot ascent, there's a point at which the train jerks for a split-second backward, as if losing its nerve and deciding to slip back to the earth. With just a seat belt and a lap bar protecting you (which, if you're of normal size, doesn't quite pin you down snugly enough), you realize upon the second or third rise that, unlike more late-model coasters, you're far from immobile in your seat. There are places along the 3,800 feet of track at which the force of the ride lifts you off of your seat, as if you're flying, your own joy propelling you, with no assistance from the coaster itself.

And when those two minutes are up, you're not terrified. You're not disheveled. Your hair's not even that messed up. Instead, you're elated.

GASM, indeed.

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