The American Eagle soars above Great America: part 7 of our look at the world’s tallest roller coasters

1981 was a big year for Marriott’s Great America in Gurnee, IL, when they opened the world’s largest wooden roller coaster. Its statistics shattered every height and speed record, some of which lasted for a few years.  Intamin from Switzerland was chosen as the winning bid, which made Intamin create a team to design and construct the attraction. 

The ride was designed by Curtis D. Summer, who had worked with John C. Allen on previous rides.  Jim Figley, who had supervised the Racer’s construction at Kings Island, Rebel Yell/Racer 75, and his contracting firm Figley-Wright (with Leonard Wright) was in charge of construction.  They erected the ride, recruiting local carpenters and other construction workers, as was the norm for roller coaster construction design then.  The park retained  Tom Bleck from the architecture firm Bleck&Bleck Architects LLC to design the queue, station, and general integration. 

The park’s ride location is at the back of County Fair, with the original queue housed inside a circus tent that dated back to the park opening in 1976.  Guests then left the park proper, walked on an extended elevated platform, and reached the ride, crossing over the blue track. 

The ride is a twin-track racing roller coaster, a style of ride that was remade popular by the Kings Island (Mason, OH) Racer in 1972.  American Eagle was designed to take wooden coasters to the next level, with a massive 127 feet tall lift hill.  This was taller than Colossus at Six Flags Magic Mountain, ensuring the world’s tallest wooden roller coaster record at the time.  What comes off that lift hill?  Curtis Summers discovered the land was not wholly level, so the ground was dug down at the bottom of the first drops, giving extra height.  The result is an incredible 147 feet tall pair of drops, at a steep 55° angle.  Intamin elected to use Douglas fir to construct the ride instead of southern yellow pine, which was used more frequently in wooden roller coaster projects. 

The ride layout calls back to the old John Allen start, with the trains leaving the station away from the lift hill before turning around, passing the transfer track that leads to storage in the middle of an S curve.  After the sliding track switch, the path goes under the station approach brakes before engaging with the lift hill.  The red side refers to the track that goes up the lift hill on the left with the blue side on the right side, closest to the park.

Cresting the lift hill, the trains drop down the record-breaking drop, hitting 66 mph at the bottom.  While The Beast could sometimes be faster depending on brakes, weather, and track condition, American Eagle hit 66 mph much more reliably.  The trains then navigate two quick-speed hills before riding out of the dug-up part and rise into the first-speed check brake sections.  The train’s speed slowed down as the next section was quite different from the start: the barrel. 

The barrel refers to a massive 540+° helix with the red side on the inside.  The red and blue track separates at the end, with the red track running a little lower, going into a small drop, followed by a speed hill and a high-rise to the right that takes it over the blue route.  The blue train reverses the sequence, with the large hill first, followed by a flat turn to the right below the two out portion tracks and the red return track.

Both sides are now separate, with each track following a different profile.  The blue track goes over a large camelback back hill before rising into its second speed-reducing brake.  On the red side, two small bunny hills lead to the ascent into the speed-reducing brake.  On each side, a twisting drop away from the ride center leads to a final spiral ending with the train going up into the final brakes. 

There were many changes to the ride since its opening.  After an incident in 1984 where two trains collided on one side, the ride braking system was modified.  It originally opened with long strips of friction skid brakes, which were replaced by Cincinnati style pneumatic brakes from Costasur Inc.  The change made braking performance a lot more reliable and efficient. 

The current braking configuration is as follows:  one brake caliper on each track at the end of the straight section at the top of the barrel.  Both tracks were then reprofiled to receive two calipers each exiting the barrel to protect the following curves from excessive speed.  Finally, to entirely stop the train if need be, three calipers were mounted on each side before the final helix. 

The ride was designed to run six trains from Philadelphia Toboggan Company (now PTC,  Philadelphia Toboggan Coasters Inc.), with each train having five cars.  We cannot find any evidence of the ride running three trains on each track, though.  Each vehicle has three rows, allowing for six riders, with a handrail single position lap bar, headrests, and a seat divider securing riders in each row.  This changed in the early 1990s, with the trains receiving extensive modifications. 

The ride had four trains modified, as the ride would now run two trains on each side versus three before.  The handrail lap bars were partly removed, and a portion remained as a grab bar.  The park fabricated new individual lap bars that use an electric solenoid switch system to engage and disengage the ratcheting system. 

Evolving ASTM standards now meant that when the ride’s rolling stock was changed, it now had to apply to comply with the regulations in place at the time.  The rider’s envelope was too close to the structure of the barrel and at the ride’s end, so side guards were added to the trains. 

The last modification to the attraction itself was to the trackbed.  At the bottom of the first drop to the barrel and other high-stress areas, the wooden track came off.  In its place are steel I-beams, painted blue;  on top of those steel  I-beams, two boards of wood screws in to serve as track beds.  It is similar to what Six Flags also completed on Psyclone and Colossus at Six Flags Magic Mountain.  In the 1990s, those two rides also had sections of their traditional wooden track removed and replaced by the same I-Beam/two wooden boards that American Eagle received. 

The queue was changed in 2007 when guests directly accessed the elevated walkway.  The old circus tent was transformed into Wiggles World, a new kid area known as Kidzopolis after the Wiggles contract was terminated in 2010. 

To conclude this article, Janelle Rominski, a local photographer, and aspiring pilot, wrote a text describing how important American Eagle is to her and the area’s residents.

The American Eagle at Six Flags Great America in Gurnee, Illinois has been a part of my life since I was born, living within half a mile (0.8 km) from this theme park for nearly all of my life. Growing up, I would frequently go to Great America; however, I never rode any roller coasters until 8th grade. My Gurnee junior high school rented out the theme park for our entire class for our graduation gift. With the help and persuasion of some friends, I started off by riding The Whizzer, then The Demon. Although I was very nervous, I approached the American Eagle with excitement, and the ride up to the top of the first hill was exhilarating. The views of my town were incredible. The American Eagle helped me appreciate the town that I have deep roots in, the town that my great, great grandparents helped build. I also use the American Eagle as my visual for life. You have great highs, you have great lows, but the main thing is to enjoy the ride.