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Dips, loops, twist, turns -- he loves 'em all

Tuesday, June 18, 2002

By Virginia Linn, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

John Gasper's first ride as a child on a real roller coaster -- the Jack Rabbit at Kennywood -- left him "white as a ghost."

Crazy for coasters, That's John Gasper. (Matt Freed, Post-Gazette)
But he remembers liking it. So much so that he's gone back again and again and again and again.

Now 42, he's ridden 385 roller coasters throughout North America and the United Kingdom. An instrumental music teacher in the Canon-McMillan School District, he reels off descriptions of lateral G-forces, air time, inversions, shuttle loops and side-frictions with the ease of a physicist.

His whole world changed in 1993. That's when he joined the national American Coaster Enthusiasts club. Until then, this resident of the Muse neighborhood in Cecil, had frequented only the coasters in such close-to-home parks as Hershey, Conneaut Lake, Geauga Lake in Ohio.

When he received the club's directory of all the coasters in North America, his first thought was "Oh my gosh, look what I'm missing!"

His second was "Why didn't I join earlier?" He missed riding some of the wooden classics in smaller parks that had already shut down.

Right now, he's at a club convention on the West Coast and taking a few extra days to sample even more coasters.

While he loves the thrills of the really high and fast coasters like the 93-mph Millennium Force at Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio, he favors the slower and smaller wooden coasters. That's why he's not so alarmed about a move by the roller coaster industry to set limits on gravitational forces and speed.

"The rides I most enjoy are not the ones that keep pushing the limits," he said. "I think it's probably not a bad idea to have somebody keep tabs on the coasters."

Some rough coaster rides have left him with a sore neck and back, yet nothing with lingering pain. He got injured last year on an Indiana roller coaster, but it was caused more from his own carelessness than from any structural problems with the ride.

During the Stark Raven Mad event at Holiday World in Santa Claus, Ind., Gasper was riding one of his favorite coasters, the Raven. It was about 1 a.m., and for some reason he held out his arms sideways, instead of up. His finger tips scraped the sides of the railings. The friction tore some nails back, leaving them black, blue and bleeding. He was treated at the local hospital emergency room.

He has his own rating system for rides.

"There's good pain and bad pain," he said. If his reaction to the ride is "ouch," that's bad pain. "But if it's oooo, ooooo, that's good pain. You're tossed around just enough that you're enjoying it. You've got good speed, side-to-side lateral G-forces, as well as negative G-forces."

His sentimental favorite gave him the oooo, oooo feeling. It was called Mr. Twister and shut down in 1995 after operating for 31 years at Elitch Gardens in Denver. In honor of the ride, he got a vanity plate for his car that reads MR TWSTR.

But that's not all. He's collected more than 100 T-shirts from his rides (only from the wooden coasters) and has a refrigerator covered with magnets from the hundreds of parks he's visited.

This summer, he's returning to England and then heading to Europe for the first time to try out its coasters.

If he were to design his own coaster it would go like this: It starts with a lift hill at least 120 feet high. The car would plummet and go into some big dips (straight up and down, sending you out of your seat), then into tight, twisting turns, pushing you from side to side. It would go through a tunnel or two, even one underground. And it would end with five or six "bunny hops" that make you fly out of your seat.

While he loves the ups and downs, rides that spin can do him in. For those he often needs motion sickness pills.

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