Carowinds’ Thunder Road wooden roller coaster will take one final run along its tracks before being decommissioned at the end of the weekend after 39 years, and I’ll tell you, the mere mention of the ride makes my heart ache.
Wait a second, that’s not what I meant to say. What I meant to say is: The mere mention of the ride makes my head ache.
I remember my first time on Thunder Road with my wife eight summers ago. When the train pulled back into the station, little canaries were circling our heads. We both agreed that the experience was not unlike taking a two-minute piggy-back ride from a construction worker boring into concrete with a jackhammer.
Since then, the only times I’ve ridden it are when I’ve been to the park with Carowinds virgins.
Them: “Hey, what’s that ride over there? Yeah, that one. The one with no line.”
Me: “Ohhh, I forgot that was even here. Let’s go; I’ll show you. It’ll give you an appreciation for how smoothly new roller coasters run. And a migraine.”
Thunder Road was built on the back side of Carowinds in 1976, and at the time, was the park’s crown jewel. It boldly straddled the North and South Carolina borders, topped out at a then-blistering 45 mph, and was an architectural marvel with its 539,000 feet of treated wood.
Today, it looks more like mistreated wood. Nails and screws on the track have jiggled their way loose, while paint on the ramps leading up to and down from the station is peeling. When the two trains roll out, the ramps’ wooden railings visibly shudder.
There was one way – and only one way – that Carowinds was ever going to build excitement around Thunder Road again: By shutting it down, and by doing such a good job of spreading word of its demise that you might think you’d be remiss if you didn’t come ride once more, for old time’s sake.
It’s a textbook example of what we like to call “forced nostalgia.”
And I bit. On Thursday morning, I headed to the park for a final spin on Thunder Road accompanied by my 14-year-old daughter, who – as we regarded its wear and tear – remarked: “This looks like a roller coaster that would break.”
We then waited a grand total of zero seconds in line before climbing into the first car as the ride attendant implored everyone to “Make some noise!”
Between us and the only two other people on our train, there wasn’t much to be made.
But once the ride started, Thunder Road generated plenty of its own: “Clickety-clack, clickety-clack” up the first lift, then “CLANGETY-CLANG” and “BANGETY-BANG” as it charged out and back along the 3,819-foot track. Upon returning the station, my ears were ringing so sharply that the attendant’s “Welcome back, riders!” announcement sounded like it was being made underwater.
Speaking of which... the slice of land Thunder Road now rests upon eventually will, in fact, be underwater.
Officially, the ride is being retired “to make room for future park growth.” Unofficially, Carowinds’ worst-kept secret is that it will be expanding the popular Boomerang Bay water park. (A formal announcement is expected in August.)
My heart, having been somewhat influenced by the forced nostalgia for Thunder Road, is reminded of the old adage: Don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.
But my head – ohhhh, my aching head – knows the park will be better off without it.
One last ride
Carowinds (14523 Carowinds Blvd.) is open from 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; guests have until 10 p.m. Sunday to ride Thunder Road.
On both days, the first 48 riders get a free Thunder Road poster, and the first 100 get a free Thunder Road button. Everyone gets a headache, though.