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The Art of Coastal Coaster Maintenance

A ride on Mission Beach’s Giant Dipper roller coaster takes a minute and forty-five seconds. But keeping it safe is a full-time job that requires skill, instinct and a little makeshift creativity.


photo by sam hodgson

Every day, the Mission Beach boardwalk is enveloped by the aroma of cotton candy and waffle cones—the sweet smells that define that quintessential ritual of a San Diego summer: a day at Belmont Park. But in the early mornings, before the crowds arrive and business starts churning, the breeze mostly carries the tickling fragrance of brine. And for Pat Crain, who is in charge of maintaining the Giant Dipper roller coaster, that subtle sting in the nostril is anything but sweet. It smells like corrosion.

“With the ocean air, we’re constantly battling it,” he said, leaning against the railing of the wooden coaster’s loading platform as the train rattled through a test run one recent morning.

“The whole draw of a wooden coaster is the clankity-clankity-clank up the hill, and the rough ride down”

Crain is a tall, mild-mannered man whose hands look sturdy enough to unscrew a corroded bolt with his fingers. It is his job to ensure that each morning, every one of the coaster’s 2,600 feet of track meets the watchful gaze of one of his trained mechanics on the lookout for the side effects of its beachfront locale: rusted rails and decaying tie boards.

That’s because the physics of the 86-year-old coaster are disarmingly simple and demand minimal interference. For six dollars, a chain carries 24 passengers to the top of a hill, where they get a fleeting glimpse of San Diego’s coastline and the amusement park more than 70 feet below. Then gravity takes over. “We have no control until it gets back to the station,” he said.

That keeps Crain and his team of six mechanics on a constant and never-ending cycle of upkeep and repairs. They work on Belmont Park’s other rides, like the Tilt-A-Whirl and the Krazy Kars, but keeping the Giant Dipper safe and operating is their main priority, a job that requires skill, instinct, and a little makeshift creativity.

They replace bolts and wood throughout the summer and make note of larger repairs needed during the winter off-season. Every winter, they replace one-seventh of the track bed, so that no section along the coaster is ever more than seven years old.

Originally built in 1925, the Giant Dipper operated successfully for several decades, until Belmont Park fell into disrepair in the 1960s. The coaster’s operators finally shut it down in 1976. It sat decaying for years until a new developer renovated it, replaced all of the wooden structure section by section, and reopened it in 1990.

photo by sam hodgson

The renovation included some modern upgrades, like steel pylons to anchor the coaster and keep it from swaying. But mostly it stayed the same. So it is perhaps not surprising that for a coaster nearly a century old, some of the technology used to maintain it today hearkens back to the coaster’s older days.

Ed MacKeil, a mohawked mechanic who came to roller coasters after a stint as a biotech mechanic, spends part of his days in a workshop under the coaster’s final banking turn. “This is kind of tree-house technology,” he said, crawling down a ladder to the lower level. “There’s only so much you can do when it’s built into a coaster.”

The ceiling takes the contours of the banking track overhead, and homemade wedges, measuring sticks, and other tools hang from nails on the walls. MacKeil fashioned many of them himself and uses them to screw parts on at just the right angle or at just the right distance when reassembling a train, for instance. They’re labeled in black marker.

“You can’t buy these in the store,” MacKeil said.

Repairs to the Giant Dipper costs between $75,000 and $300,000 a year, depending on what’s needed, and maintaining it relies as much on nitty-gritty mechanics as on the instinct of the men who spend every day on, in, and under it.

Several years ago, a tractor was digging up a patch of concrete near the outer corner of the coaster and dumped a claw full of it into a trash bin just as the train was whooshing past a nearby turn. The sound of the falling debris sounded like it was coming from the coaster.

By instinct, Crain and another mechanic whipped their heads toward the track, but it was a false alarm.

“When you run this thing year after year, every noise, every bump, you just get to know it,” Crain said. “You just know.”

Since it reopened in 1990, the coaster hasn’t caused any serious injuries. But the mechanics keep tabs on roller coaster accidents across the country and scrutinize them. What went wrong? How can they avoid that here?

“The whole draw of a wooden coaster is the clankity-clankity-clank up the hill, and the rough ride down,” Crain said. “There’s an inherent risk in thrill. That’s where thrill comes from. But we try to keep it to a minimum.”

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