SANTA CLARA -- From a distance, the giant escarpment of wood looks like one of those models made from Popsicle sticks by very lonely men, possibly a dinosaur that lumbered into Great America and was rendered extinct after too much funnel cake.
Despite its nearly 700,000 board-feet of southern yellow pine -- joined together by 150 million nails and 1.5 million bolts -- this season's newest park attraction, a massive wooden roller coaster, appears frighteningly fragile, like the trestle they always show in movies right before they blow up the train. This is Gold Striker, and it's part of the new skyline around the amusement park, along with the 49ers' stadium rising at an equally furious pace across the street.
When it is unveiled May 1, Gold Striker will be the tallest and fastest wooden roller coaster in Northern California, a combination sure to excite fans of classic coasters. The theme park -- which opened for the summer season Friday -- is seeking "synergies" with the pigskin palace, which won't be finished until 2014. Great America recently added a tunnel to the ride's steepest drop that park officials have dubbed the "Mineshaft," and it's promoting the magnificent new red and gold ride as the place where "Gold Rush meets adrenaline rush."
Already, the coaster's humped back rises to a height of 108 feet, then writhes through a series of serpentine switchbacks. The coaster's 12 cars are expected to reach a top speed of 53.7 mph as they drop an additional 15 feet and blow past the queue of people waiting to board the ride -- mussing the hair of some, the confidence of others.
"For me, a lot of times the best part is waiting in line for the ride," explains Brian Laschkewitsch, father of the assistant regional representative of American Coaster Enthusiasts, 17-year-old Nicholas Laschkewitsch. "You have all these thoughts in your mind about what's going to happen, how it's going to go, and then you sometimes see a couple of people chicken out at the last minute. And you go, 'Jeez, I wonder if those are the smart ones.' "
Roller coasters, which date back to the huge ice slides that 18th-century Russian ruler Catherine the Great had constructed around her St. Petersburg palace, combine a slow drip of dread with a rush of adrenaline. Together they send a shock through the nervous system that many enthusiasts find intoxicating, even addictive.
Wooden coasters produce a deep roaring noise that can be heard a mile away, a siren's song for the bold but one that can suck the timid and terrified into its mad swirl. The chain lift that pulls the train slowly up the first great hill, before releasing it to gravity's rainbow, has the tension-building effect of a creaking door hinge in a haunted house.
"You're going to hear that clackety-clack all the way up the hill," promises Clair Hain, owner of Great Coasters International, the Pennsylvania company that is building Gold Striker. "Shimmy. Shake. Shuffle. Then when you get on the track, you're going to hear the bolt joints shifting in their pockets."
Gold Striker is the latest thing in wooden coasters, which is itself a contradiction in terms. Wooden structures shimmy, and it's their clatter and creak that made classic favorites of the now nearly century-old Giant Dipper at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk and the 85-year-old Coney Island Cyclone in New York.
"The thing I really love about wooden coasters is you get a shaky feeling that you don't get on steel coasters," says Nicholas, the ACE rep, who visited the Great America construction site last week to monitor Gold Striker's progress. "Not like it's unsafe. But like you're going to fall off."
Gold Striker will be inspected every morning before its two trains welcome an expected 850 riders per hour, and because of the susceptibility of wood to invasive elements such as moisture and termites, the ride has been treated to repel rot and pests -- not counting 12-year-old boys, of course.
Great Coasters has based the projected top speed of its still unfinished ride on calculations design director Jeff Pike says are "really not a whole lot more challenging than high school physics." The company's claim that Gold Striker will be Northern California's fastest wooden coaster created a brief stir when it was discovered that the Santa Cruz Boardwalk's website was declaring the Giant Dipper capable of speeds "up to 55 mph," making it the fastest. But the Dipper is almost 90 years old, more grande dame than grand prix now, and its top speed was quickly revised downward to 46 mph.
"We know our ride is the best because it's the original," says Boardwalk spokeswoman Brigid Fuller. "The view of Monterey Bay as you climb the first big hill, the smell of the ocean and cotton candy, followed by the screams as you forget the amazing view and hold on for dear life. If theirs goes a little faster, we don't really mind."
Nicholas, who is studying mechanical engineering at Cabrillo College so someday he can carry on the tradition of building wooden coasters, is prepared to switch his allegiance from the dowager Dipper to this holiest of rollers. "Everybody is incredibly thrilled about this ride," the teenager says. "The excitement is building. Right now it's like hearing the clickety-clack of the chain as you go higher and higher. Then you go down that first drop, and the excitement just releases."
Contact Bruce Newman at 408-920-5004. Follow him on Twitter at BruceNewmanTwit.
Tallest: Colossos, 197 feet, Heide Park, Germany
Longest drop: El Toro, 176 feet, Six Flags Great Adventure, Jackson, N.J.
Fastest: El Toro, 70 mph, Six Flags Great Adventure
Longest: The Beast, 7,359 feet, Kings Island, Ohio
Steepest: Outlaw Run, 81 degrees vertical angle, Silver Dollar City, Mo.
Source: Mercury News research