The Racer: An Interview With Record-holding Roller Coaster Enthusiast Don Helbig


Recently, I had the privilege of speaking with Don Helbig, a roller coaster enthusiast who has ridden King’s Island’s the Racer over 12,000 times. Amongst many things, we chatted about the specifics of his world record, meeting lifelong friends, and the significance of seat 51. He is the current Public Relations Area Manager for Kings Island.

Margaret Hodson: Do you hold a world record?

Don Helbig: A record was set for the most nonconsecutive rides on the same rollercoaster. When I actually started, yesterday would have been the anniversary: June 15th of 1981. I had ridden the Racer from 1972 through 1980. Up to that point, my family would visit the park once, maybe twice a year. The actual starting to come up here all the time, riding, and going for the numbers–that started on June 15th of 1981. I finished that first year with 1,200 rides, and it kind of evolved from there.

Do you know anyone that is trying to break the record?

People start out, and they may get 1,500 rides, maybe 2,000, but then other things get in the way and they can’t make the time for it. That’s the hard part. A lot of people want to do it, but it’s just being able to make that time and make it happen.  Or maybe for them, it does become boring. I would never recommend anyone do it just for the numbers—you can’t. I couldn’t have done 10,000 rides if it wasn’t fun. I would have definitely stopped, wherever the number may have been, the minute it wasn’t fun. But here it is, thirty something years since I got started, and I still love the ride as much now as I did back then.

You first rode the Racer in 1972 when it opened. How old were you at that time?

I was nine years old. It was July 11th of that year. The year before and even a couple years before that, going to Coney Island (local amusement park), they had a ride called the Shooting Star. I was intrigued by it, but I didn’t want to ride it. It was just one of those things. I was a little afraid of it. But I was definitely intrigued by it. The last day Coney Island was open, in 1971, I did go through the line. I did sit in the seat, but right before the dispatched I wanted to get out. I got out of the seat. I didn’t want to do it. As soon as they set you down, and you could hear noise from the train behind it coming through the tunnel, it was just like “No.” And I got out. Looking back I wished I hadn’t done it.  So I didn’t ride it. And then coming back here [Kings Island] the next year, and then seeing the Racer, and being intrigued about it. Just the structure of it, just the sheer size of it. [The Racer] was just this massive white structure. At the time it was the longest, the fastest, the tallest wooden rollercoaster out there. So I could see it from the Eiffel Tower(attraction at King’s Island.) I could see it walking down Coney Mall, I kept looking at it. But I was still a little apprehensive about going on it. My cousin told me he’d give me fifty cents if I rode it with him. So about around 2 o’clock in the afternoon I did. Ended up riding it 9 times that day. I was hooked after that. And then every time I’d come back, it was always the first ride I’d want to head to. It just became my favorite ride.

How old were you in the summer of 1981 when you first starting officially counting [the number of rides]?

18.

You were working for the Reds?

I was working for the Cincinnati Reds as a souvenir vendor. They had gone on the baseball strike. So I was like, “I don’t know how long this is going to last. I don’t want to get another job because I would only be there two weeks.” I thought it would last a week, maybe two. It ended up lasting all the way through the night I hit the 1,000 on August 14th. [That was also] the night I went back to work.

How did you keep track of [the number of rides]?

Back then, some associates that worked at the ride would keep track. At the end of the night, I would tell them, “I have twenty three.” They would match up twenty three. We would bring a note into the marketing office here, and give it to the person who had my position back then. Her name was Ruth, and she would keep a daily tally that way too. It was just counting like everybody else, but it was always verified by the ride. There were witnesses to it, which is how they were able to claim it was a world record. There was proof from the ride associates that I was going through that many times.

I was wondering, because if you just had a piece of paper… Was it Guinness that gave you the world record?

It was the park. They submitted it. When they first submitted it, they said it had to have the same two people had to witness each ride. They came back and said, “This has been a multiple year kind of thing, its not just a one day two day.”  They kind of accepted it at that point. I don’t know that they still list it, but it was in there for about a 6-7 year period in the 1980’s.

In 1981, was your goal always to get a world record, or did you start with a smaller goal?

Not at all, not at all. The original idea was to set a one day record on the ride. I did three different times. In 1981 I bought the season pass and came up. I remember the day, it was June 15th.  A girl I had just graduated high school with, her name was Diana Kelly, it was her first day working the Racer. So I just kind of asked, “Can you find out what the one day record is?” The Beast was in its third season, still maybe an hour, hour and a half wait for it. The Racer because of the capacity with four trains, you can get on quicker. So I said “What’s the one day record?” I was always statistically oriented growing up, playing sports. After few more cycles she came back and said, “I talked to my supervisor, I talked to our director of park operation, the one day record is 96.” So I tried to do 96: ended up with 53. And then had other multiple attempts over the next two to three weeks when I would come to try and get that.  I might get a 61, a 41, a 37, but then the numbers were adding up. And now I was over 300 rides overall. So I thought well, “Let’s see if I could maybe get to 500.” Got to 500 I was like, “Let’s see if I can end the season with 1,000.” So it kind of went from that. It was August 9th of 1981 when I rode it 97 times. That was the first record I broke on the ride. I rode it 97 times that day.

You decided that you wanted to get the record for how many times you could ride the Racer in one day. Did you consider other rollercoasters, or did you always know you wanted to focus on the Racer?

The Racer at the time. They had the Racer, the Beast, Screaming Demon. Those were the three rollercoasters at the time. Screaming Demon, because it was a looping coaster, wasn’t high capacity. There was no chance. You might get twenty-five on a full day if you tried to do it back then. The Beast, the wait time was an hour, and hour and a half. It was relatively new at the time. The Racer had high capacity because there were four trains. On a real busy day, you still might be looking at 35-40 minutes, but most days you could get on there in twenty minutes. I think that fact that it was the first rollercoaster I ever rode– it was my favorite in the park at the time. The Racer was the only one I really considered for that.

What was the previous record (for the highest number of nonconsecutive rides on rollercoaster in a single day)?

It was 96. It had been set back in 1976. So I did that, and then finished the year with 1,200 rides in 54 visits. And then, I was having so much fun with it that I thought, “Well the next year I’ll see if I can take it up to 2,000 rides.” Figured that would be 800 less, I should be able to do that. I ended up that year alone riding 2,211 times. That took it over 3,400 rides for two years. I came up 96 times that year, so I passed the 3,000 ride mark. So after two years I was still having fun. I kept thinking, “Well I’ll just keep doing it until it’s not fun anymore.” So I thought, “Well the next year, lets just see if I can close in on 5,000 rides.” So I had the 4,000th ride in 1983, the 5,000th ride came in 1984, on July 17th of that year. And I thought that probably would be the last major milestone. I was at that time 21 years old thinking, “You better find a job, I don’t know if you’re going to be able to keep doing this all the time.” It was just so much fun that it just continued and didn’t try to really push for the number that much in 1985 in 1986 got it up to 6,000. 1987—7,000. At that point I thought, “Well if it hasn’t gotten boring by now, it’s not going to.” So I thought, “I’d like to go for 10,000 rides. “ So it kind of balanced out. I wanted to do it 10,000 in ten years. In 1990 is when I got to the 10,000 point. In 1982 I ended up riding it 111 times in one day—it was on September 1st of that year. 1987 I broke that again with 112.

Is that the current record?

For nonconsecutive rides.

Did you stop to eat? Did you eat in line?

I would get off the ride, go grab something to eat, and come back to the ride. But I couldn’t do that today. I would probably feel sick if I was trying to eat on the ride that pace again. But it was just fun to do. I had a chance to meet so many people, not only who worked at the park, but just a lot of guests that were regulars. When I ended up getting married in 1993, I had a total of eight in my wedding party. Five of them were people I had met in line. I made lifelong friends out of it, and it was still fun. It never got boring. I was challenged by how many I could do. I was always statistically oriented; I liked to take the averages of what I was averaging per day.

Did you ever get tired of the food–hot dogs. You must have eaten a lot of meals here.

It was pretty regimented actually. It was called the lunch basket, which was located across from the Monster, near the Scrambler. I didn’t even have to ask what I wanted. The people who worked there knew: He’s going to get a hot dog with chili and a large Mellow Yellow. They knew exactly what I was going to get. As soon as they saw me in line, they’d already have it ready.

I did a little bit of math, and if you’ve ridden the Racer over 12,000 times, even if you only waited in line for ten minutes each ride, you would have waited in line for over 2,000 hours.

Yes.

Did that ever get kind of boring?

No. No, because I was always meeting people, talking to people. Even when I drove up there by myself, it only took until about 10:30 until other people were in the group. It never got boring with that. And the line always moved. Even when it was 20, 30 minutes, you still continually moved through the queues.

Did it ever put a strain on your finances to visit the park so much?

Well the season pass made it very affordable to do it. Back then though, you didn’t get free parking with the season pass. So every day, it was, at the time, three dollars. It started out at fifty cents. By the time I got to the 10,000 ride in 1990 it was three dollars. Right after I did the 10,000 ride, the next year all the sudden free parking was incorporated! I think they waited for me to get done with being there every day to do it. I would just budget for it. My money was always saved up over the winter knowing this is what I was going to do. My vacation was expanded over a 140 day operating calendar versus going somewhere for a week or two. It was just always budgeted to.

Were there ever times when you visited Kings Island with friends and they became upset because you only wanted to ride the Racer?

Multiple times. They would tell me, “There are other attractions in the park.” I did ride other rides. If we were here for the full twelve hours, I would tend to want to spend maybe about eight of it over at the Racer. The others ones, they would want to do everything all the time. I would join them sometimes, but to me it was, “It’s impacting my numbers. My average per day is going down.” I actually averaged over 15 rides per day for the 10,000 run over 1981-1990. So I visited the park over that period, it was a total of 655 visits. The average wait about that time was about fifteen to twenty minutes. There was always someone to talk to. If there wasn’t someone in line, there was one of the ride associates. Somebody in the park was always around that I knew. It never got old.

One of the tracks ran backwards from 1982 to 2007. Did you like it better when they were both the same way, or backwards?

Traditionalist. I liked it better when both sides were facing forwards. I understand why they did it at the time. It was unique, it was interesting. It was heading into Memorial Day Weekend of 1982. The original Bat had mechanical issues and wasn’t going to operate again, so they needed something as a new feature for guests that summer. The marketing director at that time suggested, “Can we turn one side of the Racer around backwards.” Just as a gimmick. It was only supposed to be a Memorial Day weekend thing, maybe a short term thing. It ended up being 26 years that it ran that way. After about the second or third year the novelty, for me, ran out. I was always hoping the day would come when it would run the way it was intended, with both sides facing forward. I thought it was more fun. To me, [I liked] the racing element and being to look over at the other side during the race, and see both trains going the same direction.

Is that one of the reason you like the Racer—actually seeing the different trains and the trying to win aspect?

I think the layout and design of it. It was a smooth ride, it was fast. You got a lot of air time with it. It was a lengthy ride. It took a little over two minutes to finish the ride. Those were the elements that I liked about it. It wasn’t something that was a quick 20, thirty second ride. It had everything. At that time, it was one of the tallest still. It was one of the fastest, and it was still one of the longest.

Did you get an adrenaline rush, and do you still get an adrenaline rush when you ride the rollercoaster?

I do. It’s the same as it’s always been. I still know that I can come up here as a guest and still ride the rides just over and over and over again with no problem. It would be very, very easy to step back into that role of riding the rides repeatedly on an almost daily basis.

Do you have a rough idea of which train wins the most often? Do you always pick a specific train or alternate?

The majority of my rides would have come in the last car, third to the back.

So you knew.

Well everybody went to the front, everybody went to the back too. So that third to the back seemed to be the open slot I could get on quicker. It was the fifth car, first row, seat number 51. I was trying to go for the numbers, and it just seemed that [seat] 51 was the one. If I only rode one time, I would probably ride in the front seat. But if [I was] looking to ride multiple times and build the numbers, it became seat 51.  It didn’t matter if it was the Beast, Racer, any other ride on the park. It just seemed to kind of evolve into being the seat of choice for me.  It became my seat.

That’s very interesting and very specific, but I guess you can only know from experience. In the prime of your rollercoaster riding, how many hours do you think you would spend a week [at the park]?

If I was off, it would be all day. I would get here at 9:30. I would head back to the Beast and ride it right away in the morning: once, maybe twice. I would go over to the Racer and spend most of the day riding it. I would watch a few shows, ride a couple of other rides. But the majority of time was at the Racer. If I was coming up in the evening, I got here around 5:30 and stayed until closing. I was here on average 4-5 day a week for a ten year run.

How often do you ride the Racer now?

I did not ride it at all in 2012. I was at 11,999, and I thought, “Well, maybe that’s a nice number to leave it at.” And then last year, on the last day of the season, my daughter said, “I want to ride the 12,000th ride with you, can we go ride it?” She wasn’t around when I was doing it in the 1980s. She’s obviously heard about it, seen all the news clips and those kind of things, but she never got to be part of one of those milestones ride days. We just quietly got on the train and rode the 12,000th ride. That was the last time I went on it.

 

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