Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Son of Beast Trackwalkers

- Dave walking and inspecting the track of Son of Beast in Spring 2008.

I walked up the steep, wooden steps and started to sweat. The coveralls were now more of a nuisance as the morning got warmer. Just shy of the 218 ft. peak, I knelt down and  swung my camera bag off my back, trying not to look down or behind me. I had lost count of the number of steps some time ago. Heights have never really bothered me, but this climb did.

I mounted up the lens I wanted and snapped the camera bag to a wooden post, dropping it would've been like throwing two grand down a 200 ft. hole. I wrapped my arm around a wire cable while my legs were shaking from a combination of the climb and the nerves. I peered out over the fog with a telephoto lens and saw Dave ascending the opposite peak. Then I started making photographs.

- Structure of the Son of Beast as seen in 2008.

That day in the Spring of 2008, I had been lucky... really lucky. A perfect combination of good friends, contacts and beautiful weather came together. It had almost been a disaster, but thankfully these photographs turned out to be some of the best and most interesting that I've ever made, some of my personal favorites. With the recent demolition of Son of Beast, I thought they'd be interesting to share.

In 1979, Kings Island Amusement Park in Mason, Ohio debuted "The Beast." The Beast has become an icon of not just the park north of Cincinnati, but throughout the global amusement industry. In 1999, a sequel was announced: Son of Beast.

- Son of Beast under construction in 1999. Image via: Roller Coaster Corporation of America.

When it opened in 2000, SOB was the world's tallest, fastest and only wooden looping roller coaster. In 2009, the park stated that they "weren't satisfied with the ride's performance" and it closed indefinitely. In 2012, the decision to demolish the ride was announced with the process beginning in the fall. On November 20, 2012, Kings Island posted a video of the ride's 218 ft. lift hill coming down: Video Link

I had been lucky enough to work as a ride supervisor at the park on "The Beast" for several summers. Kings Island is a great place to work, but the toughest part is finding another job in "the off season." Since it's only seasonal work, there's about 4-5 months where you need to find another job. Working at The Beast, I had gotten to know the Wood Coaster Maintenance Crew really well so for two winters I had the opportunity to work for those guys as a "parts washer."

In the winter off seasons, I've had a number of strange jobs: US Bank Arena security, Panera Bread, Kroger, Best Buy, Hot Topic, but the best out of all of them was being a parts washer. The work wasn't pretty - I'd clean wheels with solvent on good days and be stuck outside on the bad days. While outside, I'd take a large pressure sprayer and hose down the roller coaster car chasis, getting a summer's worth of grease off them. I'd start out with a bright yellow rain suit that would be completely black with grease by lunch. The job wasn't glamorous and I had to be in to work at 5:55 A.M. every morning. Working with the maintenance guys made every day worth it though. They were sure to let you know if you messed up, but showed appreciation when you worked hard. It was worth it just to eat lunch with those guys and hear their stories about life. Every one of them was welcoming and friendly, even though I didn't listen to country and didn't drive a truck, let alone an American made car. You won't find a friendlier or harder working group than the boys in the "Saw Shed."

- The SOB inspection crew assembling in the morning.

In the Spring of 2008 I was studying Photojournalism at Ohio University before I transferred. In one class, I had been doing ok, but needed to step it up. One week's assignment required us to make "environmental portraits." Unfortunately, I had to drive back from Athens to Cincinnati for the weekend in order to work at the park. Realizing I wouldn't have much time for shooting homework, I called up the Saw Shed and asked if I could photograph them doing their morning inspections in hopes of making a strong environmental portrait. They obliged and I received permission from the park's Marketing Department. So at 6 AM, I met the Wood Coaster guys down in their shop.

It was really cold that morning and I only wore a t-shirt and jeans. The guys were kind enough to offer me a grease stained set of cover-alls. We hopped in a truck and made our way out to "The Beast." I had been careful to pack every lens and piece of camera gear I owned, but as I started to shoot I came to the horrific realization that not only was my camera lacking a memory card, I hadn't packed a single one.

I had to run through the KI back roads to my car and then hope somewhere nearby was open and sold memory cards. I was ruining my only chance that weekend of getting my damn homework done.

I made it to a Wal-Mart that thankfully was open 24 hrs. They only sold 4GB CF cards, for 30 bucks a pop. I dropped $60 for two cards, still in the grease covered outfit I had been given. I flew down the highway and back to the park just as the SOB inspection crew was getting ready. They brought me in their truck, had a quick meeting and then went about following the "lock out" procedures for the ride.

I planned to walk up the ride's 218 ft. lift hill and photograph my friend Dave as he did his inspection. As per the daily procedure, Dave would actually be climbing up the drop of the ride and then making his way towards where I positioned myself.

I've never been bothered by heights, but the Son of Beast's 45 degree lift hill made me uneasy. I had never climbed any roller coaster so steep.

- View from the top of the Son of Beast.

Thankfully, I made sure I had my memory cards this time. I tried counting the steps as I walked, but quickly stopped as my attention became focused on not stopping and reaching the top. I started to sweat profusely; a combination of being out of shape, the coveralls they had let me borrow and my nerves. The sun was now rising along with the temperature. As the sun came out, I lucked out visually: fog was rolling up from the river behind the park. Not only was I getting good light, but the fog made the height of the ride seem so much more dramatic.

When I reached the top, I tied up my camera bag so that I wouldn't drop it. I grabbed the lens I needed, wrapped my arm around a wire to balance myself and looked for Dave. Then I started photographing him going about his morning routine.

- Dave inspecting the ride's structure.

As Dave made his climb up the ride's incredible drop and across the top over to me, I was able to capture him while he overlooked the ride's chain. That frame ended up being the photograph I submitted for the assignment.

- My Environmental Portrait of Dave

I followed Dave back down the stairs while he did his thing. At the bottom we met up with the rest of the members of his crew while they finished up their inspections.

- Jerry and Dave talking.

- The ride's "Rose Bowl" double helix.

- Jerry in the "Rose Bowl."

When I received my assignment grade for the photograph of Dave, it was the first "A+" I had gotten in the class all quarter.

I never much cared for riding the ride, but seeing it come down yesterday was somewhat sad. Mainly due to the memories I have from these photographs. Had it not been for these guys, I likely would've never had the chance to climb the ride or be able to make these frames.

To the guys in the "Saw Shed:" I am eternally grateful for everything you've done for me.


  1. Those photos are amazing Gordon! Always love reading your updates.

  2. Yeah, these pictures blew my mind. Really great work!

  3. I loved this story! Ur memories of SOB are different than others & thats what makes them even more amazing! Thank u 4 sharing! Im dreading driving up 2 KI & not seeing SOB next summer! My husband, son & I all 3 loved him & think its a tragedy that he's now gone......RIP Son, ur already missed!

    1. It was weird seeing it go for me too. I had to drive up that way a few days ago and came up via 71N. Usually SOB was right behind the tower, but now the skyline just seems like there's a big gap missing. Personally, I hated riding the ride, way too rough for my tastes.

  4. Great photos Ronny, you deserve the accolades and whatever money you can get from them for getting up early that morning. They really illustrate the intensity of this roller coaster, especially how they start building their own mythology.

    1. Ha, I appreciate it, but I'm not getting any money for these any time soon.

  5. Great pictures & article.

    Are you a professional photographer now?

    1. Yes and no. I have one semester of school left, but I've done professional work and have had my work featured on products sold globally and in multiple publications. However, I spend most of my time working a part time job since I still have classes.

  6. Fantastic ! i rode the Son of Beast in 2000 when it was new ...incredible ride ! Then again i love rollercoasters and THE BEAST is still my favorite wooden rollercoaster, which i also got to ride it when i was a kid in '79 when it was brand new ;o) After that , with inspiration from the Beast ...i made my first record " Wild Ride " , which was # 1 on the radio in Hawaii where i grew up [after living in Michigan as a wee lad]. My nickname is Mr Wild Ride and it's an 80's homage, inspired by the Beast. I enjoyed your photos very much ! Aloha ~ Brogan

    1. Brogan, glad you enjoyed the photos! Thanks for sharing, enjoyed the song! Have you been back to Kings Island since?

  7. Amazing pictures! It really shows just how massive SoB was.

  8. By far my favorite Son of Beast picture(s) ever. Thanks for pictures, and the story behind them. I for one loved this ride, and I'm glad I have pictures like this to remember it by.

  9. Ive climbed this many times, very nerve racking indeed.
    Smoked a doobie in the cars too!
    Good times.

  10. I just re-read this post on a trip down memory lane. I got chills thinking about this ride, the park, and the times we had there. Thank you for chronicling this awesome experience. Its nice to be able to go back and re-live some of this stuff, even if only briefly.

  11. Great work! As a fellow photog and eternal kid who grew up at King's Island, I am extremely jealous. You really nailed it.

  12. I'm both a semi-professional photographer and a seasoned maintenance worker who's dreamed of getting a position at KI (I've applied several times). This spoke to both sides of that coin. What an amazing opportunity, and you really nailed it. Thanks for sharing and I hope your career is going well since this story is many years old now.
    I loved riding SOB and was fortunate enough to enjoy it many times before it's demise. My wife was a worker at KI in her youth, so she's told me stories of that side of the park as well. It's always been my favorite theme park, and living dead in the middle of it and Cedar Point, I definitely get my fill of rides every year. Thanks again for the amazing story and photographs!
    Wes Eckman

    1. Thanks for checking out the story! My career has been pretty good. Not at all where I thought I'd be, but can't complain either, haha. Just a lot different. If you ever get the chance, the maintenance crew at the park is top notch and fantastic. Wish you luck!