A Thrill Ride

Tim Jacobi (second from front in bottom row) is part of the brave group testing a prototype of his Eagle amusement park ride, inspired by a childhood toy. The master's candidate in mechanical engineering, who put his studies on hold in 2004 for a job in the roller-coaster business, now hopes to graduate in December 2008. Photo credit: Sandra Jacobi Tim Jacobi (second from front in bottom row) is part of the brave group testing a prototype of his Eagle amusement park ride, inspired by a childhood toy. The master's candidate in mechanical engineering, who put his studies on hold in 2004 for a job in the roller-coaster business, now hopes to graduate in December 2008. (Photo by Sandra Jacobi.)Tim Jacobi adores hurtling through the air, whipping around hairpin turns and feeling his stomach do loops. The Berkeley Engineering master’s candidate in mechanical engineering is a roller coaster junkie. “It’s such a rush, basically,” explains Jacobi, who traces his passion to his early teens.

These days, Jacobi, a 30-year-old father, is experiencing a new thrill: He designs amusement park rides for Logan, Utah, manufacturer S & S Worldwide. His latest—and perhaps most spine-tingling—assignment involves devising the launch system for what is expected to be the world’s fastest pneumatically launched roller coaster. The ride, set to debut in Germany next year, will propel passengers from 0 to 135 mph in less than three seconds.

“It’s going to be an eye-opener,” promises Jacobi, who put his graduate studies on temporary hiatus in 2004 to join a small cadre of mechanical engineers specializing in roller coasters. He hopes to complete his UC Berkeley degree this month.

“I always thought roller coasters were cool,” says Jacobi, a Durham, N.C., native who recalls the excitement of his first ride, aboard a suspended coaster known as the Hangman at the now-shuttered Opryland theme park in Nashville, Tennessee. Along with his zeal for riding them, Jacobi says roller coasters are “really interesting engineering challenges.” Designing a ride means grappling with such factors as fluids, dynamics, machine design and stress analysis.

“There are good coasters and bad coasters,” says Jacobi. “It’s not easy to design a good ride.” Jacobi ought to know. He regularly explores amusement parks on out-of-town trips and figures he’s visited half of those that exist nationwide.

Tim JacobiTim Jacobi Jacobi’s engineering path has taken its own share of twists and turns. As a Yale undergraduate, he weighed several career options before turning to mechanical engineering. He graduated in 2000 and spent a year doing engineering analysis for Zamperla, a ride manufacturer in Vicenza, Italy. Returning to the United States as the amusement industry tanked following the September 11 terrorist attacks, Jacobi signed on as a maintenance worker at Playland Park in Rye, N.Y. By the fall of 2003, he decided it was time for more schooling and headed to Cal, where he studied mechanical design with Professor Alice Agogino.

Jacobi cut his studies short in 2004 when a dream job opened at S & S. “I decided to jump on it,” he says, hoping eventually to find time to write his thesis and complete one remaining class for his degree. “It was clear that his passion was roller coaster engineering, and we figured out a way to make that dream happen,” says Agogino of her first-ever student specializing in roller coasters.

Since joining S & S, Jacobi has worked on more than a dozen big projects, including swing rides—attractions with gigantic pendulum arms that soar back and forth. One of the biggest is the Skyhawk, a ride in Ohio’s Cedar Point amusement park that sends riders flying 125 feet in the air.

While creating such excitement is an obvious goal, Jacobi considers safety a priority. Rides must have an inherently sound design, he says, and include redundant safety features and/or safety factors requiring structural elements that are many times stronger than needed for the loads they carry. “On real critical areas, where people’s lives are depending on it, you overdesign for it,” Jacobi says. “We’re morally responsible to be safe.”

Jacobi has seen two of his proposals get built—the Huckleberry Splash, a 12-passenger family water plunge, and a 1,200-foot-long roller coaster dubbed the Eagle. The Huckleberry started as a theoretical concept for Jacobi’s thesis. It became reality after S&S CEO Stan Checketts got interested enough to install a mockup in his swimming pool and then construct the ride for a local amusement park. The Eagle—inspired by a toy from Jacobi’s childhood—is set to be built in a Swedish amusement park next spring.

“The industry always needs new concepts,” says Jacobi, who doesn’t appear short on ideas. Rides with blistering speeds of 135 mph are “for people who are looking for a rush. I definitely identify with them.”