Saturday, December 15: I leave for Tokyo in two days. The assignment: Ride the world’s fastest roller coaster–called Dodonpa–which has been tested at 115 mph. Dodonpa is powered by three 800-horsepower air compressors. Air is filtered and dried, then stored in four 40-foot-high tanks before it catapults the cars down the track.
Why me? Because my Firsthand editor is mean. My first and last coaster ride came four years ago. After unending terror and darkness, the attendants at Space Mountain–not exactly an enthusiast’s coaster–had to pry my cramped fingers from the safety bar. Couldn’t I ride the world’s biggest bumper car instead? How about the world’s prettiest merry-go-round? I wish my hands would quit shaking.
Wednesday, December 19: I make it to Japan and survive the 3-hour taxi ride to Fujikyo Highland Park at the base of Mt. Fuji. In all, 30 hours of travel for a 60-second ride.
Thursday, December 20: Today is testing day–dozens of runs with no passengers. A park engineer explains that computers monitor each ride, ensuring that everything works properly. As I watch intently, a fellow rider tries to calm me: “You know why they’re testing so much? So we all don’t get killed tomorrow.”
Friday, December 21: Opening day. I can do this, I tell myself. Another motivator: If I don’t, I’ll owe the magazine thousands in expenses.
I watch a few times, take a deep breath, and decide to go for it.
In Zen practice, there are three evil paths: hell, hungry ghosts, and animals and beasts. I see all three in the next 60 seconds. From our starting position, we’re thrust down a 140-foot tunnel, bursting into daylight precisely 1.8 seconds later at a speed of 107 mph. A split-second later, we hit a zero-gravity freefall from the top of the tower. Then, as quick as it began, the ride is over.
We pull back into the loading station to TV cameras and a nice round of applause. My knees and legs are weak, my stare blank, but I’m alive. I can go home now.