on September 28th, 2021

Buckle up, because this is going to be a bumpy read, or is that ride?

The concept behind backyard roller coasters (BYRC) seem innocent enough. Men, women, and budding engineers build roller coasters for themselves in their backyard when they don’t have constant access to theme parks. 

But the lore of these rides requires almost a deep web dive to find information on how, why, and when these homemade marvels were completed, or even the trial and error that went into constructing them.

With this deep dive, you will also stumble upon an unlikely celebrity, Paul Gregg.

Paul is a retired aerospace engineer based in Seattle that, with his knowledge of aerodynamics and engineering, managed to build a somewhat lauded personal rollercoaster for his grandkids when he retired. 

Since then he has become an authoritative figure in the personal rollercoaster world, written and self-published books on the subject, and emerged as a sensei in the backyard roller coaster community.

"It’s really just an eccentric hobby, and a fun thing for the grandkids.   I enjoy using my engineering skills.  I’m learning Autodesk Fusion 360, which is fun.  I would hope I’m injecting some safety into the growing mix of backyard roller coaster enthusiasts, along with generating some enthusiasm for math, physics and engineering in young people."

Mr. Gregg now owns and operates three backyard rollercoasters - with the help of his grandchildren. You can purchase his books and learn more about his company here.

The Road to Rollercoasters

According to the University of Utah in America, Gregg is one of the celebrated alumni of the university.

He graduated from the College of Engineering in 1979 with a mechanical engineering degree. His career saw him working at an aerospace company where he designed and analyzed composites, titanium, and adhesives.

But upon retiring in 2014 Paul used his engineering know-how for something completely different, building his first rollercoaster for his grandchildren by 2016.

Two more coasters followed, and since then he’s become a major figure in the BYRC community.

According to him, his career was predominantly spent in the research and development of new materials, joining processes but it was developing and using systematic approaches involving the integrated disciplines of design, fabrication, analysis, and testing that has led down the new road.

But he mentions frankly that none of the world’s best inventions would have happened without engineers that did something that seemed insane.

His YouTube page in 2021 has more than 64,000 followers, not bad for someone who rarely updates the page.

But his contributions to the community go much further. Using spreadsheets and graphs from his trial and error when it comes to constructing homemade thrill rides, Paul went on to write two self-published books on the subject, offering the first unofficial guides for others that want to build their coasters at home. He also established his company Backyard Roller Coaster Research.

The books, titled Backyard Roller Coasters Research and Development Volume I: “Negative G” Out­ Back and Backyard Roller Coaster Research and Development Volume II: Three-Dimensional Backyard Roller Coasters offers insight into elementary physics, track fabrication methods, how to build PVC rails, and designing a cart.

The first volume also runs through specific design information Paul used to build his first BYRC and the design changes he made as he perfected the design. The second volume covers what he learned to create embankments and other specific information relating to self-powered track rides.

This influence has led him to contribute to major online publications like Coaster101, where he goes into the physics and science of creating BYRC where all the talk that will make engineers salivate gets covered.

https://backyardrollercoasters.org/gallery.php

Tips of the trade

According to Paul, he found a lot of value by having other engineers go over his work when he built his first coaster.

He mentions he initially found coasters online that he thought he could make some improvements on, or add to the safety features by using more standard engineering certification testing methodology. Then it was all reviewed by his peers in a casual setting.

Paul says that for him many BYRC don’t look all that safe, and while he makes it clear that his work can’t guarantee it, he would rather have people test their creations endlessly than ride on something where they could get hurt.

Most of all math is important.

In fact, by capturing his efforts in two books he hopes young people will see the value of math as a powerful tool. Subjects like Calculus are interesting, especially when approaching it from the aspect of roller coaster building and designing because you can use it to optimize things by setting a derivative to zero, and integration could find the area under a complex curve.

Coaster safety 101

Paul’s tips for building a BYRC include creating a safe project, and he has nine specific tips on what makes a great coaster at home.

  1. Lock it up. When the coaster is not in use lock the cart with a chain and padlock, or keep it away from the track.
  2. Limit people around the coaster when in use. Paul suggests only the rider and someone to supervise.
  3. Use high-grade seatbelts that are attached through a steel cart frame.
  4. Cart design should never allow limbs to be near the wheel or tracks of the ride.
  5. Kids will be kids, so parents need to keep a lookout.
  6. Create a safety barrier around the track to keep people at least an arm’s length away.
  7. Don’t motorize your track. Momentum can create the perfect ride experience. Motorized coasters add more safety concerns especially when children are involved.
  8. Make anti-rollback provisions on a hill lift, so if the operator slips, the cart will stay in place to reduce accidents.
  9. Sandbags are the perfect test dummies. Test with them until the ride seems safe enough for human testing.

Eat, play, love

Don’t have the space to build your coaster? Don’t fret. Throwback to the 1999 and the Hasbro Interactive game RollerCoaster Tycoon is not only still a massively addictive roller coaster building game, but it’s also enjoying continued support and its legacy is unflustered.

By the early 2000s, the game moved over 4 million copies it has sprouted plenty of online communities dedicated to the game-building where coaster plans and theme park management tips are shared and fine-tuned.

The release of the Nintendo Switch in 2017 led to another resurgence for the classic game with the release of RollerCoaster Tycoon Adventures. The new game finally upgraded the classic into a game that can be played on a handheld device. 

That success led to a wider release of Adventures in 2019 with a game that is still accessible to young and older players where the classic RollerCoaster Tycoon gameplay is dusted off and combined with new challenges and an open platform to create iconic rollercoasters right in your home.

For the new release, players can play in three games which include Adventure Mode (based on its predecessor’s classic Campaign mode), Scenarios where specific park problems need the player's attention, and Sandbox where budding BYRC designers can create their mega rides and parks. 

Most importantly the game features seven types of fully customizable roller coasters wooden, steel, winged, hyper, inverted, dive, and accelerator.

The game could easily be the first step to building your very own backyard rollercoaster and exclusive club that celebrates engineering in a whole other way.

References

University of Utah Engineering, 2018. Paul Gregg Mechanical Engineer. [online] Available at: https://www.coe.utah.edu/2021/05/05/paul-gregg-mechanical-engineer/ [Accessed 13 August]

Backyard Rollercoaster, 2016. Home Page. [online] Available at: https://backyardrollercoasters.org/ [Accessed 17 August]

Paul Gregg, 2016. Backyard Roller Coasters Research and Development Volume I: “Negative G” Out­N­Back. [online] Available at: https://backyardrollercoasters.org/ [Accessed 17 August]

Paul Gregg, 2016. Backyard Roller Coaster Research and Development Volume II: Three-Dimensional Backyard Roller Coasters. [online] Available at: : https://backyardrollercoasters.org/ [Accessed 17 August]

Atari, 2019. RollerCoaster Tycoon Adventures – Casual Entry in the Best-Selling Theme Park Management Series Now Available for Windows PC on Epic Games store - RollerCoaster Tycoon - The Ultimate Theme park Sim. [online] Available at: https://www.rollercoastertycoon.com/rollercoaster-tycoon-adventures-rollercoaster-tycoon-adventures-casual-entry-in-the-best-selling-theme-park-management-series-now-available-for-windows-pc-on-epic-games-store/ [Accessed 14 September]

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