Since before records began, mankind has strived to better himself. Call it pioneering or call it macho one-upmanship, there's always been a desire to go higher, faster or to have longer fingernails than anybody else on the planet.
Look no further than the space race, nearly 20 years of rivalry between America and the Soviet Union to explore outer space, send humans into space and finally to be the first to set foot on the moon.
The Soviet Union started the race in 1957 upon the successful launch of Sputnik, and then were the first to send man - more specifically Yuri Gagarin - into space. And of course, America won the fight to set foot on the moon when Neil Armstrong uttered the now immortal words "Honey, I'm home"
Every year, the Guinness Book of World Records chronicles many important (and as many unimportant...) endeavours in a 300-page book. It's an important achievement for some, but for many, it is just as important to savour the smug sense of satisfaction in the knowledge that you have achieved something that nobody else in the world yet has.
For theme parks, having the tallest, fastest, longest but not necessarily bestest in the world is a priceless asset in terms of marketing. There's nothing particularly extraordinary in saying that you have one of the tallest coasters in the world, but to say you have the tallest is to get one over on every other theme park in the world.
Likewise, people are less likely to travel around the world to ride one of the tallest coasters - they want the bragging rights as much as a theme park, so the tallest or fastest is often the only one that'll do for many.
America and, to a lesser extent, Asia, have more often than not set the perpetual motion for many records, tallest and fastest being the two forefront examples.
Cedar Point's history of capturing the public's imagination with the almost bi-annual claim that they have the tallest coaster in the world has been rivalled many times, but one of the first coasters in the world that perhaps started the race for the skies was Magnum XL-200, a 205ft tall Arrow mega coaster.
Indeed, along with Lightwater Valley's Ultimate, it was the mega coaster that afforded the UK almost a page of records in the Guinness Book of World Records. While the Ultimate claimed the record for the world's longest coaster, the Big One was the tallest, fastest and steepest coaster.
The claim of having the tallest coaster in the world is perhaps one of the most attractive to parks. It is difficult to appreciate speed as a layman, while there's no doubting the stature of a tall coaster looming over the rest of the park. And the chances are that speed comes naturally with a tall coaster anyway.
You'd think measuring the tallest coaster in the world would be effortless and a simple case of running (the world's longest) tape measure up to the highest point, but there are many factors that parks use to their advantage.
While Blackpool maintain the Big One is 235ft tall, other estimates range from anywhere in-between 201ft and 213ft. As Blackpool measure the Big One from sea level, it is safe to assume that Nemesis is in fact one of the tallest coasters in the UK.
Furthermore, things like tunnels and the landscape further complicate what you'd think is a fairly rudimentary measurement. Strictly speaking, Nemesis is 40ft tall, but the change in elevation is closer to 120ft. You can see how parks twist the rules to suit.
There's also the age-old question - what is a coaster? Parks will call anything a coaster if it means they can claim they have the tallest, while other parks will conveniently forget other 'coasters' if it suits their agenda.
One of the best examples has to be Superman The Escape at Six Flags Magic Mountain which opened in 1997. Delayed by a year, it opened to deafening fanfare and was the first coaster to go over 100mph with a 415ft spike of track.
There was muted debate as to whether Superman The Escape was a coaster. In fact, it became a topic of ridicule (and so it should) on newsgroups and forums, not least when Millennium Force opened at Cedar Point five years later.
Like Superman, Millennium Force was claimed to be the tallest, fastest coaster in the world. The press release loudly proclaimed that "Millennium Force [would] shatter 10 world records" including "tallest roller coaster at 310 feet" and "fastest roller coaster at 92 mph"
So Cedar Point made up its own mind as to whether Superman The Escape was a coaster or not. Although Millennium Force was without question the tallest and fastest complete circuit coaster, any extra (and perhaps unnecessary) adjectives water down what is otherwise a press-ready soundbite.
The claim of tallest coaster is often followed by the claim of fastest. Until recently, if you wanted speed you had to have the height as to build up kinetic energy the record breaker had to make an inevitably giddying climb to the top of a lift hill.
Advances in technology mean that to go fast it is no longer a necessary evil that you have to go high, although of course many parks choose to do so to give the coaster that extra selling point.
Rides like Stealth at Thorpe Park go to show how hydraulic launch technology makes a mockery of the conventions of physics - at 205ft tall, it isn't the tallest coaster in Europe, but at 79.5mph, it is the fastest.
By contrast, the tallest coaster in Europe, Silver Star (Europa Park), is the slower of the two rides due to its dependence on a traditional lift hill.
Furious Baco at PortAventura is yet another Intamin Accelerator, often parks' weapon of choice when it comes to breaking world records. The two fastest coasters in the World are Intamin Accelerators with a top speed of over 120mph, while next year, the two fastest in Europe will also be Accelerators with Stealth's 79.5mph coming second to Baco's 83.9mph.
What's interesting about Furious Baco though as that despite being the fastest coaster in Europe, it is nowhere near being the tallest. This is perhaps the best example that no longer are speed and height bound together.
Like highest, the claim of fastest is open to interpretation. Often, the statistic given is the theoretical speed based on computer simulations, while in the case of rides like Stealth, the speed quoted is more often than not the optimum speed that the ride launches at.
While sometimes it is as rudimentary as the highest speed recorded by a speed gun aimed at the fastest part of the track, while in the case of the Big One, the maximum speed of 85mph is the theoretical speed of an object dropping from 235ft in the air.
In the case of a roller coaster, this does not include wind resistance, friction or the angle of the track, all of which have an impact on the top speed. The Big One's maximum speed is actually closer to 75mph than 85mph.
This isn't the most attractive statistic, but with a bit of creative flair, parks can translate 'longest' as 'biggest' as they have done in the past.
The Ultimate at Lightwater Valley comfortably held the record for many years before losing it to a ride that was built nearly 20-years before it, Daidarasaurus at Expoland, Japan.
How so? Well, until recently the ride essentially operated as two racing coasters, before they used the moebius loop of track to run it as a single coaster. Like Pleasure Beach Blackpool's Grand National, despite having two 'sides', it is simply one loop of track. So, in the words of the Spice Girls, two became one.
The record was broken again by Steel Dragon 2000, a coaster that also stole several of Millennium Force's records such as the tallest coaster in the world.
While Steel Dragon 2000 uses height and speed to assist the train around a circuit that's in excess of 8000ft long, the Ultimate uses two lift hills, two large drops and a predominantly ground-hugging layout to maintain speed.
Length is clearly a difficult record to break. A massive compromise in terms of layout or the cost of building such a long coaster has to be made, and clearly it's not a price many parks are willing to pay for a fairly non-descript record at best.
A claim that means less and less as time goes by, the 'steepest' coaster in the world is probably only a claim that is only ever used to add gravitas to the claim that you also have the tallest and fastest coaster.
Our favourite example, again, is the Big One, the tallest, fastest and steepest coaster in the world when it opened, apparently. The drop angle was quoted as being 75-degrees, although what they didn't tell you was that this statistic included the severe right-hand banking.
Oblivion opened in 1998 not as the 'steepest' coaster, but as the 'world's first vertical drop roller coaster'. Interestingly, Oblivion's drop is actually 87-degrees - not vertical - although pretty close to it. But also close to vertical were another seven coasters which were five degrees off vertical as opposed to Oblivion's three. You have to wonder where parks draw the line.
Of course, coasters are becoming steeper and steeper - Oakwood's Speed is 97-degrees which those with a glancing knowledge of geometry will understand is beyond vertical.
Pedants will note that many coasters go vertical and beyond, even for brief moments, and don't get any credit - any coaster with a vertical loop for example covers all 360-degrees, 90-degrees and all, even if only for a brief moment, although few things compare in terms of dominance to a vertical - or beyond vertical - drop.
One record that hasn't ever really been seriously contested is the amount of inversions that a coaster has.
Goudurix at Parc Asterix along with the Great American Scream Machine at Six Flags Great Adventure were the first with seven inversions back in 1989, after which a glut of seven-loopers opened, mostly Arrow Dynamic's handywork, although later Bolliger and Mabillard with rides such as Kumba at Busch Gardens in Tampa, America.
Dragon Khan broke the seven-loop deadlock back in 1995 when it opened with PortAventura. With a layout heavily modelled after Kumba's, Dragon Khan's layout threw in an extra vertical loop after the mid-course brake run to clinch the record.
As you'd expect, a stalemate followed when Monte Makaya opening in Rio de Janeiro opened in 1998, and then Avalancha in Guatemala in 2002, both Intamin 8-loopers with identical layouts.
In 2002, Thorpe Park needed to send a message out to the effect that they were no longer a family park. The best way to do this was to break a world record, but clearly height, speed and length were records that would elude them on the basis that in 2002, you couldn't have a good coaster with speed or length without height. With a height limit of 120ft, they had to improvise.
With careful planning, many inversions are easily achievable without great height or speed, but for Tussauds, Intamin offered the most energy efficient option - Colossus, a 10-looping coaster under 100ft tall.
Like PortAventura did with Dragon Khan, Thorpe Park used an existing layout and fine-tuned it to secure the record. A helix was removed, and two heartline rolls added in its place. This meant that while the ride started off traditionally with a vertical loop, inline twist and double corkscrew, it finished with a line of heartline rolls running the length of the footprint, into a turn, and then a final inversion as the train limps into the final brakes.
Colossus did the trick. It wasn't quite the phenomenon that the Big One was 12 years earlier, but laminated Guinness Book of World Record certificates littering the queue and Tomorrow's World 'scientific experiments' helped Thorpe Park in its case against mediocrity.
Since Colossus, as you'd expect, another 10-looper has opened, called - unbelievably - 10 Inversion Roller Coaster at a park in China. But I suspect now that we've achieved the iconic ten inversions I suspect it will be a record that won't be broken for a few years yet.
The UK's fall from grace
As you can see, our small island has courted a surprising amount of world records, but most have been fleeting.
We held the record for the tallest coaster for four years thanks to the Pepsi Max Big One, although Desperado which opened a matter of weeks after the Big One boasted a taller drop thanks to a dive into a tunnel. The Big One is still the tallest coaster in the UK, even after Stealth, although in Europe it is now the second tallest, and internationally, 20th.
In terms of speed, the Big One again was the fastest roller coaster in the world if you were to believe the claims of Blackpool, a record that was contested by Kennywood.
This is owing to the fact that Steel Phantom's 228ft drop came mid-way through the ride meaning the train was going faster at the top - and consequently the bottom - meaning it was always the faster of the two rides.
The fastest coaster in Europe at the time of writing is Stealth, although within a few months time, Furious Baco will take the record by nearly 4mph. Internationally, there are now more than 15 coasters that are faster.
In terms of steepest, though, the UK currently has the steepest coaster in the form of both Speed, and - soon - Rage, at Adventure Island, both of which weigh in at 97-degrees. When it opened, Oblivion was the steepest coaster in the world with a drop angle of 87-degrees, which it has since lost to not only the Gerstlauer Eurofighters, but also to Sheikra which manages to tip cars over the drop at 90-degrees.
As far as the record for the longest coaster in the world goes, the Ultimate was the longest for around ten years before Daidarasaurus doubled in length, is still the longest in Europe by some 2000ft, which equates to almost the length of Nemesis in terms of difference.
Strangely, the European mainland have always been quite conservative in terms of breaking records, although it has to be remembered continental theme parks operate a very different business model to most British and many international parks.
While Blackpool and Thorpe Park break records for bragging rights alone, in Europe many parks focus more on the overall ride experience - if that means that you break a record, then so be it.
Very few records have been broken in Europe - and most records have been the tallest or fastest in Europe as opposed to internationally, two good examples being Europa Park's Silver Star and PortAventura's Furious Baco.
Height-wise, out of the top 20 coasters in the world, only two are in Europe - the Big One and Silver Star, while three - Furious Baco, Stealth and Silver Star - make it into the top 20 fastest coasters.
This is perhaps a good representation for Europe against the rest of the world, especially considering the aggressive competition in America and to a lesser extent, Japan. But out of the top 20 tallest and fastest, only one, the Big One, can lay claim to being a world record holder, and arguably that was on spurious terms at best.
Height + Speed = Not necessarily the best
While many people, public and enthusiasts alike, make international pilgrimages to worship at the alter of the tallest, fastest coasters in the world, statistically, as far as enthusiasts are concerned these coasters are rarely anywhere approaching being the best in the world.
|Statistic ||Ride ||Ranking |
|World's tallest ||Kingda Ka ||69th |
|World's fastest ||Kingda Ka ||69th |
|World's steepest ||Speed ||33rd |
|Vild-Svinet ||102nd |
|Most inversions in the world ||Colossus ||78th |
|Europe's tallest ||Silver Star ||67th |
|Europe's fastest ||Stealth ||60th |
|Europe's longest ||Ultimate ||173rd |
|UK's tallest ||Big One ||213rd |
|UK's fastest ||Stealth ||60th |
|UK's longest ||Ultimate ||173rd |
For parks, building a record breaker is a no-brainer - they know as much as anyone else that tallest doesn't always mean best, but the quality of a coaster is subjective, while the height is there for everyone to see. It is impossible to measure accurately how good a coaster is, and assuming somehow you do, the public would be sceptical of such a claim.
Nothing compares to the claim of having the tallest and fastest coaster, but of course, as quickly as people come to the park, they'll go elsewhere just as fast when competitors outdo your efforts in the international arena.
Look no further than Top Thrill Dragster, Cedar Point's USD 25m coaster romped its way into the record books with a 120ft launch into a 420ft tall top hat. Just two years later, Kingda Ka claimed every record Top Thrill Dragster held with gusto. Every time a record breaker steals your record, your coaster drifts closer and closer to obscurity. If speed and height are the only discernible assets, then in ten years time, the park could be left with a white elephant.
I present to you exhibit A: Superman The Escape. Subject of many documentaries that followed the troubled construction of this behemoth, this coaster is now subject to very low ridership while rides in the same park that opened years before still attract a crowd.
Of course, in a pay-one-price park, this is a moot point. Superman The Escape attracted hundreds of thousands of extra guests through the gates and put Magic Mountain on the world stage. If those guest that came through the gates on the weight of Superman The Escape have stayed loyal to the park, then mission accomplished.
The most accurate snapshot of enthusiasts' opinions is the annual best coaster poll that rates rides head-to-head regardless of how many people have ridden them. Here you can see the extent of how 'height' or 'speed' are rarely interchangeable with 'best'.
The tallest and fastest coaster is in 69th place, while the longest (with enough qualifying votes) was Daidarasaurus in 305th. But while the enthusiastic purists turn their nose up at the tallest and fastest, the public more often than not lap up the kudos of riding a record breaker.
Perhaps nothing better shows the polarity between enthusiasts and the public more than the record-breaking rides that the public love and the enthusiasts love to hate.