LIGHTNING ROD REVIEW: The world’s fastest wood coaster speeding its way through the Smokies.

P1000307Rocky Mountain Construction.

If you call yourself a roller coaster enthusiast, you should be familiar with these three words. If not, I’ll fill you in with the basics.

Rocky Mountain Construction, or RMC, is the latest and greatest roller coaster design firm to hit the industry. They specialize in creating ground-breaking wood and steel coasters that use very innovative track tech, and pushing the boundaries, doing what was previously thought to be impossible. In other words, they’re changing the roller coaster game forever, and you don’t fully understand how until you ride one for yourself.

In August 2015, Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, TN announced it would be building RMC’s Lightning Rod, the world’s first LSM launched wood coaster that would also be the fastest wood coaster in the world at 73 mph. The ride immediately became the most anticipated coaster of 2016. After several months of construction, the ride was barely finished just a couple of weeks before opening day. On that day, thousands showed up anticipating their first ride on this crazy coaster, and it’s closed.

Ok so the park has a few kinks to work out. It’ll probably be open in a couple of weeks right? Wrong.

The ride finally opened in June, nearly 3 months after its original planned opening date. It operated for a few weeks, then went back down for ANOTHER month. Sheesh, this ride is giving me some flashbacks of Top Thrill Dragster’s opening year at Cedar Point in 2003.

After those two major delays, on August 4th, 2016, Lightning Rod opened again, and this time it seems they finally have the ride under control. Cue the impromptu drive to Pigeon Forge to take a ride on this thing.


This was my view right at park opening. It was the first time I had seen the ride run since May, except this time it was opening, and I was pumped. It was a very hot August day (high of 95 degrees…), and I stood in line outside for about 30 minutes, and finally the ride staff opened the doors and we were on our way. Up the stairs and into the station we go.

I need to take a quick aside to comment on the theming on this ride. It’s subtle but executed great. The first room is the garage of an auto shop where the Lightning Rod hot rod sits. The next room is a welding shop with a bunch of car parts strewn about and lights and sounds of somebody welding behind a closed door, my personal favorite touch. The exterior of the station looks like an old school ACE auto parts shop. Really well done.


For my first ride, I was sent to row 2, giving me a good look at the trains. These are beautiful roller coaster trains. The front car as seen here sports a classic hot rod engine hood and grill, and the sides are decked out with a slick flaming paint job. Probably the coolest looking trains I’ve ever seen.

This is my 3rd RMC, so by this point I was pretty familiar with their seat and restraint systems, which are pretty restrictive. The lap bar is super beefy and also has a shin bar, so once it’s down, your legs do not move one bit. Probably not as comfortable as a B&M clamshell restraint found on said company’s hyper coasters, but still not that bad.

(POV provided by UpStop Media)

Starting off, the hot rod train slowly rolls out of the station and takes a right turn to line you up for the launch. Before you know it, those LSMs kick in and you’re screaming up that massive first 206 ft hill at 45 mph. At the top of the hill is the first big moment of ejector air as the train dips down about a 40 ft drop, setting you up for the biggest drop on the coaster at 165 feet. Airtime moment #2.

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Down the large drop we go, flying out of our seats the whole way. Rolling out of the drop and screaming down the valley, the train rips through its first major element, a giant wave turn, in which the ride banks a hard left turn at 90 degrees, and while sideways, the track actually curves in on itself, resulting in airtime with no lateral forces whatsoever, yet you’re completely sideways. It’s so bizarre but crazy fun.

From there Lightning Rod heads back down into the valley, picking up a ton of speed, and heads into a 90 degree banked camelback hill. At breakneck speed, the train rolls out of a right turn and banks hard and fast to the left, then banks right again going out of the hill. The twisting laterals here are immense, and throw you like a rag doll. Insane.

Making a 180 degree turn to the right, the hot rod train screams through a low, banked airtime hill, providing strong negative and lateral g’s, takes a slight right turn to head back up the valley, cresting in yet another airtime moment. See a pattern here?

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At the top of the mountain, Lightning Rod sets riders up for the return trip home with the ride’s signature feature, a quadruple down. Four breathtaking drops in a row down the other side of the mountain, pushing riders hard against their restraints once again. Turning out of the last drop to the right, the train hops over another quick airtime hill and up into the non-inverting half loop, a heavily banked 180 degree spiral turn to the right. Out of that turn, riders fly out of their seats one last time as they drop straight into the magnetic brakes. An action-packed end to an action-packed ride.

So there’s obviously a lot of stuff that makes this ride amazing, but the biggest thing I took away from the ride was its pure sense of speed. This was the first time I was genuinely scared of how fast a roller coaster was going. Like seriously, Lightning Rod feels dangerously fast, like those wheel bogies were REALLY working hard to keep that train on the track. This ride is not just the fastest wood coaster in the world, but it truly feels like the fastest wood coaster in the world, if that makes sense. More than any single element of the ride, this is what makes Lightning Rod really stand out among the competition to me.

It took me four trips to Dollywood to finally ride Lightning Rod. The first two were early in the season, and the third was just four days before it opened back up. To be completely honest, I’m almost glad it took that long, because that really built up the ride experience in my head to something like an unreachable dream, so when I finally showed up that August morning and waited, something like an explosion of happiness went off in my head as they opened the doors and let us through. It was so surreal walking through the queue for the first time. I was finally about to ride the most anticipated ride of 2016, right here in my home state of Tennessee.

I rode Lightning Rod 10 times that day, and I don’t think that surreal feeling left me the entire time I was on that coaster. It was just so amazing to finally be riding it. This was compounded by the fact that this is the most intense, relentless, crazy roller coaster I’ve ever ridden, wood OR steel. I actually found my first ride to be too intense! We hit the brake run, and I’m thinking “what the heck just happened??” It was almost too much to handle, but I carried on, and jumped right back in line.

Ride after ride, I got into the experience more and more, being blown away at everything this ride was doing! The sideways airtime, the twisting laterals, that amazing quadruple down, everything. By the end of the day, my legs were aching because of all the ejector air I put myself through all day, but I didn’t care, because the ride was so amazing I couldn’t stay away from it.

As I said before, this was my 3rd RMC coaster. My first two were Goliath at Six Flags Great America, and Storm Chaser at Kentucky Kingdom. Both of which were really fun coasters, but neither totally blew me away like Lightning Rod did. It is absolutely their crown jewel coaster in my opinion.

However, I do have ONE small critique. At the bottom of the first drop, there is a really nasty jolt in the track, as if a track joint was not totally smoothed over. On one of my rides, that bump in the track tweaked by neck pretty badly, and I had to walk away from my marathoning for a couple of hours. The silver lining here is that if you ride in the front row of a car, the bump is barely noticeable, but in wheel seats, you feel it hard, so just prepare for it. Other than that, the ride is smooth as can be.

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Bar none, this is the most amazing roller coaster I’ve ever done out of the 156 I’ve ridden. It’s a game changer folks. Find any way you can to get to Dollywood and ride this thing. It’ll stick with you forever.

LIGHTNING ROD RATING: 10/10

Until next time, I’ll catch you in the front seat!

-JC

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