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From maintenance man to thrill-ride inventor: Silverwood vet Fred Grubb manufactures fun

North Idaho’s Fred Grubb, who has built roller coasters on three continents, now has one of his own in his figurative backyard at Silverwood.

But he’d also intended to build one in his literal backyard.

“He wanted to build one at his house, because we needed a marketing tool,” said Amy Garcia, Grubb’s daughter and coworker, as the founder of Rocky Mountain Construction sat in his office in Hayden earlier this month, grinning. “And we couldn’t build it here because of the airport.”

The 2018 proposal made it all the way to Kootenai County commissioners, who were fascinated by the prospect of a private, residential-use roller coaster, according to an account in the Coeur d’Alene Press.

Grubb hasn’t built that coaster – yet. Instead, Stunt Pilot, the 20th roller coaster Rocky Mountain Construction has designed and built since humble beginnings in Grubb’s garage in Athol in 2001, opened Saturday at the park where the self-described construction man got his start. The company’s name, which Grubb admits doesn’t have any special significance, has become synonymous with quality among thrill-seekers worldwide.

“I just kind of fell into it,” said Grubb, who frequently collaborates with engineer and designer Alan Schilke, who is also based in Hayden. The pair developed the design for what they’re calling the single-rail Raptor track, a sleek steel design that is compact enough to stuff a 60-second adventure into the back corner of the park where Grubb cut his teeth in the 1990s.

Gary Norton, Silverwood’s founder and owner, hired Grubb to work as a contractor on Thunder Canyon, the park’s rapids raft ride that opened in 1990. Norton then asked Grubb to build designs for Timber Terror and Tremors that were provided by another company, Custom Coasters International.

“Fred was working for me, and I knew he was very innovative,” Norton said. “So I said, ‘Fred, do you want to take a shot?’ And he said, ‘I can figure that out.’ And he did.”

Garcia said, growing up, Grubb didn’t take the family on roller coasters all that much. The father-daughter duo began working together in 2007, around when production moved from Grubb’s home in Athol to its current digs, spanning four large warehouses near the Coeur d’Alene Airport.

Growth has happened organically, Garcia said. Their annual marketing budget is about $40,000 and they earn new jobs based on word of mouth from what came before.

“We don’t really have to work that hard to sell them,” Grubb said.

Today, the company goes through one million pounds of steel a month, brought to a hangar-like production area that heaves flat sheets and welded pieces of track using 5-ton cranes that hang from the ceiling. A smaller workshop serves as the parts and service area for roller coaster cars, including the stunt-plane styled cars that make up the 10-person trains on Stunt Pilot.

“We have to provide spare parts to all our parks, because all of our parts are custom-made for our trains,” Garcia said.

Normally, parts would be barged in giant storage containers to international locations or loaded on semitrucks for delivery throughout the United States. But with Silverwood just 12 miles up U.S. Highway 95 from his shop, the delivery was a bit easier than other jobs, Grubb said.

Rocky Mountain didn’t start designing and laying out their own tracks, instead performing maintenance on existing coasters and providing an updated, smooth-ride steel option. Grubb made connections with several parks through that work, and in 2011 persuaded Six Flags over Texas, in Arlington, to let him build what became the New Texas Giant.

“I just kept pounding on doors, and talking to people,” Grubb said.

New Texas Giant is typical of the Rocky Mountain Construction method, taking an existing wooden coaster and building a new, steel-based track known as the “Ibox” that allows for faster speeds, a smoother ride and more inversions. The rebuild of Texas Giant raised the height of the roller coaster 10 feet and increased the top speed from 62 mph to 65 mph.

The Ibox design is what put Rocky Mountain on the map with coaster enthusiasts, said Eric Wooley, a writer based on the West Coast for the website Coasters101. Wooley, a mechanical engineer who’s been writing for the publication for seven years, said the design gives riders more “airtime,” a catch-all term for the feeling of weightlessness caused by gravitational forces.

“It sort of throws you out of your seat,” Wooley said.

The work on New Texas Giant earned Rocky Mountain Construction a coveted Golden Ticket Award from trade publication Amusement Today as the Best New Ride of 2011. It also introduced Rocky Mountain, and Grubb, to Tim Baldwin, a now-retired school teacher who’s been a contributor to Amusement Today since the 1990s.

“He’s yet to build a dud,” Baldwin said.

The company would win the Best New Ride award again for Outlaw Run in Silver Dollar City (2013), Lightning Rod at Dollywood (2016) and Steel Vengeance at Cedar Point (2018), along with several other nominees during that timespan.

It’s that last ride that Baldwin calls his favorite roller coaster of the 1,000 he’s ridden. Steel Vengeance started life as Mean Streak, which at the time of its opening in 1991 was the largest wooden roller coaster in the world.

The arms race for massive wooden coasters in the 1990s left parks with rides that were aging in popularity and becoming difficult to maintain by the time Grubb started his company, Baldwin said. He and Schilke had designed ways to extend the life of those rides by making them faster, smoother and “wilder,” in Baldwin’s words.

“They have this delicious, out-of-control feeling to them,” Baldwin said of the company’s rides. “It’s like, ‘Holy cow, where are we going?’ People are wanting to hang on for dear life.”

Grubb said he didn’t ride roller coasters during his upbringing in rural Wyoming, and didn’t ride his first roller coaster until just before taking work at Silverwood. The ride was Colossus at Six Flags Magic Mountain in Santa Clarita, California, a roller coaster that fans of the ’90s sitcom “Step by Step” will recognize as the one ridden by the family in the opening credits.

Rocky Mountain rebuilt the coaster using their Ibox technology in 2015. It’s now known as Twisted Colossus.

That pairing of a modern, inversion-heavy ride with classic wooden coaster iconography has also made Rocky Mountain a fan-favorite, Wooley said.

“You can still see the guts of this coaster that maybe you grew up with, but now have this totally different experience,” Wooley said. It’s also cheaper than demolishing an existing ride and starting from the ground up, which is likely attractive for park operators, Wooley added.

The single-rail Raptor is a new monster, an idea Grubb said he cooked up with Schilke on a plane ride.

“We were traveling back from Europe, flying back one time, and we just got to talking and said, ‘Let’s do it and develop it,’ ” Grubb said.

The design allows Grubb to iterate and sell many coasters quickly to different parks, Norton said.

“He and I talked about the future of his company being build a kind of a one-off design, that you build little modifications to and sell lots of them, rather than these monsters, where he does one and spends two years, killing himself, trying to figure out how to make it go,” Norton said.

The roller coaster world is full of frequent collaborators, Wooley said, and small teams – though not quite as small as Rocky Mountain’s – are common.

“A lot of the trick with roller coaster design is, how do you make it exciting while at the same time not being uncomfortable for riders?” Wooley said. Along with experience comes the knowledge of what works and what doesn’t, and Wooley said that designers and engineers will frequently collaborate and learn from others before spinning off their own companies.

That small team, about 60 strong currently but numbering about 100 when Rocky Mountain is working at its maximum capacity, often has crews that travel, work and come home before ever taking a spin.

“Some of our employees haven’t ridden one of ours,” Grubb said. That’ll be remedied with Stunt Pilot. “We get to take them out there, and have a whole RMC day for them.”

Twenty years since founding the company, Grubb said he doesn’t expect his train to pull into the station anytime soon. In between bouts of tinkering with new designs, the warehouses continue to churn out new parts. Though the pandemic shuttered some parks for portions of 2020, Grubb doesn’t see the demand for manufactured thrills diminishing.

“I would have never dreamed we’d have gotten to this point,” he said. “It’s gotten so big, it’s sizable now. But they’re not going to stop selling.”

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