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The Florida Hurricane at Circus World in Haines City is advertised as the fastest roller coaster in the South. A ride begins with a climb up a 92-foot rise, followed by a stomach-splitting, 45-degree-angle drop at nearly three times the force of gravity. The roller coaster, which travels at speeds up to 60 mph on the downgrades, tumbles over another half-dozen rises, around a couple of curves and back to the station in two minutes, six seconds. If you were to ride the Hurricane for an hour without stopping, your stomach would feel as if it had been lifted up around your ears and your equilibrium would be shot.

On the afternoon of Jan. 18, Richard Rodriguez of Brooklyn, N.Y. had been on the Hurricane considerably longer than an hour, but aside from a slightly swollen nose, he appeared normal. As Rodriguez rode back to the platform for the last time, a Circus World clown gave him a lipsticky kiss and the amusement park president proclaimed, "People like you made this country great." Rodriguez had made his bid for inclusion in The Guinness Book of World Records by riding the Hurricane for 173 consecutive hours—good for a total of 2,624 miles, or the distance from Haines City to San Francisco.

Now, hold on a minute before you write off Rodriguez' ride as the most inane thing you've ever heard of. Spending a week on a roller coaster is a mental and physical feat of note, and marathoning is the ultimate—yes, and perhaps the most absurd—manifestation of a contemporary phenomenon: the latest comeback of roller coasters.

Ever since a 17th-century Russian made a sport out of sledding down an ice-covered wooden slide, coasters have had their ups and downs. In the U.S., they were all the rage in the Roaring '20s, leveled off during the Depression, nearly died out in the '50s and made a comeback during the '70s. The current boom—there are now some 150 coasters in the U.S.—is grist for a sociology textbook, according to Gary Kyriazi, author of The Great American Amusement Parks. The renewed popularity of coasters comes on the heels of a spate of horror and space movies, he pointed out. "Suicidal abandon, flirtation with imagined danger," is how he describes their attraction. Some psychologists say people ride coasters in momentary rebellion against parental authority. Robert Cartmell, a professor of fine arts at the State University of New York, who has ridden 253 different coasters, has a simpler explanation. "People can't be temporarily rebelling and certainly aren't scared because they keep getting back on," he says. "They ride coasters because they're fun. If you can't skydive, it's the next best thing."

There's also a lively debate over the merits of wood and steel coasters. The wooden variety, of which Coney Island's Cyclone is the paradigm, keeps the rider pretty much upright but seems scary because it creaks. The steel models, such as Mind Bender at Atlanta's Six Flags Over Georgia, turn riders every which way, including upside down, but are almost too unreal to be frightening. Nonetheless, kids often prefer their outer-space motifs.

An ultimate coaster freak, Rodriguez, 22, is a high-strung, indefatigable, fast-talking kid from a broken home. Having lived in a number of neighborhoods and gone to a good many schools, he has found coasters a stabilizing force. As a result of the first of his several record marathons—a 104-hour Cyclone trip during the summer of 1977—Rodriguez says he gained the recognition he had long sought from his father.

"I'm the ideal size for roller coasters," says the 5'8", 160-pound Rodriguez, a high school gymnast and serious amateur bobsledder. Wedged into his Hurricane seat with blankets and pillows, he was able to sleep for eight or nine hours at a time. According to Guinness rules, Rodriguez could take a five-minute break each hour; he chose to stockpile his time off so that he was able to stop for a shower and shave every morning. His rugged constitution enabled him to down junk food as his car climbed the first rise. All in all, Rodriguez appeared to hold up well.

At least on the surface. "Sometimes I had palpitations, shortness of breath," Rodriguez says. "The first few days it rained. Until they put a tarp over me, it felt like someone was throwing rocks in my face. The last night my head hurt so much I wanted to scream. Sometimes I heard the voices of people who had been speaking to me hours earlier. At other times I had to fight off panic."

Conditions were especially difficult at night, when the park was closed and he rode alone. "I tried to break down time," Rodriguez says, "living every minute, thinking of jokes and songs. When things got really bad, I thought of the boxer Wilfredo Benitez, who kept smiling through the punishment Sugar Ray Leonard handed him." But mostly Rodriguez thought of his hero, Charles Lindbergh. Absorbing pain and boredom, Rodriguez says he used the coaster marathon to train for a Lindberghian feat—the first solo balloon crossing of the Atlantic—which he hopes to make this August.

Be advised that Lindbergh himself embraced the comparison between roller coasters and aviation. After a 1929 trip to Coney Island the Lone Eagle declared, "A ride on the Cyclone is a greater thrill than flying an airplane at top speed."