How A Tragic Accident At Top Thrill Dragster Paved The Way For Top Thrill 2

In 2024, Cedar Point will unveil Top Thrill 2, a roller coaster that park leadership no doubt hopes will renew the reputation of the ride's problematic predecessor, Top Thrill Dragster. Some guests will celebrate the chance to experience an old favorite in a new way. Others will refrain from riding, the damage of the attraction's history irreversibly prompting a refusal to even consider the thought, whether out of concern for safety, morality, or both.

Top Thrill Dragster opened at Cedar Point amusement park in Sandusky, Ohio two decades ago as an instant game-changer, setting the bar for the attractions industry with record-breaking thrills. Following a tragic accident involving the coaster in 2021, Cedar Point closed Top Thrill Dragster to reevaluate its safety and ultimately initiated a complete overhaul of the ride, which will debut in 2024 as Top Thrill 2.

Among the fanfare of the ride's reopening is an unsettling layer of ethics, a subject not typically associated with roller coasters. What happened in 2021 at Top Thrill Dragster, and how did Cedar Point respond? Will Top Thrill 2 correct the mistakes of its predecessor? What is the appropriate course of action when something is promised to be safe, but isn't, and someone gets hurt because of that discrepancy? What social responsibility do roller coaster manufacturers have toward their customers? Let's consider these multifaceted questions as we discover how a tragic accident at Top Thrill Dragster paved the way for Top Thrill 2.

Top Thrill Dragster: the world's tallest and fastest coaster

At 420 feet tall with speeds of up to 120 mph, Top Thrill Dragster broke records as the world's tallest and fastest roller coaster (and one of America's scariest) when it opened in May 2003. Today, new coasters' statistics are usually accompanied with qualifying verbiage. They're the tallest of one specific type of coaster or the fastest coaster within a certain geographic area. At the time of its opening, however, Top Thrill Dragster was the tallest and fastest coaster on the planet — period. (This was something of a Cedar Point tradition. Top Thrill Dragster was the fourth coaster in the park's history to claim those two feats.) Built by roller coaster manufacturer Intamin, Top Thrill Dragster cost $25 million (about $42 million in today's currency).

In a press release shared by Cedar Point to hail Top Thrill Dragster's arrival, the park's communications team talked a big game. The press release's language was confident and set the bar high for what guests could expect. The announcement promised guests would "begin to regale their friends with stories of the greatest ride of their lives." Daniel Keller, vice president and general manager of Cedar Point at the time, said, "Top Thrill Dragster will forever redefine roller-coaster-riding around the globe, while putting an exclamation mark on Cedar Point's ongoing commitment to being the leading thrill ride park in the world."

A roller coaster titan with occasional mishaps

Top Thrill Dragster gained a reputation over the years as one of the signature rides of Cedar Point, a park that itself had gained a reputation as one of the best amusement parks in the nation. Despite lasting less than a minute long, to many, the ride was worth traveling to Sandusky to experience. Top Thrill Dragster was a record-breaking coaster in a class of its own, quite literally. Cedar Point coined the term "strata coaster" to describe the new category of height Top Thrill Dragster crossed into. Going forward, the industry would acknowledge "strata coaster" to mean any coaster that exceeds 400 feet tall.

Within its well-earned praise, though, Top Thrill Dragster was also occasionally the subject of controversy prompted by safety incidents. Small bits of metal hit four guests during the ride's launch sequence in 2004. A cable came loose and minorly injured two riders in 2016. Accidents such as these are rare, but not altogether uncommon, in amusement parks. According to the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA), nearly 1,300 people were injured due to ride-related incidents in 2019 in the U.S. and Canada. The organization reported that 6% of these injuries were serious. In contrast, about 385 million riders per year in the U.S. and Canada remain safe onboard amusement park rides. Of injuries in general, IAAPA's website attests, "One injury is one too many."

Piece of metal permanently injures Cedar Point guest

On August 15, 2021, Rachel Hawes from Swartz Creek, Michigan was waiting in line for Top Thrill Dragster when a ride part fell from the coaster's infrastructure and hit Hawes in the head. "It looked like the size of a pop can and it hit metal and dropped," a witness told the Sandusky Register at the time. "People thought it was a phone."

Hawes was badly hurt. Medical teams from the park and the city arrived at the scene, transporting Hawes to Firelands Regional Medical Center. From there, she required further medical attention and moved to a hospital in Toledo. While the details and cause of the incident remained unclear, Cedar Point closed Top Thrill Dragster.

By the next week, the Ohio Department of Agriculture had identified the stray ride part as a flag plate. When a coaster train passes a flag plate on its route, the flag plate relays that information to the coaster's operating system. Not only is an errant flag plate obviously capable of causing severe damage to those in its path, as Hawes' incident proves, but the absence of a flag plate furthermore poses a problem for the safety of riders onboard the coaster. As publicly shared later, the flag plate permanently injured Hawes.

Ohio Department of Agriculture investigates Top Thrill Dragster

Following Hawes' injury and the identification of the flag plate, the Ohio Department of Agriculture conducted a full investigation to discern the possible cause of the flag plate's detachment. ODA inspects all Ohio state roller coasters twice every year. Additionally, Cedar Point's personnel and an insurance company perform regular, separate inspections of their own of Cedar Point coasters.

In February 2022, six months after the incident, ODA completed its investigation. ODA representatives wrote in their report they "found no evidence that Cedar Point had knowledge of or reason to believe that the Top Thrill Dragster was in an unsafe condition that could cause hazard to riders, employees, or the public on Aug. 15, 2021." Specifically, ODA said Top Thrill Dragster's mechanic "affirmatively stated that he inspected the proximity flag plate" the night before the incident and "it was not loose."

Though Cedar Fair, the parent company of Cedar Point, may have been blameless in the eyes of DOA, the coaster's operations remained in the balance. A park's claim of safety and a roller coaster actually being safe to ride are very different concepts. The two had proved incongruous before, so why assume the latter was true now? Cedar Fair's teams seemed to come to this same conclusion themselves or were otherwise instructed to adopt that mentality. Whether by their own volition or as a result of a third-party mandate, Cedar Fair announced Top Thrill Dragster would remain closed throughout all of 2022.

Top Thrill Dragster permanently closes

As 2022 progressed, Cedar Fair remained mum on Top Thrill Dragster's operational status after announcing the coaster wouldn't reopen that year. Guests noticed mysterious signs of activity around the coaster track during the summer of 2022, including survey markers in a park area nearby and the coaster's lights inexplicably being turned on nearly a year after going dark.

In September 2022, Cedar Fair put the rumors to rest, but only vaguely. The park formally announced that Top Thrill Dragster "as you know it" was closed for good. Short of any concrete details, the announcement teased, "Our team is hard at work, creating a new and reimagined ride experience."

Come January 2023, the park laid a few more breadcrumbs. In a trailer of sorts posted to YouTube, Cedar Point presented dramatically edited footage of Top Thrill Dragster's track padded by music that would be at home in a "Fast & Furious" movie. In the video's final moments, text appeared onscreen reading, "A new formula for thrills. Coming 2024."

Injured guest sues Cedar Point

In July 2023, Hawes filed a lawsuit, at which point the public learned tragic, previously unknown details about the extent of her injury. Nearly two years after the incident, the lawsuit revealed the fallen coaster part fractured Hawes' skull, permanently injuring her brain. Hawes' medical treatment up until July 2023 had cost $2 million and was expected to reach $10 million as her care continued over time. The lawsuit, filed in Erie County Common Pleas Court, lists Cedar Fair and Intamin among its defendants.

The lawsuit says Hawes will never be able to work again, the incident putting a halt to her journey of becoming an educator. Jim Murray and William Bartle of Murray & Murray represent Hawes. Murray told the Sandusky Register in July 2023, "This incident should have never occurred. Rachel suffered permanent and life-altering injuries ... while simply standing in line. The aftermath of Rachel's injuries has been a continuing nightmare for her and her family."

Opening 2024: Top Thrill 2

Cedar Point officially announced Top Thrill 2 and all its details in August 2023. Just like the original, the reimagined version of the roller coaster will be 420 feet tall and reach speeds of up to 120 mph when it opens sometime in 2024. (It joins a full slate of roller coasters opening in 2024 worldwide.) In many respects, Top Thrill 2 will retain what made its predecessor thrilling and iconic while bringing it up to speed (sorry) with current technology and design.

Top Thrill 2 will be the world's tallest and fastest linear, synchronous motor triple-launch coaster, a fancy way of saying it will be the tallest/fastest coaster in the world that includes three launches and runs on an LSM launch system. LSM differs from Top Thrill Dragster's hydraulic launch. Guests may or may not perceive a huge difference between the two types of launch systems onboard, but the back-end teams developing and maintaining Top Thrill 2 certainly will, for the better. At this time, Cedar Point has not announced an official opening date for Top Thrill 2.

Top Thrill 2 will launch riders forward and backward

So what's new about Top Thrill 2? It's all in the name, but Top Thrill 2 will double the number of coaster-track towers that riders experience. Top Thrill Dragster sent guests zooming up an almost-vertical, arch-shaped section of track and back down an equally-vertical descent. Top Thrill 2 will do that, too ... but not before it sends riders backward on a completely separate, newly built tower of similar scale and scares.

That's not even including the ride's rollback moment, in which the coaster train will launch forward, only to slowly (and intentionally) roll backward, as if by gravity, before gearing up for its backward launch. Previously, as with many coasters, rollbacks on Top Thrill Dragster were by chance, a "Little Train That Could" situation, if you will, a result of not accelerating up with enough speed to make it over the crest of a hill. Now with Top Thrill 2, the rollback will be part of the design and intrigue.

Top Thrill Dragster's manufacturer, Intamin, will not return to build Top Thrill 2. Instead, another company called Zamperla will collaborate with Cedar Fair to bring Top Thrill 2 to the park's skyline. "I cannot wait until 2024 when we will see this record-breaking scream machine come to life," said Antonio Zamperla, president and CEO of Zamperla Group, in a press release. The company's previous clients include Disney and Universal, and Zamperla himself is an inductee of the IAAPA Hall of Fame.

Top Thrill 2 will introduce lightning trains to the industry

Zamperla will introduce a new model of roller coaster trains with Top Thrill 2 called lightning trains, innovative vehicles based on years of research. Lightning trains utilize open seating, meaning riders hop into a seat with a lap bar restraint and no extra surfaces between them and the air, rather than climbing into a traditional, contained roller coaster train compartment. Plenty of coasters already do that, though. What advances the lightning train is its ability to handle more riders per hour, its lower weight leading to less wear and tear, and its specialized wheels designed to handle Top Thrill 2's intense speeds efficiently and safely.

Three new trains will traverse the track of Top Thrill 2, each providing superior comfort in comparison to the vehicles of Top Thrill Dragster. Zamperla expects lightning trains to become a "market leader" in the amusement park industry.

Enter the world of motorsports on Top Thrill 2

Some roller coasters are no-frills, letting their thrills speak for themselves. Other coasters (many Disney thrills and Universal roller coasters come to mind, for instance) involve some kind of storyline, with thematic props, robotics, or even specially made videos accompanying the roller coaster track to tell a cohesive narrative. Top Thrill 2 will exist somewhere within those two categories.

Like Top Thrill Dragster, Top Thrill 2 will be an exposed, outdoor track with no onboard story moments. Also, like Top Thrill Dragster, from the promenade outside and throughout the queue of Top Thrill 2, perceptive riders may observe a loosely themed environment that recruits guests to join "CP Racing" (the "CP" standing for "Cedar Point"). The park's official literature about Top Thrill 2 describes the track as a race course, and elsewhere refers to it as a "vertical speedway." Promotional language urges future riders to "take the wheel," "challenge and defy gravity," and "shift into DRIVE."

The ethics of roller coasters

Roller coasters don't usually prompt musings of philosophy, but in the case of Top Thrill 2, it's hard to ignore the situation's multifaceted, ethical questions. Beyond the business side of things, amusement parks exist for purposes of fun. So what happens when they're a source of tragedy? Rachel Hawes entered the queue of Top Thrill Dragster expecting a fun ride and left it permanently injured.

For a long time, perhaps indefinitely, the tragedy of Hawes will likely be among the first things on many guests' minds as they approach Top Thrill 2. It will be impossible to not recall the incident, at least anecdotally, in the shadow of the imposing coaster. As riders wait in line, they'll begin conversations by saying "This is the coaster where ..." and rattle off details, whether factual or rumored, about what happened in August 2021 and thereafter.

Inevitably, if one continues that train of thought, deep concepts of morbidity, safety, and risk come into play. If we know what happened (a loose flag plate fell), but not how it happened (the mechanics said the flag plate looked fine the night before), what's to keep it from happening again? How can we feel at ease riding Top Thrill 2 — or any roller coaster, for that matter — while a crucial detail like that remains in limbo? These questions don't have concrete answers, but both are at the center of Hawes' ongoing lawsuit.