Originally built in 1928, Kennywood’s Auto Race attraction was an engineering marvel for its time. Thanks to an electric current that runs along the length of the track, each vehicle is individually powered and requires no gas and has no emissions unlike most racing/driving attractions seen today.
While various hills in the track have been removed for safety reasons over the years, the cars themselves and even the narrow gauge track remains largely unchanged.
This means the safety systems for Auto Race have also been largely unchanged since the attraction opened as well. Keep in mind, when this attraction was first conceived (before I or probably most people reading Theme Park University were born), creating safety features for a ride like this wasn’t top priority.
In reality, just getting the thing to work at all was the name of the game and the operator was largely responsible for making sure the guests didn’t collide into each other or a car didn’t stall out on the track.
Until this season, once the vehicle was dispatch from the loading platform, it was on its own power until it returned back to load. Different factors could make the cars speed up and slow down including the weight or even water on the track.
On busy days when all the vehicles were running, there was no system in place to stop one car from colliding with another. Even if a guest took a long time loading one vehicle and there was a backup at load, there was no way for the operator to ensure that cars wouldn’t come crashing into each other once they arrived at unload unless they cut the power to the attraction.
These cars have no breaks. They literally come to a stop once the power is disconnected once they reach unload and thanks to the help of an employee. This means the operator at the dispatch console had to keep a sharp eye on everything from unload to the track. They didn’t even have a green blinking light telling them when to send the next car, so they had to use visual benchmarks.
Before the summer season started, Irvine Ondrey Engineering came in and gave the Kennywood Auto Race a safety upgrade that most guests probably won’t even know is there. In just six days, the team came in and installed sensors along the track that monitored the progress of each vehicle.
This means that the ride operator no longer has to guess when to dispatch a vehicle. Once the car ahead of the one being dispatched is two zones out of range, a green light blinks telling the employee it’s safe to dispatch the vehicle.
In addition, an extra zone was added at the end of the ride to slow the vehicle down and is also an extra spot to “stack” the cars up if there is a backup at load due to guests taking longer than normal to get situated in a car.
After much debate, Kennywood decided to slow the cars of the Auto Race down due to safety concerns. Remember how I said there were no breaks? At the speed the cars previously traveled, even if they were positioned two zones apart with this new safety system, there was still a chance of striking the car in front of them.
While thrill junkies might scoff at the new slower version of Kennywood’s Auto Race, the reality is, it’s 2014. In order to keep the last attraction of its kind operating, safety systems needed to be added in order to prevent guest injuries as well as preserving the cars themselves. In my opinion, park management did the right thing. “It ran fine for over 80 years, so why change it?” doesn’t hold water in a court room if a guest gets injured. Granted, no one was hurt and this wasn’t a result of a pending lawsuit. Kennywood took a proactive approach to a possible safety issue and regardless of if speed was sacrificed, safety has to come first. Period.
They very well could have scrapped the ride together or even rebuilt a newer, more modern version. However, Kennywood is all about keeping its heritage and history alive and in this case, combining that with ensuring guest safety for years to come. Want to take a ride on the “new” Auto Race? Click on the link above! Many thanks to Irvine Ondrey Engineering for providing photos of their work on this classic attraction!