While this year marks the 40th Anniversary of Dale Earnhardt’s first of seven NASCAR Cup Series wins and the 20th anniversary of his 76th and final NASCAR win, for fans of Carowinds, 2020 also marks another Earnhardt-related milestone. It marks the tenth anniversary of the roller coaster bearing the nickname of the legendary stock car racer, Intimidator.
But, at Carowinds, before there was Intimidator, there was the Powder Keg Log Flume, an original park attraction that was later known as the Wild Thornberry’s River Adventure. In the late 2000s, it was decided that the log flume had reached the end of its service life, and it was time for something new.
“When looking at the evolution of the park, our mindset was if we are going to take it down, we couldn’t tell people what we were going to replace it with, but we were going to put something ‘bigger and badder’ in its place,” said Steve Jackson, Director of Maintenance and Construction for Carowinds, who has worked at the park since 1985.
But what would that “bigger and badder” attraction entail, exactly? By the end of 2008, rumors were swirling that the Log Flume had taken its final plunge, and internet message boards were ablaze that Carowinds could be getting a hypercoaster in the location formerly occupied by the water ride. (For the uninitiated, a hypercoaster is a coaster that is taller than 200 feet tall.)
This speculation was fueled by the fact that two other former Paramount Parks, Canada’s Wonderland and Kings Island, which were acquired, along with Carowinds, Kings Dominion, and Paramount’s Great America, in 2006 by Cedar Fair, had installed or were installing hypercoasters of their own –Behemoth at Canada’s Wonderland in 2008, and Diamondback at Kings Island in 2009, respectively.
According to longtime Vice President of Operations and unofficial official Carowinds historian, Jerry Helms, the speculation was correct, and a hypercoaster was indeed in the works for the park. Helms credited Richard Zimmerman, then EVP of Cedar Fair and a former Vice President at Kings Dominion, and Dick Kinzel, then president and CEO of Cedar Fair, for believing in Carowinds.
“The thing that made the Intimidator special was the fact that Dick Kinzel and Richard Zimmerman believed in this park and then the site,” he said. “From his time at Paramount Parks, Richard knew about the growth in the Charlotte area and conveyed that to Dick Kinzel. Dick believed in us and they decided that it was time to make a splash in the beginning of the conversion of Carowinds.”
But now that a hypercoaster was coming, where would be the best location for it? During the planning for Afterburn (another coaster that recently celebrated a milestone anniversary), it was decided to place the coaster at the highest point of elevation inside Carowinds, so that it could not only maximize use of the terrain, but serve as a beacon of thrills to come for vehicles passing the park on I-77. The same held true for the coaster that would become Intimidator.
“At one point, we talked about it going in the back of the park near where Fury 325 currently is located,” said John Taylor, Vice President of Marketing for Carowinds. “But I think there was a lot of worry that if they built it back there, guests would have a hard time seeing it in the park’s skyline because that area of the park has a lower elevation.
“I do not remember exactly what our general manager said at that time, but I think he said something along the lines of ‘If I am going to spend that much money on a coaster, I want people to see it’!” Taylor added.
Helms had some involvement in the placement of the new coaster.
“I was walking through the park with one of the designers, Mike Foley, who had made the transition from Paramount Parks to Cedar Fair. He and [former Cedar Fair SVP of Planning and Design] Rob Decker got along great,” Helms recalled. “We were walking and talking about where the new roller coaster would go, and I just said, ‘Mike, we need to take out the log flume and I think if we could put that coaster up there, everybody on I-77, everybody on Carowinds Boulevard and Avenue of the Carolinas, they are going to see it. It will help more of the presence of the ride’.”
The presence of the roller coaster from I-77 that we’re familiar with today was almost drastically different. Instead of the high-banking right turn following the first drop, an early design of Intimidator had the coaster continuing straight in a southeastern direction, across the Carowinds parking lot, before making the return trip to the station.
“I believe the coaster was supposed to be a pure ‘straight and back’ so it was supposed to keep going forward in the parking lot towards what is now Cabela’s,” Taylor said.
Helms identified former Carowinds Director of Maintenance Jamie Gaffney as a key reason as to why the coaster makes that banked right turn.
“Jamie said, No, just don’t do it across the parking lot. Just take it out and turn and run down the parking lot to the south gate and come back’,” Helms said. “Then that way we don’t have to worry about traffic and also will give a better visual presence."
The layout and location were set. The hypercoaster needed a name and theme. Luckily, Carowinds did not have to look too far (just 40 miles from Carowinds!) to find it.
“Rob Decker was trying to think of something that would be indicative of the south and that would be exciting, and tied to someone that everybody would know, and their story with tie into the roller coaster,” Helms recalled on the naming process for the new roller coaster. “If you think about it, it was brilliant. We’re located in the heart of NASCAR country, one of the greatest legends of all was from up the road in Kannapolis and everybody knew the Intimidator.”
Helms was able to attend several of the initial meetings with Dale Earnhardt, Inc. (DEI), if for no other reason than he “spoke the language.”
“[Former Carowinds GM] Bart Kinzel told me ‘They want you to go with marketing and merchandising up to DEI to talk to the folks about the deal and the lawyers and all that’.” Helms remembered. “I said, ‘Why me?’ And the answer I got was this: ‘Because you speak Southern’.”
“I wasn’t sure exactly why I was going but I went along and of course, I walked in and sure enough, I hear ‘You work at Carowinds!’ ‘Oh, we have been to Carowinds, we love Carowinds!’ We all got through reminiscing and there was absolutely no relationship tension when we started talking. It was not about if we could make it work, but how we were going to make it work. It was so much fun and I thought about how I had always been kidded about my southern accent, and for once it paid off!” he said with a laugh.
Photo: Jonathan Hawkins
As the park began teasing the new addition during the 2009 season, enthusiasts took to the internet to speculate what the new coaster would be. 2009 was a time of peak internet message board sleuthing, and websites like Carowinds Connection were full of conjecture about the coming attraction. “There’s red track in Ohio, is it coming here?” “What’s the theme going to be?” “Here are images of footers being poured.” However, it was a user by the name of coasterjunkie79 who was convinced they had received an internal confirmed leak, and that the new coaster would take on a familiar name for Carowinds: White Lightning.
The “leak” was actually orchestrated by Carowinds’ marketing staff. While Taylor wouldn’t take complete ownership of the “coasterjunkie79” account, when asked, he did respond with a laugh.
“It was not me, particularly,” he said. “However, I will say that we like to have fun as much as you guys like to have fun. Sometimes during coaster announcements, yes, we have taken the opportunity to try to throw people off the scent. It’s all in good fun.
“If I remember right with Intimidator, I think my PR manager, we had a White Lightning logo made by corporate. If I remember right, she has printed it out and put it on her desk behind a file folder. Back then it was a little easier because everyone was still trying to understand how this internet thing works.”
During the park’s inaugural “CoasterStock” event in July 2009, Carowinds fans got some of their best hints as to what the new coaster would eventually become. During a Q&A session, a banner was unveiled with the words “Record Breaking, History Making” written on tire tracks, with an announcement date of August 26, 2009. A teaser video was shown to guests with racecar sounds and featured a checkered flag motif. Perhaps the biggest hint? A numbered log from the departed log flume on display: #3 – the number best associated with Dale Earnhardt’s racing career.
Photo: Jonathan Hawkins
Photo: Whitesoxsfan21 on Carowinds Connection
Track began arriving in early August and when the announcement date finally arrived, Carowinds fans officially found out what would be replacing the log flume.
Carowinds was getting their hypercoaster.
Designed by legendary steel coaster designers Bollinger & Mabillard, Intimidator would feature than a mile of red track, a top speed of 75mph, and a height of 232’ at its highest peak– statistics strong enough to make it the tallest and fastest roller coaster in the southeast.
"Dad would've been excited," Kerry Earnhardt, the eldest Earnhardt son, told the Charlotte Observer during the announcement. "Dad was all about the excitement and thrill of everything he was involved in."
Construction took place throughout the fall and early winter. The lift was completed in mid-October, and the final piece of track was placed just before Christmas 2009.
“I remember that, it was during SCarowinds of 2009 that we had started to top off the lift hill, and we had people stand in the parking lot and stare at the construction because obviously, you had to walk by it to get in,” Taylor said. “I think it was the first time that people saw something like that in this region, a coaster so massive. It really created that, ‘Oh, my hometown park is now in the big leagues’ moment.”
The following spring, Intimidator was ready to make its debut and had a preview for the media prior to its official opening on March 27. For Helms, he remembers not only his first rides but the sense of pride the park had for their new coaster.
“I sat in the first car, on the right-hand side. I thought ‘this is pretty, this is great, this is awesome, oh my God!’ Then we rode it. It was wonderful,” Helms said about his maiden voyage on Intimidator. “We came in and got out of the station and I was feeling very cocky and proud. I was ready to immediately ride again. I rode on the left-hand side and in the front seat. When I got off, maybe I should have waited a few more minutes, and so I sat on the bench for about five minutes until everything settled down and I got laughed at.
“On that day, Carowinds represented not only Charlotte but Rock Hill and the surrounding local area because suddenly Carowinds was a beacon saying, ‘hey we are growing because we are part of this great community,’ and you could sense the pride that everybody had.”
The ride received rave reviews from those who attended the media event.
“Winston Kelley, a former racecar driver and the Executive Director NASCAR Hall of Fame, who I’ve been friends with forever was at the media preview,” Helms said. “After he rode, he came up to me and was so excited and told me, ‘Jerry, that is bad to the bone’.
“We get to see that every day especially when we open something new,” Helms continued. We get to see the joy; we get to hear them to tell us after they tell their family and friends. You can only ride a ride for the first time once, and I am so blessed that I have seen that so many times over the years. I got to see people that I have known and worked within the community, NASCAR drivers, mayors, and legislators ride Intimidator and I got to watch them come off totally terrified and some of them look like they are going to cry and they fear I was going to tell anybody.
“I will keep my promise, but if you knew some of them, very important people in the world that I have watched come off scared to death. I died laughing and I am thinking one ride down he says he put his both hands, do not you tell anybody.
For the first time in more than a decade, since the opening of Afterburn, Carowinds had a new coaster that many felt “put the park on the map.”
“The way Carowinds talks about itself, they love their superlatives. I think being the first coaster that we had any kind of major superlative fight to it definitely added a sense of pride,” Taylor said. “I had noticed that, once Intimidator came to us, I noticed people seem to be a little bit more prideful of how they talked about the park. I think it is because it was something that they had to hold on to. That is not to say that there was not pride in the park previously, but it was more pronounced.”
“Intimidator was a record-breaker and from a guest standpoint, it kind of put Carowinds on the map,” Jackson said. “It’s always been a special place to be you know, but Intimidator kind of put us in the big leagues. We had people come from all over the world to see us and I think that is Intimidator’s legacy -- it put Carowinds on the international map.”
“We now had a major coaster in our own backyard, and guests didn’t have to drive for 4 hours or so or get on an airplane. They could make it go down 77 or 49 or Highway 21, whichever way you are coming in their community. It was more than a piece of steel,” Helms said. “It is a symbol for the community. The community worked hard to help us get it, and with their support we were able to get it and make it something special, and I get a kick out of every time somebody comes in and rides it for the first time. I feel very blessed to be a part of it.”
Over the past decade, Intimidator has continued to thrill guests from around the world. The coaster has consistently ranked well in the annual Golden Ticket Awards, never ranking outside the Top 30 steel roller coasters in the world. In 2019, Intimidator gave over 1.16 million rides, ranking just behind first-place Fury 325’s 1.24 million rides.
After waiting more than a decade between major roller coasters after the debut of Top Gun: The Jet Coaster/Afterburn in 1999, Intimidator has served as the catalyst for continued expansion at Carowinds during the past decade.
If you ask Helms, Intimidator was only the beginning for where Carowinds can go.
“Intimidator was the coming-out party for the sleepy little park that once just had one roller coaster, which was really good, and still really good, one of my favorites, the Goldrusher. But yeah, we’ve come a long way and that was ten years ago,” he said. “I can’t wait to see where we go next.”