NEW YORK — The “king of the coasters” stepped onto the boarding platform of the Cyclone roller coaster in Coney Island on Thursday, and seemed almost drawn to Seat 6.
“It all started right here,” Richard Rodriguez said.
Forty summers ago, when he was a tan teenager, Rodriguez slipped into Seat 6 and rode the venerable wooden roller coaster continuously — day and night — for more than four days, pausing only for bathroom breaks.
The 104-hour feat consisting of nearly 2,400 trips was recognized in the “Guinness Book of World Records” as the longest marathon coaster ride — a crazy footnote in New York’s summer of ’77, a season marked by the Son of Sam killings, an electricity blackout, the burning Bronx and glamorous nights at Studio 54.
The publicity sparked an unparalleled career of endurance-riding on roller coasters. Rodriguez was flown around the world as a promotion for amusement parks, and attained ever-longer records. His 2007 jaunt of 405 hours and 40 minutes on two coasters at Pleasure Beach in Blackpool, England, still stands as the Guinness record for longest marathon on a roller coaster.
For Rodriguez, who teaches English in North Carolina, that seminal ride remains the touchstone to his Brooklyn youth.
His return to Coney Island this week was part of the commemoration of the Cyclone’s 90th birthday Monday, for which there will be festivities Sunday and Monday.
It was a poignant return for Rodriguez, 59, who recalled that as a child, he was too fearful to accept his father’s challenge to brave the ride, but vowed, “Dad, one day I’m going to ride the Cyclone.”
He finally did, on a high school trip, and was hooked.
By the summer of 1977, the thriller “Rollercoaster” was in theaters — in Sensurround! — and the 50th birthday of the Cyclone was celebrated in a Coney Island much grittier than today.
That year also marked the 50th anniversary of Charles Lindbergh’s 1927 trans-Atlantic flight. Rodriguez loved Lindbergh and had heard that the aviator once declared the Cyclone more thrilling than flying.
Rodriguez had also been impressed with Michael Boodley’s 1975 world record of 1,001 consecutive trips on the Cyclone, which lasted more than 45 hours. Rodriguez decided to try to break the record as a tribute to Lindbergh, and approached the Cyclone’s longtime operations manager, Gerald Menditto, who directed him to the prominent Coney Island press agent Milton Berger.
The teen assured Berger he was born to break that record. At 5 feet 8 inches tall and 160 pounds, he claimed to be the ideal size for roller coasters. And after all, he had driven numerous times between New York and Florida overnight.
Berger had found his next Cyclone promotion.
“He said, ‘Kid, we’re going to make this story break nationally,’” recalled Rodriguez, who was allowed 40-minute training rides on the coaster, but also devised other training methods.
To acclimate to rushing headwinds, he would stick his head out the car window for hours as his buddy Mitch drove him around Staten Island at high speeds.
For stamina, he pumped endlessly on the playground swings at Clove Lakes Park. To prepare for overnight stretches of jostling, he rode the subways all night, a more daunting endeavor in 1977 when crime levels were much higher.
Then came Wednesday, Aug. 18, 1977, when Rodriguez showed up at Coney Island with a blanket and pillow, and a doctor’s note attesting to the health of his heart.
Menditto offered a tip: Boodley had chosen Seat 6 in the middle of the coaster car as the most stable spot. Rodriguez followed suit.
He recalled this Thursday as he slipped back into Seat 6, pulled on his riding gloves and gripped the front bar.
A staff member, Timothy Durant, 36, released the big wooden brake lever, and the old coaster car lurched forward, hurtling Rodriguez once again through Coney Island’s salty air.
Even as the car plunged down its harrowing first drop and banked into a swooping turn high over the Luna Park amusements, the boardwalk and the ocean, Rodriguez chatted calmly above the clatter and squeal of steel as if enjoying afternoon tea.
He eventually obtained degrees from Columbia University and served in the Army. Now, he lives a more settled life, but retains a frenetic personality. He admits that he is most comfortable while being whipped frantically through a network of winding tracks.
He learned this during the 1977 feat, one that brought him instant celebrity status, and recognition from his father for finally riding the Cyclone.
Much of the cast of Rodriguez’s life — from relatives to television reporters to the senior class at Susan Wagner High School — turned out to buy a ticket and take a heart-stopping spin with him.
Tough and supportive bikers kept order and urged him on. The crew of tenacious Italian ride attendants defended him from hecklers and remained through the nights, as “Richie Rod” kept going.
He wore a hooded winter coat as winds whipped off the Atlantic, but the constant headwinds in the coaster left his face swollen and raw.
He struggled with a flapping tarp against the rain, and was troubled by misgivings as he hurtled above a darkened Coney Island. He cursed Boodley for posing the challenge, and suffered through visions of being in a small boat on a stormy ocean.
He fortified himself by pretending to be Steve McQueen, then Clint Eastwood, in tough movie scenes.
He eventually passed out and awoke at sunrise, curled up in the still-hurtling coaster seat.
“That’s when I knew I could do it,” recalled Rodriguez, whose food intake consisted largely of the M&M’s, Nathan’s hot dogs and shakes people brought him during the record ride.
“I showed up with a macrobiotic liquid diet,” he recalled. “But after a few hours, I said, ‘Nah, I’m hungry.’”
To this day, junk food has been his coaster fuel.
After his ride Thursday, Rodriguez declared that, even at 59, he could improve upon that paltry 405-hour ride in England.
As he headed to Nathan’s for a hot dog, the “coaster king of Coney Island” looked back at the Cyclone and said, “I want to do one more record.”