Building roller coasters is a fun ride

News-DemocratDecember 15, 2013 

Jorge Ibarra has a roller coaster in his Swansea basement.

It's made of bright plastic K'nex, a toy building system of interlocking plastic rods and connectors. Powered by a pulley and motor, its orange cars race around like a real coaster.

"This one was based on Rage, but it turned out to be something different," said Jorge, flipping the control switch that activated the pulley.

"Here's a photo of Rage," Jorge said, showing an iPhone picture of a yellow coaster with three inversions and a vertical loop in the United Kingdom. "You can see the lift."

Jorge, 26, a busboy at Casa Azteca ("Their chicken wings and rice are the best, their enchiladas, too.") where his father Jorge is a chef, got his first set of K'Nex when he was 11.

"It was a Ferris wheel." He has been building ever since.

Mom Jael couldn't be prouder.

"I love it. I like to see him building something," she said. "All the people he talks to about it are good people. ... Jorge is a special kid. He was in special school all through high school. He doesn't know algebra, trigonometry, but with roller coasters, he knows so much about all that. He won't comprehend in a book, but picked it up. To me, it's amazing."

Jorge's grandma got him hooked on roller coasters. She bought him his first set in 2002.

"It was the Screaming Serpent set," said Jorge. "It had 1,280 pieces. If you have two sets, you can start building your own from there."

That's what the 2006 Belleville East grad did.

How long did it take to make this one? "About a week. ... I've been looking at real roller coasters and learning about them, the heights, the lengths, the angles and the number of inversions. I tried quite a few times to get the angles right. I have to pass the train through every turn and loop and hill to see if it will work or not. ... My imagination ran wild to build this."

How do you solve problems when you get stumped? "I take pictures and upload them on the (Internet) forums. That's where they start giving you hints on what's right and what's wrong. (Favorite websites include which stands for roller coaster data base,, where he gets ideas from folks from the Netherlands to Japan, and

How do you feel when it does work? "It makes me feel good that I accomplished it. This would be my 18th coaster that I built. My others have been up to 6 feet tall. This one is small, easy and compact."

What have you learned? "For the real ones, a lot of math and physics go into it. For the K'nex ones, if you want the track to be perfect, you have to add extra K'nex to make it steady. If you don't, it will shake and be wobbly. ... Sometimes, it has hiccups and I have to fix it."

Do you like riding roller coasters? "I rode my first one at Six Flags in St. Louis when I was 12. It was the Ninja. It was nerve-wracking. My favorite one to ride is Wild Fire at Silver Dollar City in Branson. It has five inversions."

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