In the spring of 1978, Busch Gardens Williamsburg unveiled a roller coaster that would become the theme park’s centerpiece. Built in relative secrecy in the Tidewater woods and billed as the fastest, tallest and steepest ride of its kind, the twisting ribbon of steel track was called the Loch Ness Monster.
The amusement park had opened just three years earlier, and the campaign to drum up publicity for the new attraction in the Scotland section of ‘The Old Country’ was a full-court press. Besides the traditional ballyhoo, Busch Gardens marketers played up the terror, touting the ride as a must-see destination for thrill-seekers and ominously entrusting bagpipers to play “Amazing Grace” before the inaugural voyage.
Accordingly, at the coaster’s grand opening celebration, the park’s management assembled a select group of eight brave, tenacious souls from the world of sports and adventure to be among the test pilots.
“We could think of no better way to open the Loch Ness Monster than with people whose exploits reflect the sort of individual courage it will take for everyone to ride it,” Busch Gardens general manager John B. Roberts told reporters. “Besides, someone has to go first.”
Two of those courageous eight who went first were Janet Guthrie and Cale Yarborough.
The two drivers will be honored Friday evening at the NASCAR Hall of Fame ceremonies, where Jimmie Johnson, Chad Knaus and Donnie Allison will be inducted as the Class of 2024. Guthrie will be lauded as the recipient of the Hall’s Landmark Award for her pioneering contributions to the sport, and Yarborough – a Class of 2012 inductee – will be commemorated three weeks after his death at age 84.
But back on June 2, 1978, the connection between the two was a mythical creature presented in roller-coaster form, 13 stories tall. The ride — state-of-the-art for its time — achieved speeds between 60 and 70 mph after a 114-foot initial drop, and the two interlocking loops were a historic engineering first.
The modern-day marvel was befitting of the fanfare. Virginia Governor John Dalton was present for the ride’s inauguration. After some customary glad-handing, he sat in the front row of the delegation alongside August Busch III, then the Anheuser-Busch company’s president and chairman.
Besides the promotion and politics, the draw was the all-star cast of athletes and explorers. Both Guthrie and Yarborough arguably were at the height of their careers. Yarborough was on the way to his third consecutive Cup Series championship with the Junior Johnson-owned team, and Guthrie had achieved a career-best ninth-place finish in the Indianapolis 500 just five days earlier.
Guthrie recalled the event fondly in interviews last week, saying she accepted the invitation to Busch Gardens on a lark. “Somebody called me up and asked if I would be willing to do this,” she said. “It was right after a race, possibly at Pocono, and I said sure, why not? And it was a great deal of fun.”
Yarborough said he wasn’t sure why he was invited, but his wife, Betty Jo, speculated that his habit of regularly collecting Busch Pole Award prize money may have had something to do with it. Half a year later, Busch was the primary sponsor of Yarborough’s No. 11 car.
Their co-riders on that first voyage were an accomplished lot:
– Pittsburgh Steelers great “Mean” Joe Greene, who uttered a word the newspapers couldn’t print after he disembarked from the first go-round on the Monster. “On that first drop, I felt like I had three stomachs,” he added. Offered a second helping of the ride, the member of the vaunted “Steel Curtain” defense declined. The NFL Hall of Famer would add the third of his four Super Bowl rings just seven months later.
– Stuntwoman and land-speed record holder Kitty O’Neil, a 5-foot, 98-pound dynamo from Texas who went deaf as a youngster, raced a little bit of everything and was officially clocked at 512.7 mph behind the wheel of a rocket-powered car a year and a half earlier in the Oregon desert. “I did it. I really did it,” O’Neil said after her coaster ride before reporters reminded her that she’d leaped from buildings 100 feet high or more, sometimes in a suit of flame and as a stunt double in the original Wonder Woman TV show. “But riding the Loch Ness Monster isn’t nearly as dangerous,” she volunteered.
– Offensive lineman Conrad Dobler, dubbed by Sports Illustrated as “pro football’s dirtiest player” nearly one year before his appearance at the Virginia theme park. “I’m not usually one to put myself into life and death situations. … I enjoyed it most when I knew it was over,” Dobler – then with the New Orleans Saints – said after the coaster’s train reached the station.
– Daredevil George Willig, who one year earlier captivated New York City by illegally scaling the South Tower of the World Trade Center, earning him the nickname “The Human Fly.” He was fined $1.10 for his feat – a penny for each story he climbed – but his ride at Busch Gardens was free. “I wasn’t apprehensive because I knew it would all be over quickly,” Willig said. “It wasn’t like the climb when I was hanging off the side of that building with plenty of time to think about what I was doing. On a ride like this, all you can do is react emotionally and then it’s done.” Willig was one of the few celebrities who reboarded for a return trip, wanting to experience the ride from the front car after sitting in the back for Round 1.
– Washington defender Pete Wysocki, a hard-hitting outside linebacker and special teams expert who once described his approach to football thusly: “I try to stay just this side of being rabid.” After his tour of the park aboard “Nessie,” Wysocki said, “It’s been years since I felt anything like that. After the first drop, I decided that they ought to rename the thing the Loch Mess Monster instead,” a crack that helped foretell his foray into stand-up comedy after his six-year NFL career ended.
– Hockey enforcer Bob “Hound” Kelly, an integral member of the Philadelphia Flyers’ punishing “Broad Street Bullies” roster that won two Stanley Cups earlier in the decade. “With all the publicity, I wasn’t sure what I was getting myself into,” Kelly said. “They said the ride went 70 miles per hour, but when we went down that first drop, it felt more like 170 miles per hour.”
That sort of speed was week-to-week currency for the two guests from the NASCAR world, but something new for many in the celebrity group. Guthrie’s seatmate was the “Human Fly” Willig. “I remember him saying, ‘oh, we should scream!’ ” Guthrie recalled. He did, but newspaper accounts of the day indicated that she did not join him.
After all the hullabaloo, the ride itself was over in a tidy two minutes, 10 seconds. Photos of the governor, smiling and with wind-mussed hair, ran in papers all over the state. Both Yarborough and Guthrie emerged from the train and shared a common critique. Yarborough said he wished for a steering wheel to have some say in the ride’s direction; Guthrie agreed, saying, “I’d rather do something where I’m in control.”
The post-event interviews with the assembled press soon turned to the topic of racing for Guthrie, who was still wearing an ace bandage on her right wrist, fractured in a celebrity tennis function just days before her top-10 result at Indy. Guthrie had faced questions about the ability of women to compete in motorsports’ major leagues at virtually every turn of her career, but at Busch Gardens, those questions came in cascades – stoked by the harsh post-race criticisms lobbed her way by Al Unser Sr., who secured his third Indy 500 crown that day.
By then, Guthrie had had enough. Dismissing the notion of female frailty, she punctuated one of her responses with an expletive. “In the Southeast, this is something a woman just doesn’t do, drive a race car. There are a lot of capable women out there, but they’re all busy being helpless and incompetent,” she told the Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch, with some sarcasm amid her skepticism. “Around here, they think if a woman can do it, it must be easy … (but) stock-car racing is a very complex sport. Winning takes time … some say five years. I don’t care who you are.”
Those same questions came Yarborough’s way, perhaps surprisingly at Guthrie’s suggestion: “I felt all that had calmed down. Why don’t you ask Cale?”
Yarborough clearly still had his doubts about Guthrie, but didn’t want to put a full damper on the day’s festivities. “She’s a heckuva driver for a lady, but she won’t ever be competitive enough to win races,” he said, before backpedaling a touch. “She’s better than some we’ve got out there.”
Later interviews suggest that Yarborough’s stance eventually softened on Guthrie, turning into a measure of acceptance that grew as she disproved her doubters with her racing days winding down. Johnson, his team owner, had been an advocate for Guthrie earlier in her career, and that prevailing thought gradually took root with his driver. “There’s no question she can run with us,” Yarborough told The Pensacola (Florida) Journal in 1980. “She’s made it, so far as I’m concerned. More power to her.”
Guthrie recalled not having much interaction with Yarborough at the Busch Gardens event, but newspapers recounted at least one instance of the two being chummy for the cameras. “I don’t reckon you’d pose for a picture with Janet, would you?” one fan asked Yarborough, who said sure, why not.
Yarborough made a hasty exit as the group dispersed, flying to Nashville later that afternoon. The next day, Yarborough made easy work of a rain-delayed race at the Music City’s fairgrounds track, leading all 420 laps. The victory helped him leapfrog Benny Parsons in the series standings, giving him a points lead he would not relinquish for the rest of the season. Yarborough’s family – his wife, Betty Jo, and their three daughters – opted to stay behind and make a weekend of it in Williamsburg, exploring more of the amusement park and taking in some colonial sightseeing.
Guthrie returned to the Cup Series circuit a month later, driving her No. 68 Kelly Girl Chevrolet to a finish of 11th in the Firecracker 400 at Daytona International Speedway. She started just seven more races in her Cup career, but matched that 11th-place result a few years later in the 1980 Daytona 500.
As for the Loch Ness Monster’s postscript, the ride still stands, currently undergoing a sweeping renovation designed to take it into the next 45 years. Though it’s now dwarfed by the rise of newer space-age coasters built to stratospheric heights, “Nessie” remains a registered landmark certified by the American Coasters Enthusiasts group and a signature Busch Gardens attraction.
At the ride’s 40th-anniversary celebration in 2018, the park estimated that more than 58 million riders had followed the elite first-time group in braving the Loch Ness Monster’s drops, loops and tunnels. As it turns out, Guthrie and Yarborough weren’t the only famous racers to give it a go. When Busch Gardens opened the Italy section of the park two years later, Mario Andretti presided as the grand marshal. Andretti wanted a steering wheel for his ride of the Monster, too.
“It’s not as much fun, but it’s easier,” he said when asked about the coaster’s sensation compared to racing. “All you have to do is sit there and enjoy it.”
The roller-coaster is scheduled to reopen this spring for a new generation of riders to accept the challenge. They’ll all be following in the steps first blazed by Janet Guthrie and Cale Yarborough on the Loch Ness Monster some 45-plus years ago.
Besides, someone had to go first.