September 19, 2014

[Retro Roadmap] Derby Racers, Carousels for Thrill-Seekers

  • By: Beth Lennon
Graduating from the sedate carousel to the thrilling Derby Racer is a rite-of-passage across the decades at Rye Playland.
Graduating from the sedate carousel to the thrilling Derby Racer has been a rite-of-passage across the decades at Rye Playland.

The merry-go-round -- clinging to the brass pole with the horses gliding up and down to the tinkling sounds of the band organ -- is probably the one of the first amusement ride memories one has as a child. With their gentle appeal to riders of all ages, carousels remain a staple at any amusement park or carnival.

But there was a time at the beginning of the twentieth century when a “grown up” version of the carousel was available to the more adventurous. Sometimes thought of as inverted carousels since the poles and mechanisms were tucked underneath the quickly spinning track, they gave riders the opportunity to experience the rush of horse racing. Flying along at speeds twice as fast as the more sedate carousels, these hand-carved horses raced against each other to an imaginary finish line.

Known originally as the Great American Racing Derby, these historic thrill rides were created and patented by roller coaster builders Prior & Church in 1917. Because of the intricate mechanisms required to maintain their eccentric racing routes, only a handful of them were ever created, and now only two remain in existence in the entire United States.

The trumpet blows...and they’re off!

Derby Racer
Rye Playland
Rye, New York

The Derby Racer at Rye Playland in Rye, New York is one of nine rides that have been operating at the park since it opened in 1928. The ride itself was designed by Prior & Church, with the 56 jumping horses carved by renowned New York carousel carver Charles Illions -- who included elaborate details on the manes, ribbons on the bridles, bobbed tails and expressive facial features on the steeds.

The intricately detailed horses of the Derby Racer were carved by Brooklyn based Charles Illions in 1927.
The intricately-detailed horses of the Derby Racer were carved by Brooklyn based Charles Illions in 1927.

Jockeys are instructed to brace their feet in the iron stirrups -- right foot up, left foot down -- and lean in when the ride picks up speed. While the back-and-forth racing mechanism is no longer used, the galloping horses still fly around at speeds of up to 25 miles per hour -- almost three times the pace of a standard carousel.

With no more than the metal ring reins to cling onto, riders can’t help but shriek with delight as they gallop around the clacking track, watching as the ride operators leap fearlessly backwards onto the quickly spinning track with practiced poise.

Derby racers can’t help but grin as they resist the pull of centrifugal force.
Derby racers can’t help but grin as they resist the pull of centrifugal force.

Housed underneath the honeycomb roof of the original building, Playland’s Derby Racer was last restored in 1986. As one of the only municipally-owned amusement parks in the country, Playland’s rides, while safe to enjoy, reflect the struggle for funding in their worn paint. There is, however, still spring in the step of these historic horses.

While their paint may be peeling there’s still  fire in the eyes of these wild-eyed racers.
While their paint may be peeling there’s still fire in the eyes of these wild-eyed racers.

Cedar Downs Racing Derby
Cedar Point
Sandusky, Ohio

Opened in 1870 on the banks of Lake Erie, Cedar Point is the second oldest operating amusement park in the U.S. While it is now known for its more extreme rides and roller coasters, it is also home to the oldest of the two U.S. Derby Racers.

16 rows of 4 horses across race at the Cedar Downs Racing Derby.
Sixteen rows of four horses across race at the Cedar Downs Racing Derby

Originally built in 1921 for Euclid Beach park near Cleveland, Ohio, it was known as the Great American Derby Racer and delighted riders there for almost 50 years. In 1967 Cedar Point purchased and restored the ride and installed it at its current location along the midway.

Renamed the Cedar Downs Racing Derby, it is the larger of the two derby racers, with 64 horses carved by the Williams Amusement Device Company of Denver Colorado, which carved and shipped horses throughout the U.S. While not as intricate as their Rye Playland cousins, their blocky, elongated bodies with outstretched legs easily easily hold two riders as they gallop around the 93 foot track.

A thrill throughout the ages, the Derby Racers are a family favorite.
A thrill throughout the ages, the Derby Racers are a family favorite.

The Cedar Downs Racing Derby was restored to its original condition in 1980 with the racing mechanism in full operation, allowing each horse to move back and forth as well as up and down, at a speed of almost 15 miles per hour. A complex combination of cables and wheels along a wavy rail allow all four horses in the row to race neck-and-neck to see who will win by a nose.

So while the classic carousel is a must-do at any amusement park, if you want to experience the rush of yesteryear’s thrill rides, mount your steed and ride one of the last remaining derby racers in the U.S.

With thanks to curator Kurri Lewis of the Merry-Go-Round Museum in Sandusky, Ohio.

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