Lightning Rod at Dollywood Receiving New Track in 2021

Lightning Rod at Dollywood Receiving New Track in 2021

Attendees of this weekend’s Smoky Mountain Coasterfest event at Dollywood — organized by the American Coaster Enthusiasts (ACE) Southeast Region — were treated to a question-and-answer session with a well-known member of the Dollywood team.

We’ll call him “Lloyd.”

Lloyd shared some exciting details about Lightning Rod, which is slated to reopen in 2021 with all-new track.

But first, some background. The Rocky Mountain Construction (RMC) coaster — currently the world’s fastest and only launched wooden coaster — has been plagued by extended bouts of downtime since opening in 2016. While the park has never formally disclosed the cause, rumors have blamed everything from the launch mechanism to the track to the trains.

The coaster was operating more consistently in recent seasons. But after an extended closure in September, a sign posted outside of the coaster’s entrance announced that Lightning Rod was “closed for the balance of 2020 as it receives an upgrade from manufacturer Rocky Mountain Construction.”

But what was most peculiar was the text at the bottom: “In 2021, lightning strikes twice.”

That sent online forums into a frenzy as fans tried to dissect and guess the meaning. Some rumors I heard included:


    They’re adding a second track.
    They’re adding a second launch.
    They’re adding inversions.
    They’re replacing the launch with a lift hill.

Those are just a few.

But during this Q&A, we may have been given a glimpse of what to expect.

Disclaimer: as of this posting, none of this information has been confirmed by the park via a news release. So until that happens, consider this information to be unofficial.

Here’s what we (maybe) learned:

Sections of Lightning Rod’s wooden “topper track” will be replaced with steel “IBOX” track.

High-stress sections of the existing “topper track,” including the launch, will receive all-steel “IBOX” track from RMC.

While the cause of the coaster’s September closure wasn’t disclosed, a project of this magnitude would likely demand more time than the park’s less-than-3-month-off-season would allow for.

It will be a hybrid coaster with sections of wood and steel track.

Some sections of Lightning Rod will retain the current topper-style track while other sections that are subjected to more force and stress will receive RMC’s all-steel “IBOX” track.

What’s the difference? Check out this handy diagram below:

Traditional Wooden Coaster Track (top) compared to RMC’s topper track (middle) and IBOX/Iron House track (bottom).

To learn more about the differences between wooden, steel and hybrid coaster tracks, read our “Redefining Roller Coaster Types for the Modern Era” post.

But will it retain the record for the world’s fastest and only launching wooden coaster? Thankfully, that’s not my call to make. I’m sure it will be a debate for many years to come.

Lightning Rod will still launch, and it will likely launch more consistently.

So let that “replace the launch with a lift hill” rumor die.

The end goal of this project is to make the record-breaking coaster more reliable.

Dollywood takes great care of their rides (see our behind-the-scenes look at the park’s ride maintenance shop). 

This will improve both the ride experience and the coaster’s reliability. 

RMC crews have already started working on the coaster.

The coaster’s layout will not change. So no second track or new elements.

The clearing near the coaster’s final turn is unrelated to the retracking.

If you’re at the park, you may notice a few trees missing near Lightning Rod’s final turn.

Tree-trimming has been an item on the to-do list of Dollywood’s relatively new chief operating officer, Eugene Naughton. He joined the park in November 2019 after serving as Six Flags’ vice president of in-park services for more than 13 years.

So nothing to see there.

Lightning Rod will not be renamed or rebranded.

It will still be the hotrod-themed Lightning Rod we know and love.

They are hoping to have it ready to launch (again) by opening day of 2021.

The exact opening date for the 2021 season hasn’t been announced yet, although it’s typically in mid-March.

But like any major construction project, that is dependent upon a multitude of factors such as weather, materials and, of course, uncertainties surrounding the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

There you have it — that’s what Lightning Rod *may* look like in 2021. So, yes, if this information is true, an RMC is essentially being RMC-ed. Nothing is off-limits in 2020.

For a throwback, read our Lightning Rod review from the coaster’s inaugural 2016 season.

What do you think of these alleged plans for Lightning Rod in 2021? Will you still count it as a wooden coaster or will it enter the steel/hybrid realm? Discuss in the comments section below.

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