For a little while, it was beautiful.
The Shadow Stalker rose above the backyards of East Brunswick like a DIY thrill seeker’s dream. Home-hewn but sturdy, the roller coaster had everything: the drop, the sharp curves, the speed, the bumps, even those fantastic negative G’s — that addictive sensation of being airborne, almost flying, that coaster lovers crave.
This all was the brainchild of a 17-year-old kid, Sammy Trechak, with the help of friend Jack Creegan, 19. When they unveiled their ride in May, after working on it for a. year, friends and coaster fans lined up. They had merch, they had buzz. The local media came. Social media took notice.
But like so many beautiful things, it could not last. By early July, the township officials had caught on . East Brunswick officials put the inventor on notice: the Stalker had to come down by early September.
Trechak, who when he wasn’t tooling with the masterwork was doing his dream summer of operating El Toro at Six Flags Great Adventure, was disappointed but not defeated. The Shadow Stalker wasn’t his first roller coaster. And it won’t be his last.
“I’ve been in love with roller coasters since I was like 3 years old,” Trechak said. “I guess you can say I consider myself to be a roller coaster enthusiast.”
He’s got lots of company.
‘Enthusiast’ is the term coaster lovers use to describe the members of their super passionate tribe. They can explain the science behind what makes these scream machines do what they do, they keep track of the newest additions, and they can reel off the specs of roller coasters around the world like diehard baseball fans and major league stats. Often they keep stats of their own: how many coasters they’ve ridden, even how many consecutive rides. They’ve even got their own online video channel, America’s Coaster Network.
And they have history.
According to the American Physical Society, roller coasters have their roots in the “ice slides” made of timber and thick sheets of ice that were a big hit with 17th-century Russia’s upper class. Catherine the Great was a fan.
The French have been credited with building the first wheeled coaster — there were two in France by 1817 — and the first looping roller coaster at Frascati Gardens in Paris.
But inventor LaMarcus Thompson, an Ohioan who first made his fortune in ladies’ seamless hosiery, earned the moniker “Father of the American Roller Coaster” after building his Gravity Pleasure Switchback Railway for Brooklyn’s Coney Island. Completed in 1884, it was the first real coaster built in the United States, according to the APS.
Since then, the United States has proven to be fertile ground for coaster designers and inventors, a tradition that leads us to Sammy Trechak.
Trechak is a member of the American Coaster Enthusiasts (ACE), a national group since the 1970s with regional chapters all over the country and thousands of members.
“There is a lifestyle to it,” said Bret Ulozas, 52, regional representative of the ACE New Jersey chapter. “It’s a close community.”
Ulozas has known Trechak for a few years from ACE-sponsored events at amusement parks where members get special ride access. He’s been impressed by Trechak’s dedication, and by his Shadow Stalker.
“I thought it was wonderful,” said Ulozas, who works in information technology and lives in New Egypt. “I loved it. I thought it was actually thrilling.”
Even though the Stalker had to come down, Ulozas believes its designer has a future in coasters: “You know they’re looking for people with that kind of passion.”
Paul Gregg is familiar with Trechak, too. A former Boeing engineer who lives in Moses Lake, Washington, Gregg, 69, started making backyard roller coasters after he retired nine years ago. Since then he’s written two ebooks on building backyard coasters and advised people all the over the world — grandfathers in Australia and New Zealand, a charitable foundation in Hong Kong, college students at MIT, and lots more.
He said he’s familiar with Trechak and his Shadow Stalker.
“That’s amazing what he did,” Gregg said. “Just the fabrication skills he must have developed putting that together is amazing for a teenager.”
Trechak is pretty low-key about his achievements, but he’s been honing his skills for years. He made his first backyard roller coaster in the fifth grade — a mini coaster with a ramp.
“That was called the Demon,” he said. “Then a year later, I added more stuff to it and called it Badlands Run. I took that one down, and then I built the next one during COVID. That was called the Black Stallion. That was a real roller coaster.”
Then came the Shadow Stalker, his biggest and best so far.
He came up with his design by doing research and also talking to other enthusiasts. He called it the Shadow Stalker — a 110-foot coaster with a 10-foot first drop.
“I only really like building the wooden ones because the wood gives them a more aesthetic feel,” Trechak said.
Judging from all the videos made, the Shadow Stalker’s riders loved it. . Trechak, who has certification to operate a coaster from his job, said he wrote his own safety manual and did checks everyday. He said he never charged anyone to ride the Stalker, but he did run ads on his YouTube channel, Built to Thrill.
He also said he had contacted the township a couple years ago about his project to see what kind of permission he might need to build a play structure. He admits he didn’t say it was a roller coaster. He since learned the town officials considered what he built a “‘mechanical amusement device.’” And it had to go.
East Brunswick officials did not respond to requests for comment.
If Jessica Trechak was another type of parent, she might be at least mildly ticked off at her kid for giving the family some heat from town officials, but she is just so proud of her coaster-building son.
“Since he was so little, he was just absolutely enthralled with all coasters,” she said. “He was so inspired by the wonder of how they operate.”
When carnivals came to town, little Sammy would beg her and his dad to take him to watch the crews set up the rides. Even from his earliest coaster in the fifth and sixth grades, she could tell he was serious.
“He had a grand opening. We had to have confetti and speeches and the scissor cutting the ribbon,” said Jessica Trechak, 55, a theater manager. “His classmates and even his teacher came.”
Each coaster had an identity, like commercial rides.
“You have kids running around, doing drugs and drinking. This is what my kid is doing. In a sense, we got in trouble for it,” she said. “I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”
Sammy Trechak spent the later weeks of his summer working on deconstructing the roller coaster and thinking about the future.
He said he’d like to form his own company to help people create coasters, but he figured he should turn 18 first. When he graduates from East Brunswick High School next spring, he plans to go to college, probably to major in engineering.
He knows backyard coasters are off the table for now, but he’s already imagining what his next creation might be. His thoughts are veering hydraulic, a la Kingda Ka. That’s the tallest coaster in the world and the fastest in North America.
Matter of factly, he said: “I want to do a launch.”