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Ventura County Fair : For Fair-Goers, Rides Are a Real Scream : Entertainment: One bold patron samples all the heart-stopping, white-knuckle attractions in seven hours.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

High noon on the midway, and Steve Charleston is talking about drug testing.

As a concessions manager at the Ventura County Fair, part of his job is to make sure the rides are safe and the operators sober. So carnies are randomly tested for drugs and booze, and Charleston regularly strides past the amusements keeping an eye out for trouble.

“We need to keep it clean,” he explains. “It’s a business. . .It’s just like McDonald’s.”

Well, not quite. The issue of drug testing is far different for a fry cook than it is for a worker assembling and operating fair rides. And the blood-curdling screams erupting from the whirling midway machines are unlike anything you will find at a fast-food joint.

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So far, Charleston has done little to build up the confidence of the faint-hearted. Fact of the matter is, some of these beasts are downright mean looking.

One ride rotates like the hands of a clock run amok. Others spin so violently that pregnant women and those with weak hearts and bad backs are warned not to ride.

Many follow a familiar pattern: They start out easy, lulling riders into a false sense of complacency. Then they pick up speed, spinning one way before slowing nearly to a stop and spinning the other.

Unfortunately, my reaction to many of these rides also follows a familiar pattern: Panic. Then nausea, followed by weak knees and a cold sweat. Finally, this thought: Stop the world, I want to get off.

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Of the more than 40 rides crammed into the midway at the county fair, there are about 10 souped-up, super-speed machines designed to make you weak and woozy. These are a favorite of the younger generation and the iron-stomached set.

I belong to neither. Yet I was assigned this week to sample every heart-stopping white-knuckler at the fair. I did it in about seven hours. And I pray I’ll never have to do it again.

Because when it comes to rides that whirl at blinding speed, I’m more like 29-year-old Lisa Schmeltz of Camarillo, who stood by as her niece and nephew climbed aboard a ride called Force 10.

“That’s wicked,” she said in amazement, watching the ride gain speed and disappear into a blur of purple and gold. “I mean, really, look at that. That’s a wicked ride.”

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She was right. Force 10 prides itself on generating enough gravitational force to pin riders deep in their seats. Signs warn would-be passengers to keep off if they are in poor health.

When it starts, it looks like a roulette wheel with baskets. It lifts 90 degrees and ends up looking like a Ferris wheel gone out of control.

Schmeltz’s nephew and niece--Gideon Gulsvig, 12, and Crystal Gulsvig, 11--came off the ride stepping sideways, trying to maintain their balance. I’ll admit, I did the same thing.

It was time for something a bit kinder and gentler. From the top of the Grand Wheel, the midway unfolds in bright splashes of crimson and gold. The Ferris wheel also offers an unmatched view of the Ventura coastline.

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Little did I know that I would soon see the water from a different angle.

I asked 11-year-old Laura Kosman of Ventura if I could join her on a behemoth by the name of Top Spin. She said she had already been on six of the fastest, most dizzying rides the fair had to offer.

She also told me she was a screamer. She told the truth.

Top Spin raises you almost as high as the Ferris wheel, before twirling you end-over-end. The highlight of the ride is an upside-down view of the ocean.

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Laura shrieked the whole time, but when it was over she asked: “Is that all? It wasn’t long enough.”

Then there are those rides that last too long. The Wave, for example, is a mechanized version of a school-yard merry-go-round. But it’s fast and seems like it will never stop.

Of course, the carny at the controls is no help. Part ride operator and part disc jockey, he lays down a smooth rap while The Wave picks up momentum.

“You guys want to go faster?” he shouts into a microphone above blaring rock music and a piercing truck horn. “C’mon Ventura County, let me hear you scream!”

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I’m screaming. I’m screaming for him to stop, or at least slow down. He must mistake that for a desire to go faster. He pushes the throttle forward and more screams explode.

Finally it stops. Cold sweat and weak knees. My balance has been ruined, possibly forever. I’ve got to sit down.

It took a few hours to figure out the key to getting through the day. If you ride one that makes you sick, follow with one that doesn’t.

So after taking a spin on Gravitron--a ride that whirls so fast that you stick to the walls--I took a cruise on the bumper cars. And after the Twister--a ride so violent that you slam into your riding partner again and again--I went on a small version of a haunted house.

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I climbed aboard something called 1,001 Nights, despite concerns about the reliability of a ride that had been closed a couple of hours for technical adjustments.

Afterward, I asked a couple of carnies about those safety issues. Ric Kelly has more than 30 years in the business while Ron Loken has 25. Both say much has changed from the old days of clunky, hand-operated rides.

Today, the rides are high-tech and computer-operated. If a door doesn’t shut or a lap bar doesn’t close, the rides don’t go. The machines are inspected four or five times a day and if there is even the hint of a problem, they are immediately shut down for repairs.

Kelly and Loken work a ride called the Kamikaze. They pay attention to their machine and to their customers.

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“Their facial expressions mean a lot,” Kelly said. “There’s a lot of difference between being scared and being terrified.”

I trust they know what they are talking about as I’m strapped in a ride that circles round-and-round like the hands of a clock. Apparently, I don’t look terrified because I do the whole 90 seconds.

But by this point in the day, I’m really ready for the world to stop so I can get off.

Fred’s Wild Rides: A Pick-Six Opinionated Guide Ride: 1. Kamikaze Description: A 32-seat, souped-up version of the old standard “The Hammer,” the two arms of this ride spin clockwise, then counter-clockwise. Highlight: the ride can ends by hanging you upside down for a few seconds. Opinion: The Kamikaze is 90 itty-bitty seconds of fun, so that even the faint of heart can try it and like it. *Ride: 2. Force 10 Description: At the start, this ride resembles a roulette wheel with baskets. At the end, the wheel raises 90 degrees and resembles an out-of-control ferris wheel. Opinion: This beast prides itself on G forces that nail riders to their seats. Only those with iron stomachs need apply. *Ride: 3. Grand Wheel Description: This old-fashioned ferris wheel offers an unmatched view of the midway and the Ventura coastline. Opinion: A welcome break from rides designed to leave you woozy. A must at any carnival. *Ride: 4. Top Spin Description: It is designed to do one thing: raise you in the air, spin you around and suspend you upside down. You share a long bench seat, or sit back-to-back, with others in your shoes. Opinion: Amazingly gentle, if you don’t mind blood rushing to your head. *Ride: 5. Twister Description: Imagine the Mad Hatter’s tea cups run amok. The baskets of this ride spin wildly from side-to-side. Share a seat and you’ll slam into your partner over and over again. Opinion: This is a bruising ride that goes too fast and lasts too long. It leaves you dizzy and sore. *Ride: 6. Ghost Pirates Description: A cramped car leads you on a short trip past scary stuff. Opinion: It costs two bucks to ride. Save your money. * SCHEDULE OF EVENTS: B2

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