The Science of Roller Coasters

How Do Roller Coasters Work?

Going on roller coasters is one of the most popular adrenaline-fueled activities out there. People travel worldwide to visit the biggest and fastest roller coasters, looking for that thrill we know they all bring. 

How do roller coasters work? How do they produce the speed? The best roller coasters have a combination of excitement, speed, and risk, which make the ride unforgettable. Here’s how they work.

Launch Track

The first aspect that gets a roller coaster started is the launch track. This is a piece of track at the beginning of the ride, which is fitted with motors and rollers designed to either get the carts moving towards the lift hill or start the ride. 

The Ferrari roller coaster is an example of a launch track that accelerates you to full speed as quickly as possible. Most roller coasters don’t do this, as the launch track is used just to get the carts moving. 

Lift Hill

The lift hill is the technical term for one of the most recognizable aspects of a roller coaster. This is the long and tall piece of track that pulls the carts upright to the top before dropping them down the other side to build speed and start the ride. 

Launch lifts use chains or wheels to drag the carts to the top. The lift is very similar to the launch track, with the hill being used more often with roller coasters being a bit shorter on space, as you need quite a bit of room for a launch track.


The speed of a roller coaster is dependent on the shape of the course it rolls on. Roller coaster carts and trains don’t have engines; they rely on the right combination of hills and turns to produce enough acceleration to keep the carts moving. 

Most roller coasters will start with the lift hill, and then the very next part of the track is a corner. These corners create a ton of force that pushes the carts into the next section of the track. 

Roller coasters can technically run forever on a correctly designed track as the carts will continuously have either potential or kinetic energy. The combination of the two is what the carts use to go up the high points and fast through the low points. 

Track designs allow this process to continue while still being exciting. A simple track of uphills and downhills will keep a roller coaster going infinitely, but that is boring. This is why you get extreme loops, turns, etc., on roller coaster tracks. 


Braking on a roller coaster is similar to the launch track. Carts don’t have engines or brakes; therefore, the track is designed to slow the carts down. An extended piece of track at the end can stop the carts or much smaller pieces along the circuit used to adjust speed mid-ride.

Braking systems are simple adjustments to drags that cause massive amounts of friction on the cart’s wheels, slowing and eventually stopping them. 

Looping & Non-Looping

There are two main types of roller coasters, lopping, and non-looping. Their differences are fairly self-explanatory as a looping coaster relies on loops and turns to create speed, whereas a non-looping coaster will have more hills and ups and downs. 

Looping coasters are definitely more popular, but non-looping coasters are more likely to be found where there is limited space, as they can be quite small, and the hills and dips don’t have to be as big as you think, just consistent.

Why Don’t You Fall Out?

The science of how you stay on a roller coaster is fairly simple. The combination of acceleration and speed forces you back into your seat. It is the same sensation you feel when you are taking off in an airplane. 

You will also not be in a position where you are going slowly but might fall out. As in, you will never do a loop very slowly or a highly-angled turn, as these portions of a circuit are designed solely to build speed. 

Technically, there are parts of a roller coaster where you do not need to be strapped in as inertia, speed, and gravity will keep you glued to your seat. Don’t try this, but the forces are so strong that it is possible.