Unlike most of us, Reed Timmer is the type of guy who wakes up on a rainy day and actually gets excited. “I really do love it,” he said during an interview in New York on Friday. “Especially if it’s driving rain. Horizontal rain is the best.”
Sunday night on the Discovery Channel Timmer and his team of tornado trackers return for a third season of the visual thrill-ride that is ‘Storm Chasers.’
This time around Timmer has been outfitted with a brand new (pricey!) tracking vehicle – The Dominator – and a whole new set of dangerous storms to pursue.
Of course it takes passion to do this kind of work. Few would willingly drive directly into the eye of a 150 mile per hour tornado – even if it is for science. But Timmer claims to enjoy the adventure. “I’ve wanted to do this since I was five years old,” he admits. “I’m living the dream.”
Do you know the Heene family involved in the balloon boy story? The dad is a storm chaser.
I’ve actually never heard of this storm chaser, so I don’t know how experienced he is, so I can’t really speculate on it. I’m just glad the boy’s safe. When I saw it I thought we were under attack by UFO’s or something. I really don’t know what they were trying to do with that balloon, though, to be honest.
Is there some kind of tornado tracking that can be done with a balloon?
I doubt it. It’s definitely not on our agenda. I would think if a balloon got near a tornado it’d get torn to shreds. We actually have a remote control aircraft with a 12-foot wingspan which we fly into a tornado, and it has parachute probes. We send the parachute probes out and they get sucked into the tornado so we can measure moisture and temperature inside the funnel. The hard part is collecting those afterwards; going through farmer’s fields and cow pastures to find them. They have GPS tracking devices on them.
Talk to me about the Dominator. What kind of tools is it outfitted with? Do you have any favorites?
The most helpful tool is definitely the bulletproof shell, and that’s pretty much all over the entire vehicle. We’ve got a Tahoe inside and bulletproof armor. There’s sixteen gauge steel and the windows are covered, and that really helps because inside a tornado you get projectiles moving up to 150 mph and you really need that bulletproof material to protect yourself. It also has a hydraulic system so we can drop the entire shell to the ground, and it has metal sheets around the edge so no wind can get underneath. Probably the most important piece of equipment for research is this radar we have that’s the size of a briefcase. The intention for that is when we get inside a tornado we can measure the updraft and time it.
This thing is like a Bat Mobile tank.
[Laughs] It looks like the Bat Mobile – or a red shoe – when it’s going down the road.
What does it take to outfit a vehicle like this, and how much does it cost?
We actually worked at a golf course growing up, Chris and I. A mechanic there built race cars for some of the smaller tracks out there. We told him the concept and what we wanted to do and he built it for us. It took about nine weeks. It cost $70,000 on top of the Tahoe, so it probably cost about as much as a Ferrari, but it’s worth nothing! [Laughs]
Are the cops aware of you guys and what you’re doing? Do they ever stop you from going any further in pursuit of a dangerous storm?
We all work together on the storm reporting process. They work closely with us. We always yield to emergency vehicles and always go the speed limit, of course.
Check out some amazing footage from inside a tornado:
Without completely spoiling the first episode, you capture a pretty big event that you seem to have been waiting a long time for. When something like that happens, do you ever get fearful for your life or is pure adrenaline just driving you?
We have a lot of trust in the vehicle design to keep us safe in tornadoes, but there is a lot of adrenaline and excitement that goes into it. Any time you’re 50 ft from a tornado ripping trees from the ground it can get a little exciting. I’ve been dealing with extreme weather my whole entire life. It’s twofold for us, we’re out there and we’re really excited – and I’ve been in school for 12 years studying the science of meteorology – so there’s a rush, but we’re also helping the community and reporting to the weather service and the news stations.
At one point you’re outside with the camera and you can see how harsh that wind is on your face, but you’re so in the moment it seems like it doesn’t phase you at all.
I think I definitely look phased. I think I look like a maniac in that first episode! We’ve seen over 250 tornadoes and we’ve been close to several; you learn things by storm chasing. Every tornado is different, you never see two that look the same.
On a typical day what time are you waking up and starting to track storms? Are you up all through the night?
It depends on where our target area is. We look at the forecast to see if any area has the ingredients for a tornado. We’re based in Norman, OK so if it looks like there’s going to be a tornado in North Dakota, we’ll do whatever it takes to get up there. Sometimes we’ll have to drive all night to get there. It’s definitely hard on the body though. We drive 20,000 -30,000 miles eating burritos and drinking energy drinks. It can be pretty rough. It’s probably taken 10 years off my life [laughs].
Those long drives with the guys seem like they could make you pretty stir crazy. What kind of conversations are going on in there? What music do you listen to?
I can tell you that the smell is pretty disgusting in that vehicle after four guys are sitting in there. The front is cool and the back heats up to about 130 degrees, so it can get really hot in there, especially for the camera man. And conversations seem to degrade pretty rapidly. We listen to the same songs over and over again, like Tom Petty nonstop. Sometimes it’s like ‘Enough!’ we have to move on.