Sometimes, even nerves of steel aren't enough to make a professional storm chaser to drive directly into violent weather. But some steel cladding on a vehicle can make the dangers from tornadic winds and softball-size hail a little less unnerving.
That's what Steve Worthington and Stacy Valentine had in mind when they set out to transform a three-quarter-ton Chevrolet Suburban into an urban tornado assault vehicle, also known as a tornado intercept vehicle — or, as Worthington calls it, a "tank."
The Hutchinson couple enjoy "core-punching," driving straight through the middle of a thunderstorm. But they got tired of having their cars torn up, Worthington told The Hutchinson News.
Worthington, who is a member of the Extreme Storm Chasers network and has worked on custom cars all of his life, spent the past couple of years welding steel around the Suburban. He also installed bulletproof, 1-inch polycarbonate glass, and equipped the SUV to spike into the ground in high winds.
"You get hit with a piece of softball-size hail and you're dead," he said, recalling how he once saw hail that big near Goddard. "In this thing, we don't have to worry as much about hail. We can sit back and laugh at it."
Worthington runs a sewer- and drain-pumping business but has also been a professional storm chaser for about five years. He was part of the Weather Channel's "Great Tornado Hunt" in 2010 and provides data to the National Weather Service through a storm-spotter network.
The vehicle is equipped with cameras and laptops, showing advanced weather radar and the locations of other storm spotters.
When they head into storms, Valentine navigates and Worthington drives.
"The navigator is important, because even GPS shows dead ends when a road is supposed to be there," he said.
Valentine added, "It does sometimes get crazy."