Is that an Art Car? My stormy day with Sean Casey, tornado chaser

No, it wasn’t an art car that was parked outside the Houston Museum of Natural Science this week. It was a TIV, or “Tornado Intercept Vehicle,” for those not in the know.

Nancy_TIV_March 2012

I arrived early Monday morning to prep for a special day at the Museum with filmmaker and storm chaser Sean Casey (who you might recognize from the Discovery Channel’s Storm Chasers series).

I knew the TIV was going to be pretty sweet, but I had no idea how impressive it was going to be in person. Once upon a time, Casey’s TIV was just a Dodge 3500, but there are only a few indicators that it was ever a mere pickup truck.

Designed and welded by Casey, the TIV looks like something right out of the sci-fi post-apocalyptic film Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. The TIV’s cab is covered in armor 2 inches thick, complete with aluminum panels powered by hydraulic pistons that can be lowered almost to the ground to prevent wind from going underneath the vehicle. One of my favorite features is the 40-inch spikes on the sides of the TIV that can be activated to anchor the vehicle to the ground.  These features and more make the TIV ready and able to capture amazing tornado footage (along with look pretty spiffy in our makeshift Museum driveway).

By 9:30 AM, Casey had arrived and opened the bullet-resistant front windows to give fans a better view of the interior of his storm-proof ride. Eager fans arrived early to meet Casey, ask him questions, get autographs and pose with him for photos. Based on the smiles, nervousness, and excitement I saw, his fans weren’t disappointed.  Many mentioned that it was an honor to meet him and said that he was living their dream. Chasing twisters instead of typing? Get out.

Nancy_TIV_March 2012

But Casey seemed just as excited as his fans. He was accessible, easy-going and happy to meet everyone. I overheard all sorts of comments and questions for Casey, but the two most common questions I heard were: How much does the TIV weigh? and What kind of gas mileage does the TIV get?

Answers: 14,500 pounds and 10 miles per gallon.  Casey also introduced all-new showings of his newest film Tornado Alley, now playing at the Wortham Giant Screen Theatre at HMNS.  His introduction included anecdotes about his early days of storm chasing from a rental minivan to getting pulled over by the police (50 percent of the time in Texas) to the eight years it took to make his latest film.

The highlight for me was watching two lucky contest winners go for a ride in the TIV at the end of the day. After a long day outside with heavy fog in the morning and sunshine and high humidity in the afternoon, I thought of my own question for Casey: Does the TIV have air conditioning? Answer: No. Regardless, our contest winners had a fabulous excursion through the museum district impressing all the spring break traffic with Casey and the TIV.

Casey is about more than tornado chasing, though. I learned two more fun facts about the Discovery Channel star: First, he likes to eat at Chipotle and has gotten quite lost following freeways signs in search of a good burrito. Second, he really enjoys metal detecting with his oldest daughter, so he was drooling over the Ausrox Gold Nugget, which weighs about 748 troy ounces and is now on display for a limited time inside the Cullen Hall of Gems and Minerals.

While it was an extraordinary opportunity to spend the day with Casey and the TIV, it was also another day in the life of a Houston Museum of Natural Science employee.

Enter the “Take a Ride on the Wild Side!” Sweepstakes

Houston is no stranger to severe weather.

Thunderstorm in Northern Oklahoma

Within the past few months we’ve experienced both a drought and flooding.  Hurricanes and ice storms have shut the city down for days. Most residents have a story about witnessing extreme weather conditions, from hurricanes to tornadoes, but never quite like this…

Tornado Alley 3D opens March 9 in the Wortham Giant Screen Theatre!

Ride along with filmmaker Sean Casey of the Discovery Channel’s Storm Chasers series and researchers of VORTEX 2 as they bravely capture dramatic and destructive tornado footage in this fascinating film.

Casey uses a fleet of customized vehicles that can withstand the most threatening weather  - allowing them to go right to the heart of a tornado and even document the birth of a tornado with a 70mm camera.

Tornado Intercept Vehicle

On March 12, you can meet Casey and his Tornado Intercept Vehicle!

From 9:30 – 11 am, the TIV will be parked at the front entrance of the Houston Museum of Natural Science and Casey will be available to meet visitors.  While you’re here, check out Tornado Alley 3D  – showing at 11:40 am, 12:30, 3, and 3:50 pm – Casey will  introduce each film.

Want To Ride in the TIV?

Enter to win a ride with Casey in the Tornado Intercept Vehicle at approximately 4 pm on March 12!

To enter, tell us about your strangest weather experience, your favorite episode of Storm Chasers, or your thoughts on Houston’s weather – just leave a comment on this post between February 23 and March 8!

The winner will be selected randomly and contacted on March 9, 2012.  For official contest rules, please click here.

The winner will be contacted by email – so don’t forget to leave that information in the comment entry field – don’t worry, your email will be kept confidential.