National Geographic : 2013 Nov
The Last Chase 45 explode weapons systems. “I get paid to blow shit up,” he would exult. A day came during the 1990s—by which time both men had moved over to Applied Research Associates—when Brown took his brilliant pro- tégé into the offices of upper management. There was a problem, Brown informed them: Sama- ras had begun spending all of his weekends and holidays chasing tornadoes. Likely the company’s insurers would come to view him as a liability. He asked Samaras to make his case, which Samaras did: I never chase storms at night. I never go after a tornado that’s rain wrapped. I always err on the side of caution. Upper management did not wish to test their star engineer’s loyalty. They gave him their blessing to continue his new hobby. The first big storm he pursued was in Li- mon, Colorado, in 1990. Subsequently he took a storm-spotting class offered by the National Weather Service in the Denver area. It wasn’t long before the sight of the five-foot-seven- inch, beak-nosed fellow in the antenna-adorned minivan with STRMCSR vanity plates was ubiq- uitous across the plains. Samaras had inherited his father’s love of photography; he shot car- tridge after cartridge of tornado footage and supplied it free of charge to longtime Denver television meteorologist Mike Nelson. The two became fast friends. One day in 1996 Nelson took Samaras to a special screening of the movie Twister. The two weather geeks snickered at the liberties Hollywood had taken with the not so glamorous life of storm chasers. “I’m not sure it’s gonna make it,” Samaras predicted when the movie was over. Twister became a blockbuster, and the once obscure demimonde of storm chasers proliferated overnight. Among Samaras’s storm-chaser pals was Roger Hill, who also lived in the Denver area and ran Silver Lining Tours, one of the first in the bur- geoning field of tornado-watching tour groups. In February 1998 the two men conceived and hosted the first gathering of what would be- come the annual Storm Chaser Convention, or ChaserCon, in Samaras’s basement. The event grew from about 10 attendees the first year to double that the following year to 50 or 60 the year after that. Like the rest of them, Samaras lived for the marathon chases out across Tornado Alley, followed by all-night drives home through miser- able rain. During one chase he left a McDonald’s cheeseburger on his dashboard; when a tornado erupted, he declared the cheeseburger to be a token of good fortune, and thereafter he always kept a cheeseburger on the dashboard—some- times the same one for years. The walls of the Samaras house were festooned with framed pho- tographs of whirling supercells. Each new vehicle became ever more elaborately rigged with radios, antennas, and cameras. A longtime co-worker recalls, “He told me that he would drop his kids off at school, and they’d say, ‘Could you let us off a few blocks away?’—because of his crazy car.” The tinkerer began to build probes in his basement. They weren’t the first of their kind. But Samaras greatly improved on the existing models by developing a more durable, aerody- namic device that wouldn’t fall apart under the withering force of a tornado. After the historic deployment in Manchester, Samaras’s genius was duly noted in the record books, and he became first among storm-chasing equals. Given the new speaking gigs and National Geographic grants, there was nothing else that he could possibly want that he didn’t already have. His engineering jobs—first with the Denver Research Institute, then with Applied Research Associates and National Technical Sys- tems, and finally Hyperion Technology Group— accorded him the flexibility to take weeks and even months off. Other scientific organizations made him offers that he routinely turned down. The independence to do his storm research, build his probes, and chase storms was worth more to him than money. Besides, Samaras had become an excellent pitchman when it came to requesting research grants, and he took pride in his ability to stretch a dollar. One proposal turned his head. In 2009 the Dis- covery Channel offered him significant money to be one of the lead characters in the reality series Storm Chasers. The series became the primary funding source for Samaras’s Twistex opera- tions—and along the way the Clark Kent-ish en- gineer became a TV star. Strangers approached him in airports and asked for autographs. Still, the experience was a mixed bag. Storm Chasers was TV, not science. “He always told us when we were out there during filming every morning, ‘Guys, I don’t want you going out there bad-mouthing anybody. Let’s keep it professional. We’re here to do research, and they’ll use it if they want,’ ” recalls Ed Grubb, who was among the Twistex members with cameo roles in Storm Chasers.