The Dodge Ram that takes on tornadoes [Photo gallery]

Custom-built Dodge Ram 3500 sat inside six tornadoes shooting Sean Casey’s Tornado Alley.

July 27, 2011   by Matt Powell

TORONTO—The idea of chasing a tornado may seem like a death wish to the majority of us.

But for the cast of Discovery Channel’s Storm Chasers, it’s just another day at the office – or in their case, mobile office. And when your mobile office is a modified Dodge Ram 3500 that’s more tank than pick-up truck, driving into the middle of a tornado may not sound as crazy.

Filmmaker and Storm Chasers star Sean Casey brought his TIV-2 (Tornado Intercept Vehicle) to the Ontario Science Centre this week to show off his team’s latest incarnation of what’s been dubbed “an armoured tripod on wheels.”

The TIV-2 is essentially a Dodge Ram 3500, built at Dodge’s Saltillo, Mexico plant. It’s been stripped down to the bare essentials – only the engine, transmission and driveline remain from the truck’s original make-up. It’s hard to tell the TIV-2 is a production pick-up truck at all.

It weighs in at 6,350 kilograms, running on a 6.7L Cummins turbo-diesel engine. Four hydraulic drop-down aluminum skirts block wind and debris in an intercept while a self-leveling, three-axle suspension system and a 348L fuel-tank get it in-and-out of the storm.

“That turbo-diesel engine is a god-send,” says Marucs Gutierrez, the team’s medic and TIV-2’s driver. “It runs forever.”

Two hydraulic rams over the front-wheels penetrate 42-inches (1 metre) into the earth when the TIV-2 anchors itself inside a tornado. Each ram withstands more than 4,000 kilograms of force.

A custom-built turret provides the camera with 360 degree views. It also has its own hydraulic ram to ensure the window stays closed during an intercept.

“The truck was originally over-built,” says Gutierrez. “It was too heavy. We had axels breaking, cracks in the frame, wheels falling off and rolling down the highway in front of us.”

Casey contracted Lawton, Oklahoma-based Six-by-Six Automotive to build this latest iteration, a complete custom job that includes high-powered hydraulic capabilities and Kevlar, polycarbonate and aluminum armour to reduce the TIV-2’s weight from its predecessor, the near 7,000 kilogram TIV-1.

Because the truck is so custom, the team can’t take it to any repair shop along Tornado Alley during chase-season. Instead, Gutierrez says, the team’s medical vehicle doubles as a mobile garage.

“This really is a home-made vehicle so we can’t just take it anywhere and things break all the time considering the type of conditions we’re in – we’ve got to be able to make fixes on the fly,” he says. “We’ve got a support vehicle full of tools that we can fix anything if we need to pull over.”

Surprisingly, TIV-2 contains limited electronics, mainly because of the tight space inside it – enough for three people, a laptop and a 3D camera. Instead, the team inside TIV-2 communicates with other team members to receive radar and weather information when chasing a tornado.

And although the TIV-2 may appear indestructible, the safety inside the truck doesn’t keep Gutierrez from the dangers of chasing tornadoes presents.

“The three of us inside the truck all have families and children and when you’re driving into a tornado in someone’s homemade storm-chasing truck, you’ve got to keep your fingers crossed and hope it goes for the best,” he says. “I’ve been inside 16 tornadoes now and each one is just as scary as the last.”

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