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Surviving Heart of the Storm, and Aiming for the Peak

Originally published in The New York Times:

COLORADO SPRINGS — For now, Christy Carlson has traded in a storm-chasing partner for a racecourse navigator.

Instead of following a severe storm in the Midwest and hearing, “You need to take a right on Highway 77,” as she put it, the person sitting on the right side of her black-and-gray 2002 Subaru WRX on Sunday will bark different information: descriptions of the 156 curves that lie ahead on the 12.42-mile gravel-and-pavement road running to the summit of Pikes Peak.

Carlson, a 31-year-old native of Nebraska, is a meteorologist at Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha and has spent parts of the last 10 years storm chasing when time and weather conditions permit. The 89th running of the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, which begins at 9,390 feet, marks her first challenge to the 14,110-foot finish line in a $15,000 car she built and paid for herself. It is a new type of race for Carlson, who once lost a different one by unintentionally intercepting a tornado in a 1996 Chevrolet Cavalier when she was 23.

“I used to save my vacation days to storm chase, and now I save my vacation days to go racing,” Carlson said of her hobbies: chasing storms, which she began practicing as an undergraduate meteorology student at Nebraska; and racing, which she started in 2005 as a way to use her car for enjoyment without its being dented by hail.

“But if a storm happens to fall on a weekend that is not a race weekend, then I’ll go out and chase it,” Carlson said.

A storm chase, often unfolding on unfamiliar roads in rural areas, generally presents different challenges than driving a racecar for the best time on a closed route whose twists and turns can be researched in advance. But racing and chasing skills sometimes overlap, Carlson said.

For one, Carlson uses training from earning a bachelor’s degree in meteorology from Nebraska in 2002 and a master’s in professional meteorology from Oklahoma in 2004 to forecast weather on the racetrack. Her racing navigator, Adam Kneipp, learned this before his first event with Carlson, the Nacona Rally Stomp in Texas last November.

“Part of my job of co-driving is to know what the weather is going to be so she can go with tire selection and stuff like that,” said Kneipp, 29, a structural engineer from Denver who sat shotgun and navigated Dave Carapetyan to first place in the Pikes Peak Open Division in 2009.

“I got to the point of telling her what the weather is going to be like, and she went ahead and told me exactly what the weather is going to be like; how there’s a pattern 100 miles away that she’s watching.”

Carlson lives in Papillion, Neb., a suburb of Omaha, with her husband of nearly 11 years, David Cosseboom, who works as a Web programmer. Carlson’s day job consists of programming a model to forecast cloud patterns for the Air Force, Army and United States intelligence services. The information is used to determine free line of sight for potential worldwide missions.

She calls the job “pretty boring,” and so she likes to express herself storm chasing (“It’s like verifying your forecast”) or racing on dirt or pavement tracks during time spent away from the office or from pursuing a Ph.D. in meteorology at Nebraska.

Of shared attributes of racing and storm chasing, Carlson said: “You sometimes need a little bit of speed to get out of a dangerous situation.” In the storm chasing community, needing speed typically means you’re too close to a storm.

That happened on May 22, 2004, when Carlson and her friend and fellow Nebraska meteorology student Matt Sherman left Lincoln in the early evening and headed an hour southwest where conditions were ripe for storms. Carlson drove the Cavalier, which she called a “horrible front-wheel-drive car.”

The two eventually found themselves watching a northeastern-tracking tornado near a T-intersection on a north-south road with no eastern exit.

Carlson said she did not leave herself enough options to maneuver out of the storm’s path. With the tornado to their west and tracking northeast, the only option was to drive south. When Carlson did, they ran into another storm cell that they had not seen, and were in the outer bands of a different tornado. They endured crosswinds of at least 110 miles per hour, and the car was pounded by dirt that rusted into its metal by summer’s end. Carlson and Sherman were unharmed.

The two storms they encountered later converged and grew into what is thought to be the largest tornado ever recorded: two and a half miles wide. It passed through Hallam, Neb., south of Lincoln. After analyzing video shot by Sherman from the passenger seat, they calculated the speed of the crosswind by analyzing the number of frames per second it took a 2-foot-by-4-foot piece of wood to fly across the screen.

“I don’t know if storm chasing is crazier than rallying and doing Pikes Peak, or more sane,” Kneipp said. “But I can see where storm chasing helps her. It gets a little skittish in rally sometimes if you get into a situation, but she’s able to reel herself back in. She has a cool head. I think a lot of that comes from storm chasing. I don’t think you can be out of control and crazy when you’re going into a storm. You have to know a way out.”

Notes

The five-time defending Pikes Peak champion Nobuhiro Tajima of Japan also has a fascination with weather, at least for this weekend. Tajima, 60, who is known as Monster, holds the course record of 10 minutes 1.408 seconds, set during his 2007 win. He wants to become the first driver to break the 10-minute mark, and said the ever-changing weather on the mountain needed to be favorable to create prime conditions on the gravel parts of the course. “If the weather is O.K., we can do it,” Tajima said. “Not too dry, not wet. Good humidity. The gravel, if it’s too dry, it’s too slippery.” Asked to name the challengers to his title, he said: “Me. Myself.”

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