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Danny Neal

Current Location: Plainfield, IL
Chasing Since: 1998
Website: Illinois Storm Chasers
Professional Page: Northern Illinois Storm Chaser
Tornadoes Documented: ~100

Bio: Danny was born and raised on the south side of Chicago and continues to live there. His passion for weather is fueled by witnessing the devastating aftermath of the only August F5 tornado to strike in history. After viewing the damage in Plainfield, his obsession with severe and unusual weather grew. At first it was immense fear, he went the next five years terrified of thunderstorms. It wasn’t until the help of his parents, grandparents, and teachers at school that he began to realize the awesome beauty of nature and not only focusing on the devastating aftermath. Once he conquered his fear, he began to feel the desire to travel around the country to view the amazing displays that Mother Nature had to offer.

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Chaser Q&A

How did you realize your love for weather?

My affinity for weather actually stemmed from deep and profound fear. I believe that we only fear what we don’t understand. The easiest way to overcome my fear was to learn as much about the weather as possible. Through several years of hard work from my family and teachers, I was finally able to overcome my fear and grow fond of the different types of weather. Severe and unusual weather has fascinated me so much that I’ve pretty much devoted my whole life to studying and witnessing it’s power.

When did you decide you wanted to storm chase?

I decided storm chasing was for me in 1997. I had just overcame my fear of storms and was at the point where watching them from my back porch wasn’t enough. I had been watching the old school shows on TLC and Discovery Channel with legends such as Jim Leonard, Robert Prentice, Tim Marshall and the like. I knew I wanted to be just like them and made it my goal to witness the power that they did on a routine basis. My first “storm chase” was May 18th, 1997 where I convinced my dad to take me a couple of blocks away to a park to watch a severe storm move in. At that point I was only 9 years old, but it was a big deal to me. My first official chase was April 15th, 1998 where we went down into Central Illinois to intercept a severe squall line.

How long have you been actively chasing?

I have actively chased since April 15th, 1998. Some years were better than others, but there hasn’t been a year I have missed since then!

Do you chase for a reason?

I chase to fulfill an obsession. My goal for being out there is purely a selfish love for fulfilling my passion. While some of my work may go toward the scientific realm, I am not actively doing research. I’ve reached the point in my life where my passion for being out on the open road and “in” weather has never been higher.

Do you see passion as a good or bad thing?

This is a tricky question. Most people associate being passionate as a very good thing. I do to an extent. I am glad I have something in my life that gives me purpose. I see people all the time searching for happiness and trying to find themselves, so it makes me fortunate to have that foresight and knowledge to actively pursue something that gives me the most joy.

I do, however, see passion as a negative as well. Severe and unusual weather is an obsession of mine. So much so that my whole life revolves around the weather. I feel I can’t enjoy a warm, sunny Spring day because I sit there thinking about why thunderstorms couldn’t form that day. I have a hard time planning events or family vacations in the Spring and Summer because my availability will always be compromised. There are days I am in a rotten mood for missing a tornado hundreds of miles away. Call it blind love, stupid passion, or just immaturity. When you’re passionate about something, your mind won’t allow you to lose that feeling. For good or bad.

Do you prefer to chase alone or with a group?

I never like chasing solo. I’ve done it, but never quite managed a flawless solo chase. With that being said, I absolutely despise chasing in groups of 4+ people. Generally I like to have 1 or 2 others accompany me. Over the past couple of years, a 4-6 day Plains run has averaged us 150-200$ a person.

Have you ever considered going on a storm chase tour?

Never. I like to control my own fate and what area I target. While being around people who are witnessing their first tornadoes would probably be a cool moment to relive, I would go absolutely insane 9 of the other 10 days on the road.

How do you feel about the current state of storm chasing?

Chasing could be viewed as in a hybrid state. You still have the founding fathers out there scoring tornadoes with the most basic tools, while you have new blood out there with every trend gadget. The “heat” of chasing has grown exponentially over the past 10 years. It’s up to you on what light you view that in.

Which era of chasing would you prefer to exist? Old-school or new-school?

I think I would be better off in the old-school bracket. While I may use technology out in the field, I feel like I use my instincts a lot more than I use a Spotter Network icon or high-resolution model.

How far are you willing to travel for a good set up?

That depends. If I am travelling west, the possibilities are endless. I’ve gone from Ohio to Wyoming in the span of a few days. I do not, however, venture into the jungles of the south. I sat out the mega-outbreak of April 25th-27th, 2011 just because of the area it
was in.
What are your favorite areas to chase? Least favorite?

My favorite area to chase is South Dakota with my least favorite being Missouri or Arkansas.

What is you favorite type of set up to chase? Least favorite?

A very basic answer, favorite type of set up is one that is most conducive to producing tornadoes. When breaking down a storm system, I usually tend to associate myself with the area of highest shear over the highest instability. You’re more likely to find me near a surface low/warm front than you are the southern end of a dry line. My least favorite set up is one that features a crashing cold front. Many days that hold promise are prematurely “offed” by strong outflow/cold front.

What is your most memorable chase? Least memorable?

I have many memorable storm chases. From my first actual chase, to my first tornado, to my first multi-tornado day. I would say my best day chasing was June 17th, 2010. From the brink of absolute failure I salvaged the day by getting into position to witness the most tornadoes [13″> that I have in a single chase to date.

My least memorable day would have to be May 31st, 2013. That day was a failure from the second we hit the road. Getting stuck in traffic to the storm, narrowly escaping the horrific El Reno tornado, getting stuck in traffic and trapped with another tornadic supercell bearing down, and finally getting hit by a weak tornado in Tuttle. That day was so frustrating and mentally taxing. That was before we realized our colleagues and friends were tragically taken. A day I would love to forget.

Have you ever feared for your life?

I have feared for my life only a couple of times out there. One occurrence was May 22nd, 2010 when our road suddenly ended in a farmer’s field. We were trapped by three separate tornadoes under the strongest supercell I have witnessed to date. Our best shot at survival was to bail into a field and become stranded for hours.

The next event was the aforementioned May 31st, 2013 experience. I didn’t fear my life retreating from the El Reno tornado or getting hit by the Tuttle one. It was when we were trapped in traffic out of Mustang with a violent supecell overhead that I really became nervous that a violent tornado was going to drop on us. Luckily it didn’t.

Are you afraid to make dangerous maneuvers while chasing? (I.E – core punching/hook slicing/living in the bears cage)

I have an aggressive chase style. I am not against core punching whatsoever. We know the risks and try to make calculated and intelligent decisions while doing so. On June 16th, 2014 we core punched the Pilger supercell and was in great position to view multiple tornadoes. On May 10th, 2010 we chose not to core punch a storm moving at 60 MPH and grapefruit hail. It just depends on the situation.

As for hook slicing, some times the best view of a tornado is in the notch or just to it’s north and west. In order to do this, sometimes an aggressive maneuver is needed. We tried this on May 31st, 2013 and ended up bailing because conditions got too bad. Other times this was a success like on June 16th, 2014.

Do you have any superstitions?

I don’t have any superstitions per say. I have a few running jokes with chaser partners. It seems that every time I step foot in South Dakota, it tornadoes. I also have a theory about violent tornado producing supercells and how their initial echoes look on radar. I think a big realization for me is anytime I chase a day with greater than 20 kt of surface flow, I see a tornado.

Would you sacrifice a salaried job with full benefits, but only 2 weeks out of the year to chase for a paycheck to paycheck life with unlimited chasing?

I struggle with this one. I would love to have a secure job with great benefits and great pay. Unfortunately to have that you need only get a few days off throughout the year. I live the paycheck to paycheck lifestyle and that is taxing on a social, daily, and chasing life. I don’t like it, but it’s the best option currently to be able to chase whenever I want.

Are you currently doing anything job related to the weather?

As an official “salaried” job, no I am not employed by anyone to do the weather. I am self employed in that aspect. I co-own a weather consulting and spotter training program for residents of Northern Illinois. Business has picked up a lot recently, but it’s not something I can count on right now.

Have you ever been to ChaserCon?

I have been to ChaserCon in 2010. It was a great time seeing people I barely get to see and meeting new faces. As much fun as I had in 2010, I haven’t been back since.

Are you more likely to hang out with other chasers while waiting for initiation, or sit alone on a country road watching the sky?

I guess it would all depend on the day. On marginal days, some times the best time you have is sitting on the side of the road and shooting the breeze with fellow chasers. Usually we throw a football or frisbee around as turkey towers rise and fall. On bigger risk days where initiation is likely to occur I like to be off on my own tangent as a way to get in the zone and stay there.

What is your favorite storm chase and why?

My favorite storm chase was May 22nd, 2010. It wasn’t my best day chasing, but it was probably my favorite since it had all kinds of tornadoes and every emotion you can think of.

What date burns in you (think bust) and why?

I have many dates that burn in me like the fire from 10,000 suns. A few to name are May 19th, 2010, June 16th, 2010, and April 26th, 2009.

Do you always know why you made the wrong or right decisions to chase a particular day?

I have reached the point in my chasing career that I can pretty easily identify why I made the right or wrong decision to chase a particular day or to not chase for that matter. I can identify almost every bust with something different that I could have done, or what Mother Nature couldn’t do.

How did you learn what you know about forecasting and meteorology?

I am mostly self-taught, but do have course work at the College of DuPage as well as Penn State University.

Do you consider the day a success even if you don’t witness a tornado?

It all depends. If the day itself features brilliant storm structure, but failed to produce a tornado, I can live with that. If I am late to the party or made a bad navigational error and missed tornadoes then all the gorgeous sky-scapes in the world can’t salvage that lost feeling.

Do you feel short changed if you see a tornado from a greater distance to you than you prefer?

I do not. I know some people who are discouraged if they get a brief view of a tornado, but I am not one of them. Any glimpse at Mother Nature’s most powerful display is worth it to me. Obviously my preference is to get as close as possible to the bear’s cage, but my day is not ruined if I don’t view a tornado from under a few miles.

How do you feel about the post “Storm Chaser” generation?

I have mixed thoughts on this. I have noticed an influx of thrill-seekers and tried my hardest to be pissed off about it. I came to the realization that anyone that is crazy enough to chase storms must have some sort of hidden affection for Mother Nature. In that sense they are just like me and it’s not right for me to think I belong out there over someone that sees “Storm Chasers” for the first time and decides to chase. I do think that new crop stands to learn a lot from the older generation, but I also realize that the younger generation doesn’t exactly accept criticism with open arms.

Do you feel like the scientific community should get the same respect as emergency vehicles around storms?

I do not feel that they should get a free pass based solely on the fact that they are out there for scientific reasons. The roads belong to everyone. I give them the curteosy of leaving them alone while out in the field and not wasting my time pretending I care why they’re out there. Outside of that though, I will not be pulling off the side of the road if they are behind me.

How you do you feel about the media in regards to the weather and chasing?

I do not trust media weather. It’s rare that you find an individual out there that isn’t about ratings or hype. I can’t blame those people though as I am sure they are under strict protocol from their station managers, but I am always the first to warn people not to trust many of the forecasts you see being distributed. Snowfall and severe weather especially.

Who are the most influential people to you out in the field?

I don’t chase to make anyone proud of me or to emulate anyone else. With that being said, I do appreciate the work of Jeff Piotrowski. He always has the knack to be in the right place at the right time. He is an excellent forecaster and anyone can feast off the energy he provides. His energy alone could fuel a tornadic supercells for hours. I am beginning to think that’s the hidden X-factor in his tornado intercepts 😛

Would you considering getting your children into storm chasing?

If/when I have kids I would love them to be as involved with the weather as I was.

If you didn’t know anything about storm chasing, how would you react if your child said they wanted to be a chaser?

I would probably act just like everyone else I talk to about storm chasing. Either A.) You’re crazy! or B.) That’s so cool, take me with!

What do you fear most about a storm?

I really don’t fear the storm itself. I fear the consequences of the storm. The last thing I want to encounter is another scenario where a tornado decimates a town with mass casualty. We all know it will happen again, but it’s something to fear as a chaser.

What type of storm do you prefer to chase? (Ugly HP/sculpted LP/classic/squall line)

My favorite type of storm to chase on the plains is a classic supercell. I like the balance between mean, dark core in the forward flank to the relatively clear updraft area. Locally I love to chase just about anything that comes along. Local chases are the best for photography. Give me a roaring derecho with ground scraping LCL’s any day of the week.

Do you stop your progress toward a storm for a great photography opportunity?

As a general rule…. no. Sometimes something is so breathtaking that it needs to be captured. Even if it means hanging out the car window at 70 MPH.

How do you feel about law enforcement immediately around a tornadic supercell?

Generally I do not have a favorable opinion of LEO’s near a storm. I absolutely appreciate the job they do, but think 90% of them just follow protocol without using common sense. It is very important that LEO know basic storm structure and dynamics before closing down an interstate or road. I feel many times the officer doesn’t know an ounce more than the people he is trying to protect which makes it a dangerous move.

Should storm chasers feel more entitled to be around storms than law enforcement or locals?

Storm chasers will always feel a sense of entitlement. It is what we do and what we know. With that being said we all have laws to obey and cannot let arrogance cloud our judgment. Everyone has a right to be out on the road no matter how experienced or qualified and everyone has to obey the laws.

Do you have a job that supports storm chasing?

The job itself does not support storm chasing, but the people at the job work with me and allow me to chase as much as I can.

Do you have a family that supports storm chasing?

My family fully supports my desire to storm chase. My dad was actually the first one to take me out at 10 years old.

How long do you plan on chasing?

I plan on chasing as long as humanly possible! I would like to pull at least 50 years.

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