Steve Gray remembers playing football in the front yard with his friends as a kid in Plano some 40 years ago. “They always made fun of me because at 5:15 every night, I would have to take a timeout and go in to watch the weather,” he says. “I remember these legendary weathermen of the 1970s like Harold Taft and Troy Dungan. I’ve always been fascinated by it.”
The self-professed “weather nerd” is now owner and partner at Spire Agency, a boutique firm based in Addison that specializes in business-to-business marketing and branding. But over time, his love of weather transferred into a passion for storm chasing. In the past 20 years, he has seen close to 40 tornadoes and countless other hail, wind, and supercell thunderstorms throughout Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas. In any given year, he’ll go on five to seven chases during “storm season”—generally from the end of March through the end of May. Gray says he doesn’t do it just for the adrenaline rush. There’s also a public service element. “Storm chasers are an important component of the forecasting and advanced alert system for letting people know the storms are coming,” he says.
And he’s not talking about storms in high-population areas that you might see Pete Delkus talking about on TV. He means remote areas that may be two to three hours from a significant first-responder station. As a certified storm spotter with the National Weather Service, he uses Twitter to report storms (though in the pre-social media age, spotters would call in their sightings). “It helps verify and validate what they’re seeing on radar … and at the end of the day, that helps save lives,” Gray says. “You get an inner peace being able to stand out in a field and there’s no sign of human population anywhere around you. It’s just you and a storm five miles off, watching a beautiful, backlit tornado grazing through a wheat field in the middle of June.”
With an encounter that powerful, it’s natural he would want to share it with others. Gray has made a habit of taking clients—many of whom are close friends—with him to talk about life, business, and, of course, to see storms. “If somebody’s up for a six-hour car ride, it’s a great opportunity to show them something they might not see during the course of a normal business week.”
But his favorite memory is one he shares with his daughter. “It was right before she got her driver’s license, so we went out and spent the morning on these rural roads with nobody around,” he recalls. “That afternoon, we saw six tornadoes [in two and a half hours]. That was the only time I’ve taken her with me, because I figured after that I could never top that experience for her.”
With such precious cargo, safety is paramount. Gray knows that extensive knowledge of storms is required to chase safely, and he also knows not to get too close—for aesthetic reasons, as well. “A lot of folks try to get as close to a tornado as they can, and you get to a point where if you’re too close, you really can’t take a good picture or see a good view of it,” he says. “A tornado isn’t quite so pretty from 400 yards away as it is from a mile and a half away.” Hail and windstorms pose a much bigger threat, given the distance he keeps from tornadoes, he says, especially when visibility suddenly drops.
Perhaps the biggest lesson he’s learned relates not to safety, but to business strategy. “You never really know what a severe weather day is going to be,” he says. “There’s a lot of planning and strategy and being prepared.” And, come to think of it: “that’s kind of like planning your business.”