By Joe Naiman

Wagner places fourth in Firefighter Demolition Derby


Last updated 6/7/2019 at 12:40am

Courtesy photo

Bryce Wagner is surrounded by his Cal Fire Menifee Lakes firefighting crew after he took fourth place in this year's Firefighter Demolition Derby at San Diego County Fair.

Cal Fire Menifee Lakes firefighter Bryce Wagner took fourth place in this year's Firefighter Demolition Derby, June 1, as part of the San Diego County Fair.

"I had a great time, and it's even better when we get to support a great cause," Wagner said.

In 1995, the Cajon Speedway, the Burn Institute and local fire departments collaborated for an annual night which included fundraising and promotions for the Burn Institute, a pre-race parade of fire trucks, an American flag raised from a fire engine ladder for "The Star-Spangled Banner," and a Firefighters Destruction Derby which was renamed the Firefighter Demolition Derby in 2017. The Burn Institute and local firefighters also collaborated on an annual exposition and burn run at Qualcomm Stadium.

Cajon Speedway closed after the 2004 season. There was no Firefighters Destruction Derby for five years, but in 2010, the Fire and Safety Exposition was moved to the San Diego County Fair. James Floros served as the Burn Institute director at the time, and Bob Pfohl, who was Santee's fire chief when he won the 2000 Firefighters Destruction Derby, was a Viejas Fire Department division chief in 2010. Floros contacted Pfohl about the possibility of a firefighter's demolition derby at the fair, and Pfohl agreed to organize the event.

The configuration of the Del Mar Arena necessitated some changes. The parade of fire trucks takes place earlier in the day, the flag is not raised from a ladder inside the covered arena, and the cars are divided into heats. The current format has three early afternoon heats with the last two running cars in each heat advancing to the final and a last chance heat in the late afternoon which allows the final two remaining cars from that to compete in the main event scheduled to begin an hour after the start of the last chance heat. The driver from the fire department which raised the most money for the Burn Institute is also allowed to drive in the final if he has an operational car.

Cal Fire's Station 76 in Menifee Lakes had never previously participated in the Firefighter Demolition Derby. Angel Hendrie, who is at Cal Fire's Monte Vista station in the San Diego eastern suburb of Rancho San Diego, drove from 2010 through 2013. The fire departments build their own cars as well as raise money for the Burn Institute, and Hendrie was unable to complete her car for the 2014 demolition derby because she and the other Station 20 firefighters were combatting the May 2014 blazes throughout the state.

Although Cal Fire was not represented in a Firefighter Demolition Derby between 2014 and 2018, Station 76 firefighter Eric Sauerwein is originally from San Diego County and watched the 2018 competition as a spectator. Sauerwein wanted Station 76 to have a vehicle in this year's crashfest.

"We made it happen," Wagner said.

The Menifee Lakes station raised approximately $8,000 for the Burn Institute. The Carlsbad Fire Department won the Hard Charger Award by raising $18,000, and the fire departments combined provided $78,708 to the Burn Institute. Station 76 firefighter Chad Burns donated a 2001 Buick Century, and the 18 firefighters at the station took approximately two months to convert the sedan into a demolition derby vehicle.

"We just all did the work," Wagner said.

Sauerwein asked Wagner to drive the Century in the demolition derby.

"I selected him because I knew he'd do good," Sauerwein said.

The Lakeside and Carlsbad fire departments each had two cars in this year's demolition derby and 13 other fire departments had one vehicle apiece. The division of the 17 drivers into the three heats placed Wagner in the third heat along with Bonita-Sunnyside Fire Protection District driver Robert Marcon, Encinitas Fire Department driver Donnie Butz, Miramar Fire Department representative Shaun Fick, National City firefighter Ernesto Diaz and Poway competitor Zach Cain. Butz and Marcon were the only two participants in that heat who had previously driven in a Firefighter Demolition Derby.

Demolition derby drivers prefer to hit competitors from the back to save their own car's radiator while doing damage to another car's under-hood elements and tires. Wagner's first contact in the heat was when he backed into the hood of Fick's 1977 Pontiac Grand Prix. In some cases, a driver will use the front of the car to attack another participant, and Wagner also drove the front of his car into the back of Marcon's 2002 Crown Victoria early in the competition.

A driver is eliminated either when they break off the flag on their car or when the car is "timed out" for not moving for two minutes. Although Wagner completed the heat with a flat left rear tire, the inability of Fick or Marcon to move left Wagner and Butz as the final two drivers in that heat and advanced them to the final.

"We had the smallest car, so I think it went pretty well," Wagner said.

The firefighters whose shift places them at the station or on a call do not participate in the pit crew, but the other Station 76 firefighters repaired the car as much as possible before the final.

"It's a station effort," Sauerwein said.

Wagner, Jorge Martinez of the Imperial Beach Fire Department and Carlsbad firefighter Jesse Pinon were the only first-time Firefighters Demolition Derby drivers in the nine-car final which also included Butz, Lakeside firefighters Danny Leetch and Patrick Sellers, Escondido participant Alex Koji, Lemon Grove driver Chris Wrisley and San Marcos competitor Brian Meredith. The rules prohibit a driver from hitting another car's driver's side door intentionally, so Wagner was allowed to continue after making contact with the driver's side door of Sellers' 1972 Cadillac Coupe de Ville.

"I felt bad about that," Wagner said. "It wasn't on purpose. I was going for another car and the other car moved."

Sellers watched the event on video following the race and doesn't blame Wagner.

"It looked like he was going for somebody else," Sellers said. "It was a total accident."

Wagner accidentally apologized to Sellers' twin brother before Sellers himself returned to the pits. Wagner then apologized to Sellers, who was fully understanding.

The front bumper of Wagner's Buick was disconnected when Butz backed into the front of Wagner's car. The fronts of Wagner's Century and Leetch's 1973 Lincoln Continental made contact with each other and that was followed by Leetch pushing Wagner around the west side of the arena area. Martinez was the final driver who had contact with Wagner before Wagner broke his flag.

Sauerwein determined after the race that a broken throttle cable ended Wagner's participation.

"It was actually still running, but we had no throttle," Sauerwein said.

That left Martinez, Leetch and Sellers as the final three drivers in the event and gave Wagner fourth place.

"He did amazing," Sauerwein said.

When Martinez was unable to move his 1979 Chevrolet Caprice for two minutes the two Lakeside drivers became the only remaining contestants.

"I got pushed to the berm, and I just couldn't get out. The car was still running," Martinez said.

The water drained out of Leetch's car during the heat race; although water was added before the final, the Lincoln had no cooling, and a broken engine block made Sellers the winner.

Wagner spent most of his childhood in Downey and moved to Temecula in 2000 when he was in high school. He graduated from Temecula Valley High School in 2002 and still lives in Temecula. Wagner joined the fire service in 2003 and was with the Rincon Fire Department in San Diego County before joining Station 76 five years ago.

Joe Naiman can be reached by email at [email protected]

Courtesy photo

Driving the No. 76 car, Cal Fire Menifee Lakes firefighter Bryce Wagner takes fourth place in this year's Firefighter Demolition Derby Saturday, June 1, at the San Diego County Fair.


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