Ramona man reaches finals in firefighters destruction derby

Fire Capt. John Bates drives his 1973 Dodge Polara in the 2012 Firefighters Destruction Derby on Saturday. Photo/Cheryl Bates
Fire Capt. John Bates drives his 1973 Dodge Polara in the 2012 Firefighters Destruction Derby on Saturday. Photo/Cheryl Bates

By Joe Naiman

Fire Capt. John Bates reached the finals of the firefighters destruction derby at the San Diego County Fair on Saturday.

Bates, a Ramona resident who is a captain at the Federal Fire Department’s Station 17 at the 32nd Street Naval Station in San Diego, was one of the three finalists from his heat.

“Hard work,” Bates said.

In 1995, Cajon Speedway, the Burn Institute, and local fire departments collaborated for an annual night that included fundraising and promotions for the Burn Institute, a pre-race parade of fire trucks, a U.S. flag raised from a fire engine ladder for the “Star-Spangled Banner,” and a firefighters destruction derby. The Burn Institute and area firefighters also collaborated for an annual exposition and Burn Run at Qualcomm Stadium.

In 2010, the exposition was moved to the San Diego County Fair and the Burn Institute contacted Bob Pfohl, Santee’s fire chief when he won the 2000 destruction derby, about the possibility of a firefighters demolition derby at the fair.

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John Bates’ battered Polara. Photo/Cheryl Bates

Pfohl, who retired from the Santee Fire Department in 2006 and became a division chief for the Viejas Fire Department, agreed to organize the event. The configuration of the Del Mar Arena has forced the parade of fire trucks to take place earlier in the day.

The cars are divided into heats. The 2010 and 2011 derbies had three heats with the top two cars advancing to the finals. The 2012 derby had two heats with three cars from each heat reaching the main event.

“We feel like having three heats just takes too long,” Pfohl said.

Crews may not work on repairs until the completion of the final heat and then have 10 minutes to ready vehicles for the main event. Since it is subjective whether a car is actually running when the checkered flag is thrown to end the heat, if a car can be driven off and is suitable for competition after those 10 minutes it can compete in the feature. Eight drivers participated in the main event, and Bates was on.

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John Bates slams his Polara into the Lakeside vehicle. Part of the fun is crashing the vehicles into each other until just one car is running. Photo/Cheryl Bates

Bates, who has been with the Federal Fire Department for 33 years, drove in the firefighters demolition derby at Cajon Speedway until the speedway closed in 2004. He did not have enough notice to build a car for the 2010 competition in Del Mar, but he acquired a 1973 Dodge Polara from Cardinal Towing in Escondido and drove in the 2011 derby until his engine failed to turn over during the heat. The car was able to run in the 2012 derby.

The Polara was rebuilt at his Ramona residence with the help of nearly 20 co-workers and other friends. The work also included fundraising for the Burn Institute, and the Federal Fire Department raised approximately $3,000.

The first heat had seven cars while the second heat had eight competitors, including Bates. Bates and eventual main event winner Joe Lavigne of the Lemon Grove Fire Department were both running when the checkered flag was called. The third-place car of that heat, driven by Dustin Kuhn of the Miramar Fire Department, had to be removed from the competition area by forklift although Kuhn and his crew were able to ready the car in time for the main event where Kuhn took third place. Pfohl drove off the track and subsequently participated in the main event.

“Heat was really hard. Final was really hard, too,” said Bates, a Ramona resident since 1996.

The feature drivers from the first heat were Pablo Caballero of the Viejas Fire Department, Chris Wrisley of the Heartland Fire Department, Eric Phillips of the Solana Beach Fire Department, and 2011 champion Danny Leetch of the Lakeside Fire Protection District.

Bates was slowed considerably during the main event after he and Kuhn had straight-on contact with their vehicles’ rear ends and subsequently with the front of their cars.

“I think I just blew out the front end,” Bates said.

The Polara was among the final five cars running.

Most of the money raised at the derby benefits a weeklong Camp Beyond the Scars at Oakbridge in Ramona. Bates’ daughters, Lyndsay, 24, and Ashlee, 22, work at the camp.

Camp Beyond the Scars is for burn-injured children ages 5 to 17. This summer’s camp will be July 31 through Aug. 5.

   
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