By Joe Naiman
Federal Fire Department captain and Ramona resident John Bates drove in the June 8 firefighters destruction derby in the Del Mar Arena at the San Diego County Fair.
This year the firefighters destruction derby utilized a “last chance” competition so that the drivers who didn’t automatically advance out of their heats had a second opportunity to compete in the finals. Bates qualified for the finals but was unable to start his car in time for the feature.
“We had a great car. We had the car to win, I thought, because I had the whole front end,” Bates said. “We were doing good.”
Bates is a captain at the Federal Fire Department’s Station 17 at the 32nd Street Naval Station in San Diego and thus drove car No. 17. Bates and his crew converted a 1984 Oldsmobile Delta 98 into a demolition derby car. The crew also raised approximately $2,000 for the Burn Institute, which is the beneficiary of the firefighters demolition derby.
In the past, the heats and the finals have occurred during the same performance with drivers being allowed a period to work on their cars. This year the two heats began at 1 p.m. and the last chance and finals events started at 5 p.m. Bates was in the first heat but became stuck between the cars driven by Chris Wrisley of the Heartland Fire Department and Scott Stepanof of the Coronado Fire Department. He was able to drive out of the Del Mar Arena but had to compete in the last chance derby.
Bates was one of the final three cars running in the last chance event and when Stepanof’s car caught fire a red flag was thrown.
“We were doing good,” he said.
Bates was able to drive out of the derby area but became stuck on the exit berm and had to be pushed to the work area.
“As I pulled off, my battery box shorted out,” Bates said. “Didn’t get it fixed in time.”
The Oldsmobile could not be started during the five-minute interval between the last chance derby and the finals.
“That was the end of it right there,” Bates said.
The trunk of the Oldsmobile was crushed during the contact, so Bates will be driving a different car for the 2014 firefighters demolition derby.
“That one’s done,” said Bates.
“We’ve got four good tires for next year,” he added.
Most of the money raised from the firefighters destruction derby is used for the Camp Beyond the Scars program for burn-injured children. This year’s Camp Beyond the Scars will be held July 29 - Aug. 4 at the Oakbridge site in Ramona. Bates’ two adult daughters, Lyndsay and Ashlee, have worked as volunteers at the camp. Although Lyndsay has moved out of state, Ashlee may return this summer.
In 1995, the 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, an American 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.
Due to the configuration of the Del Mar Arena, the destruction derby cars are divided into heats along with a final, a color guard carries the American flag for the Star-Spangled Banner, and the parade of fire trucks is held during the exposition but not in conjunction with the destruction derby.
Bates, who has lived in Ramona since 1996 and has been with the Federal Fire Department for 34 years, drove in the firefighters destruction derby at Cajon Speedway. He did not have enough notice to build a car for the first county fair event but acquired a 1973 Dodge Polara for the 2011 derby. The engine failed to turn over during the heat, and Bates used the Polara in the 2012 destruction derby. The Polara was one of the final five cars running in last year’s finals.
This year’s fundraising included a June 2 appearance at Ramona’s Albertsons, which raised approximately $375.
On June 5, Bates was one of three drivers to bring his car to the Cajon Classic Cruise car show in Downtown El Cajon, and a June 6 morning appearance was covered live by KUSI-TV and the FM radio station known as The Walrus.