Lakeside firefighters claim top two spots in Del Mar Fair demolition derby

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Photo by Joe Naiman. Patrick Sellers, Danny Leetch and Jorge Martinez hold up their trophies after claiming the top three spots in the Del Mar Fair’s annual Firefighter demolition derby.

Lakeside firefighters Patrick Sellers and Danny Leetch had each previously won the Firefighter Demolition Derby which is part of the San Diego Fair, but two drivers from the same fire department had not taken the top two positions until Sellers won this year’s event June 1 and Leetch placed second.

“The best part about it is Lakeside went one and two. It’s something we’ve always wanted to do,” Sellers said.

Friend and rival, Leetch said dropping to Sellers hardly felt like a loss.

“If I’m going to lose to anybody my best buddy Patrick is the perfect one to lose to,” Leetch said. “I couldn’t be happier if I had won.”

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 and 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 was 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.

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 Leetch in the first heat along with Pfohl, Santee driver Brandon Gray, Carlsbad competitor Jesse Pinon, Escondido firefighter Alex Koji, and San Marcos participant Brian Meredith.  Contact between Koji and Meredith placed Koji into the last chance heat and gave Leetch and Meredith the heat’s two automatic berths in the final. (The Carlsbad fire department raised $18,000 to place Pinon into the final; the fire departments combined provided $78,708 to the Burn Institute.)

Sellers was in the second heat as was Lemon Grove firefighter Chris Wrisley, Carlsbad driver Matt Newlin, Vinny Giacchina of the Combat Center (Twenty-Nine Palms) Fire Department, and Imperial Beach firefighter Jorge Martinez.  A driver is eliminated either when he breaks off the flag on his car or when he is “timed out” if he has not moved for two minutes.

The inability of Wrisley to continue advanced Sellers and Martinez to the final.

“Heat went perfect. I had very little work to do on the car,” Sellers said.

Sellers and the Lakeside Fire Department pit crew replaced a belt and filled the radiator between the heat race and the final.

No East County firemen were in the third heat although the father of Encinitas driver Donnie Butz is Lakeside’s fire chief; Butz and CalFire Menifee Lakes firefighter Bryce Wagner advanced to the final.  Wrisley and Koji were the two survivors of the last chance heat. Martinez, Pinon, and Wagner were the only first-time Firefighters Demolition Derby drivers in the nine-car final.

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 throttle cable in Wagner’s 2001 Buick Century broke to leave Martinez, Leetch, and Sellers as the final three drivers in the event.

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 had drained out of Leetch’s 1973 Lincoln Continental during the heat race; although water was added prior to the final the Lincoln had no cooling and a broken engine block made Sellers the winner.

Sellers waited for Leetch to be timed out rather than hitting Leetch.

“Danny was out, so then I knew it was pretty much over,” Sellers said.

Sellers became the third two-time winner of the Firefighter Demolition Derby and the first who was not a member of the Lemon Grove Fire Department.

Joey Lavigne won the event in 2010 and 2012 and Wrisley was the 2017 and 2018 champion.  Sellers drove a 1974 Coupe de Vile with a small block Chevrolet engine in the 2015 derby.

Leetch took first place in 2011.  This year’s Firefighter Demolition Derby was the eighth for Leetch and the third for Sellers. Sellers had also driven in 2017 and last year Leetch and Shane Daunis drove the two Lakeside cars.

Sellers and Leetch are both stationed at Station 3, which is in the Lake Jennings area.  Leetch joined the Lakeside Fire Department in 2008 and Sellers has been a Lakeside firefighter for six years. This year the Lakeside Fire Department raised approximately $5,000 for the Burn Institute.

The Coupe de Ville was purchased from a private party for $300.

Sellers along with his other brother, Ben, and his father-in-law, Roger Lopez, spent approximately six months converting the Cadillac into a demolition derby vehicle.

The Lincoln Continental was found in a swamp in Vista.  This year was the fourth Firefighter Demolition Derby for the car, although Leetch notes that the Lincoln will not participate in the 2020 crashfest.

“This one’s done,” he said.

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