Thomas Klein drove for the Camp Pendleton Fire Department in this year’s Firefighter Demolition Derby which took place June 3 and was part of the San Diego County Fair.
“It was a good time,” Klein said. “I’m bummed that I didn’t get further along, but it was for fun.”
In addition to allowing the drivers to enjoy themselves during the demolition derby, the Firefighter Demolition Derby also raises money for the Burn Institute. This year’s crashfest included 15 cars, and the fire departments combined raised more than $70,000. The Camp Pendleton Fire Department provided $1,800 of that contribution.
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. The Burn Institute and local firefighters also collaborated for an annual exposition and burn run at Qualcomm Stadium.
The Cajon Speedway closed after the 2004 season, but in 2010, the Fire and Safety Exposition was moved to the San Diego County Fair and the Firefighters Destruction Derby returned after a five-year absence. Some changes were necessary due to the configuration of the Del Mar arena. 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. This year’s format involved two early afternoon heats. The last two running cars in each heat qualify for the final, which is a last chance heat in the late afternoon to allow the last three remaining cars compete. 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.
Ron Pickett drove for the Camp Pendleton Fire Department in the 2010 Firefighters Destruction Derby, which was renamed the Firefighter Demolition Derby this year. The fire department was unable to obtain a car for the next three demolition derbies, and a car was acquired for 2014 but was not ready for that year’s event. Ryan Rushing drove for Camp Pendleton in 2015, and Brian Gilmore was the base fire department’s driver in 2016.
Klein thus became the fourth Camp Pendleton driver to compete in the county fair era.
“I just said I would do it,” Klein said. “Someone does it every year. This year I got lucky, and it’s me.”
Crew chief Mike Parker works for the Camp Pendleton Fire Department but lives in Yucca Valley. Parker obtained a 1984 Ford Country Squire station wagon from John’s Garage in Yucca Valley which became Klein’s car for the demolition derby.
In addition to Parker, Klein’s crew consisted of Jeff Cunliffe-Owen, Grant DeRose, Bob Johnson, Rushing and Paul Shepherd.
Klein was in the first heat along with Bonita-Sunnyside Fire Department driver Robert Marcon, Matt Newlin of the Carlsbad Fire Department, Coronado Fire Department participant Brandon Ihde, Escondido Fire Department firefighter Alex Koji, Imperial Beach representative John Olsen, Lakeside competitor Shane Daunis and Lemon Grove fireman Chris Wrisley.
The first hit of the derby happened as Klein backed his car into the front of Koji’s. Five of the eight cars were still running when steam started emanating from the hood of Klein’s station wagon.
“We had a radiator hose go off,” Klein said.
Shortly afterward, Koji backed into Klein’s right rear quarter panel, and neither of the cars moved after that. That left three remaining cars, and when Daunis was stuck on the berm and could no longer continue Newlin and Ihde advanced to the final.
All three drivers advancing from the last chance qualifier were from Klein’s heat event, as were the eventual placing drivers. Koji, Olsen and Wrisley were the final last chance qualifier remaining drivers. Wrisley was the eventual winner with Olsen placing second and Ihde being awarded third place.
Klein did not participate in the last chance qualifier. Although the radiator situation was fixed during the afternoon, the transmission problem which ended Klein’s activity in the heat race could not be resolved in time.
“We couldn’t get it to shift anymore,” Klein said.
The Camp Pendleton Fire Department bases Klein at Station 7 off Basilone Road. The station’s responsibilities include base housing and brush at Camp Pendleton, and Station 7 also handles situations on northbound Interstate 5 between Las Pulgas Road and Basilone Road and on southbound I-5 from Cristianitos Road to Basilone Road.
Klein’s actual military service was in the United States Air Force, where he spent four years before being discharged as a senior airman. His mother was also in the Air Force and retired as a senior master sergeant. Klein was in Virginia Beach for his early childhood before attending high school in Hawaii. He was with an Air Force fire department in Florida, before joining the Camp Pendleton fire department 15 years ago.
The 23 fire trucks in this year’s parade included North County Fire Protection District and Pala Fire Department vehicles. Pala Fire Department engine No. 6611 spent the demolition derby on the north side of the arena in case any cars caught on fire, and during the second heat, the Pala firefighters extinguished a fire under the hood of the 1979 Cadillac Coupe de Ville driven by Santee firefighter Adam Daniels after transmission fluid overflow started the blaze in the front of Daniels’ car. A Rancho Santa Fe fire truck kept watch on the south side of the arena but was not needed during the competition. Students from the North County Fire Protection District’s Explorer program helped with traffic control during the parade of fire vehicles and also carried boots for donations to the Burn Institute both in the arena before the heats and elsewhere around the fairgrounds.