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Pickett represents Camp Pendleton in firefighters' destruction derby

Ron Pickett represented the Camp Pendleton Fire Department in the firefighter’s destruction derby June 19 at the San Diego County Fair.

“It was cool,” Pickett said. “I was excited about it.”

Pickett, who drove a 1983 Chevrolet Caprice, was third in his heat before engine problems eliminated him. The top two finishers in each heat advanced to the main event, and Pickett doubts that he and his crew could have repaired the car for the main event had he advanced as an alternate. “It was definitely disappointing,” he 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. The event continued until 2004, the final year of Cajon Speedway’s operation.

“It became a very spirited event to say the least,” said Tom McGrath, who was Cajon Speedway’s public address announcer for 30 years and who announced the fair destruction derby.

Pickett, who had worked for the Miramar Fire Department before joining Camp Pendleton’s fire department two years ago, twice competed in the Cajon Speedway demolition derbies.

The Burn Institute and local firefighters also collaborated for an annual exposition and Burn Run at Qualcomm Stadium. The exposition was moved to the San Diego County Fair this year. Burn Institute executive director James Floros contacted Bob Pfohl about the possibility of a firefighter’s demolition derby at the fair. Pfohl agreed to be the event organizer.

Pfohl and the fire departments he contacted had approximately three months notice. “We got a little bit of a late start,” he said. “It was just hard to find cars.”

The Camp Pendleton Fire Department found the Caprice through R&S Towing. Ryan Rushing built the car, although Pickett ended up as the driver. “We usually do it by whoever raises the most money, whoever has the most sponsors,” Pickett said.

Pfohl obtained 15 cars for the demolition derby, although two of them were not operating when the original green flag was thrown. Fire department members worked together to build the cars and obtain sponsors.

“It was great for camaraderie,” Pfohl said.

Pfohl also obtained McGrath as the public address announcer and Cajon Speedway track steward Charlie Miinch as the head official. The Del Mar event was called the First Stephen Brucker Memorial Destruction Derby (Brucker was Cajon Speedway’s promoter from 1986 until his murder in April 2003), and the trophies were presented by Stephen Brucker’s brother, Kevin Brucker, and his mother, Marilyn Brucker.

The configuration of the Del Mar arena necessitated some changes from the Cajon Speedway competitions. A parade of fire trucks took place several hours earlier, the Star-Spangled Banner was not sung, and the 15 cars were divided into three heats.

“It was definitely different with the heats,” Pickett said.

The combination of heats and a main gave spectators four demolition derbies instead of one while allowing the advancing firefighters to run two derbies. Although the car count for each heat and the main were smaller than the Cajon fields (the first firefighters destruction derby on the infield of Cajon’s 3/8-mile oval drew 26 cars), the smaller heats also reduced the number of inactive cars.

“There was no place to hide there,” Pfohl said.

Pickett drove in the second heat along with Greg O’Gorman from the Alpine Fire Department, Angel Hendrie of CalFire, James Cooper of the Imperial Beach Fire Department, and Scott Estrada from Fire Etc.

Estrada was given a black flag disqualification, although afterwards he was placed in the main event to create a seven-car feature.

“The guy never had a chance,” Pfohl said. “It was kind of a group decision.”

Cooper was the next driver eliminated after Pickett and O’Gorman sandwiched the front of Cooper’s Caprice. That left Pickett’s Caprice, O’Gorman’s Oldsmobile Delta 88, and Hendrie’s Ford LTD station wagon as the final three cars in the heat.

O’Gorman and Hendrie advanced to the main when Pickett was unable to continue. “The hoses got knocked off and then it started to overheat pretty good,” Pickett said.

Crews were not allowed to work on repairs until the completion of the final heat, after which they were given five minutes to ready their cars for the main event.

Joey Lavigne of the Lemon Grove Fire Department, who drove a 1978 Buick Limited, won the First Stephen Brucker Memorial Destruction Derby. Pfohl, who drove a 2000 Crown Victoria which had been used as a taxi and had over 400,000 miles on its odometer, was second. Matt Newlin, who represented the Carlsbad Fire Department in a 1984 Lincoln Town Car, finished third.

“We all do it for the Burn Institute, which is a great charity,” Pickett said. “The main focus is just the Burn Institute and raising money for their programs.”

Pickett is originally from Florida and spent nine years with the Marine Corps on active duty, including three at Camp Pendleton.

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