Riverside County Fire Department firefighter/paramedic Tyler Wagner was unable to drive in the main event of this year’s Firefighter Demolition Derby which was held June 12 and was part of the San Diego County Fair, but he won the last chance qualifier heat which allowed him to compete in the main event.

“I knew my car was strong,” Wagner said.

Wagner, who is with Station 61 in Wildomar, drove a 1972 Cadillac Sedan de Ville. The car had been in Ramona before Battalion 2 of Station 61 found the car on Craigslist and acquired it.

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 although the configuration of the Del Mar Arena necessitated some changes. The current format has three early afternoon heats with the last two running cars in each heat advancing to the final and two last chance heats in the late afternoon which allow the final remaining car from each heat to compete in the main event. The driver from the fire department which raises the most money for the Burn Institute is also allowed to drive in the final if he has an operational car.

Station 61 raised $3,300 for the Burn Institute. Danny Leetch of the Lakeside Fire Protection District won the Hard Charger Award by raising $14,050, and the fire departments combined raised $64,900 for the Burn Institute.

“I just want to tell all my sponsors thank you for your support,” Wagner said.

The fire departments build their own cars as well as raise money for the Burn Institute. Station 61 acquired the Cadillac in January 2020, but the 2020 San Diego County Fair was not held and the Del Mar Arena was not part of the 2021 fair footprint so the crew, which consisted of 10 firefighters, began transitioning the Cadillac into a demolition derby car in February 2022.

Wagner opted to drive. “I just wanted to give it a chance,” he said.

Riverside County Fire Department firefighter/paramedic Tyler Wagner is with Station 61 in Wildomar, driving a 1972 Cadillac Sedan de Ville. Valley News/Courtesy photo

The Bonita, Imperial Beach, Lakeside, and San Marcos fire departments each had two cars in this year’s demolition derby and nine other fire departments had one vehicle apiece .The division of the 17 drivers into the three heats placed Wagner in the first heat with Bonita-Sunnyside Fire Protection District driver Robert Marcon, Coronado Fire Department captain Brandon Ihde, National City participant Dan McGuire, Poway firefighter Joe McNally, and San Marcos competitor Daniel Bodemer.

Marcon and Ihde were the only drivers in that heat with past Firefighter Demolition Derby experience. “How it went was getting a feel for the car,” Wagner said. “The first heat was an understanding.”

That didn’t prevent Wagner from desiring to be one of the final two remaining drivers in that heat. “I wanted to finish No. 1,” he said.

Wagner knew that excessive contact with other cars in the heat could be counterproductive; his strategy was to let the other drivers crash and keep his car in the best shape possible for the main event. “I went in there planning on having a very methodical approach,” he said.

The track is banked, and Wagner was stuck behind McNally on a berm near the entrance. “I literally went up and was kind of dodging a few cars,” he said.

A driver is eliminated either when he takes down the flag on his car or when he is “timed out” if he has not moved for two minutes. Wagner was unable to move on the surface and took down his flag shortly after McNally did.

That put Wagner into the last chance heat but with no damage to the Cadillac. “The car was fine,” he said.

Wagner and his crew made minor adjustments to the car between the heat and the last chance qualifier. “I knew the car was a strong car and we could go out No. 1 and eventually take this whole event,” he said. “I was confident in the car and I was confident with my pit crew.”

The first of the two last chance heats consisted of Wagner, McNally, Marcon, John Olsen of the Imperial Beach Fire Department, and Brian Meredith of the San Marcos Fire Department. When the Cadillac was the only car moving Wagner qualified for the main event.

“I had no issues,” Wagner said. “The car to me was running fine.”

Wagner and his crew had 10 minutes between the last chance heat and the start of the main event to make any adjustments. “We had minimal time to enter the third race,” he said.

From the driver’s perspective the car still needed work. “There was some drag,” Wagner said. “I knew something was wrong with it.”

With no more time available Wagner had no choice but to bring out the car for the main event. “The front brakes ended up locking, which was causing the car not to move,” he said.

The location near the entrance and exit created a rut in the dirt, so the Cadillac’s tires were unable to get to the competition area and the main event began without Wagner. Encinitas firefighter Donnie Butz won the Firefighter Demolition Derby.

Not being able to compete in the main event didn’t lessen Wagner’s enjoyment of his first demolition derby. “It was awesome, great time. Everybody should do it,” he said.

The car itself is still in suitable shape, and Wagner plans to use the Cadillac in next year’s Firefighters Demolition Derby.

Wagner is not related to Bryce Wagner, who drove in the 2019 Firefighter Demolition Derby for CalFire’s Station 76 in Menifee Lakes, although both are Temecula Valley High School graduates. Tyler Wagner graduated from Temecula Valley High School in 2005.He joined the fire service in 2009 with the U.S. Forest Service and has been with the Riverside County Fire Department since 2015.

Joe Naiman can be reached by email at jnaiman@reedermedia.com.