Los Angeles Times

Police chiefs' zany mano a mano

It's just before 6 p.m., and Costa Mesa's police chief has already had a frenetic day. In about two hours, though, it'll take a turn for the strange, the likes of which he's never quite experienced before.

Tom Gazsi has signed up for Thursday night's "motor home madness" demolition derby at the OC Fair, where customized motor homes — stripped bare of their homely qualities — slam it out in the Action Sports Arena. It's true bumper car carnage in a muddy bowl, much to the delight of fairgoers grasping beers and wearing doughnut hats.

One police chief in this annual battle royale would make it interesting. But two? And cross-town rivals at that?

Worth the price of admission.

Gazsi is peering out at the sports arena, inspecting the playing field from afar, when Newport Beach Police Chief Jay Johnson walks up behind him wearing a smile. Johnson thinks this whole ordeal — two high-ranking law enforcement officers amid a field of crashing motor homes — is going to be hilarious.

"I can see they brought out the ambulance for you," Johnson says to Gazsi, pointing to the emergency crew stationed on the opposite end of the arena.

A medical staff and fire crew will be on hand that evening — just in case.

Gazsi had invited Johnson to participate in the night's derby, a spectacle neither policeman has experienced before. Gazsi jokes that Johnson routinely invites him to the annual Newport Beach Christmas Boat Parade, so he needed something for Johnson to do in Costa Mesa.

"We're never gonna live this down," Johnson says upon hearing that the chiefs are going to ride out into the arena with "Bad Boys" — the theme song to the TV show "Cops" — as their soundtrack.

Gazsi comments that he studied the derby a bit by watching a YouTube video.

The families of the two are there to see the festivities. Johnson's family even made T-shirts for the occasion. A Newport Beach Police Department email was sent out too, letting the force know its chief was in the hot seat at the fairgrounds.

Neither man is going into the derby thinking he'll get off easy.

"You know, we're the targets," Johnson says. "The crowd's gonna love seeing cops get beat up. We're the entertainment tonight."

During the safety briefing and pre-game inspections, Johnson is more animated. "Second place is the first loser," he lectures. "There's only one winner."

Gazsi is more reserved. His conservative approach foreshadows the style he'll bring to the arena.

He did have a fun prank in mind to pull against Johnson, though. To flatten his competitor's tires mid-game, Gazsi wanted police tire spikes thrown out in front of Johnson's motor home. But when he forewarned organizers about the plan, they scrapped it.

Too much of a liability, apparently.

Alex Mohamed of Costa Mesa-based Southside Towing is the brains behind the chief-versus-chief demolition derby. He says the event regularly gets police officers involved, but he's never seen such higher-ups throw their badges in this ring. He convinced Gazsi, who then convinced Johnson.

"I knew if I got one of them, the other one would follow," Mohamed says.

As everyone waits for the last of the motor homes to arrive — they're stuck in rush-hour fair traffic, of course — Mohamed talks up each chief's customized entry: real California Highway Patrol lights, police sirens and other touches.

When the two vehicles roll in, everyone's excited.

Gazsi's has "211" on the side doors — police code for robbery. A picture of a caged derby-wearing robber also helps with the imagery. The vehicle is relatively small, which makes it more maneuverable, the crew comments.

Johnson's has "5150" on the side doors — code for "mentally unstable."

His car, among the largest of the seven competing that night, features pictures of a caged gorilla and tiger. It's being called "a beast" by the pit crew.

The driver's compartments are spartan: seat with a tiny seat belt, cages instead of glass windows, a fire extinguisher, a little padding. Some of the engine components are within arm's reach, seemingly jerry-rigged to last only long enough for their imminent destruction.

Johnson brings his three kids over and holds them up so they can see daddy's driver's seat.

Gazsi converses a bit with VeeKay the Clown — a patch on VeeKay's overalls reads "I love this crazy place" — before the group orientation. Everyone is then given a tiny pink flag, which can be waved in the event of an emergency.

"Don't get out of the motor home," the contestants are warned. Doing so could get them hit if the game is still going on.

They're also informed that everyone's a winner. Each will get a trophy. A tall one, at that.

Brad Long of CMTV, Costa Mesa's public-access channel, and a cameraman are documenting the occasion. Gazsi and Johnson are wearing long-sleeved black shirts with their names on them. On their collars are four gold insignia stars.

Before the media heads out into the arena, CMTV's cameraman wants to have some fun. He wants the dueling chiefs to say: "See you on the battlefield."

They laugh a bit and compromise, with something along the lines of: "See you on the field."


It's not hard to sense the excitement in the air at the Action Sports Arena.

"This is so cool," a mom remarks en route to her bleacher seat. Midway prizes abound: Scooby-Doo stuffed animals, toy inflatable hammers. Off in the distance, the neon lights of the Ferris wheel shine.

After a figure eight race, where the crowd took extreme delight in the crashing and scuttling of metal cars, it's time for the "motor home madness" demolition derby to begin. Announcer Larry "Supermouth" Huffman tells the crowd about the two police chiefs in the night's derby and notes that everyone is "guaranteed" to know which motor homes are theirs.

The first to roll in is "Tom Gazante," Huffman proclaims, soon followed by Johnson. "Eye of the Tiger" plays in the arena. (Not "Bad Boys.")

Huffman never gets Gazsi's name quite correct — other renditions sound like Gazazzi — though arena staff members say the Supermouth is so legendary that he can say whatever he wants.

VeeKay the Clown blows the whistle, and they're off to the clanking races. The smell of gasoline and smoke quickly fills the air.

Johnson slowly moves forward from his starting position, but then seems to stall before backing up.

Unfortunately for him, his car troubles prevent him from taking any real action for the remainder of the race. "Is he out?" Huffman asks the crowd. Johnson says later that he stalled right off the bat.

It's then up to Gazsi to represent the pair. His racing style is best described as conservative, a kind of "let the others go at it" while he patrols the perimeter, escaping crashes and not instigating many himself.

In one memorable action against Gazsi, Huffman proclaims that the other driver "nailed the chief of police of Costa Mesa!"

Toward the end, Gazsi loses one of his rear tires. He has no idea it happened. He's just trying to stay alive in the dark, noisy cage of his motor home.

Moments before the end, the crowd is booing as Gazsi and another are rammed into each other and seem unable to move about all the wreckage and the mud.

But soon enough, the crowd applauds when Huffman announces that Gazsi is the winner and the event is over.

All the contestants get their trophies as the crowd heads on out, ready to enjoy the rest of the fair's offerings. It's a sea of people, and the chiefs are trying to wade through to greet their post-show entourages.

"Make a hole for the chief of police!" one man says, trying to give Gazsi some room.

Johnson, despite his status as a sitting duck for much of the race, is still beaming.

"I got the all-show, no-go trophy," he says. "It's the 'best appearance' trophy. It was a blast."

Gazsi soon meets his group, who cheer while ribbing him about Huffman's repeated "Gazazzi" commentary.

He reveals his winning strategy: "I thought if I could avoid collision and mechanical failure toward the end, I'd let the other guys take the hit and try to avoid them for a while."

Gazsi purposively didn't take any good swipes at Johnson when he was down. Rather, the chief ran some "interference maneuvers" around Johnson's stalled car, so Johnson didn't get hit by others while he was idling, so to speak.

"This was both of our first times," he says. "We wanted to look out after each other a little bit, protect each other, not knowing what the other guys were up to or what their strategy might have been."

Gazsi said he was "utterly surprised" to take home first place. He says his experience as a street cop, driving under unpredictable circumstances in vehicle pursuits, helped him that night. He thanked the city, fair staff and all the police personnel who keep the venue safe.

"We as a department would like to dedicate this Costa Mesa Police Department victory in Jane Neth's honor and the Neth family," Gazsi added on Friday.

Neth, 84, died Wednesday. The longtime Costa Mesa volunteer and former elementary school teacher was married to Roger Neth, the city's first police officer and a former police chief.

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