CRUISIN' FOR A BRUISIN' : Pfankuchens Earn Distinction of Being Saugus' First Family of Destruction Derby Racing

Times Staff Writer

So you think that a destruction derby is nothing but a pack of wild and crazy drivers slamming their battle-scarred clunkers into each other, trying their darndest to incapacitate the other guy's car--or the other guy--while rambunctious, beer-swigging spectators roar in approval?

Well, you're right.

And what about train racing? You think that three cars chained together like a train and raced on a figure 8 course with perilous predicaments arising at nearly every pass through the intersection is sheer lunacy?

Well, when you're right, you're right.

Actually, there is more to both events than flying fenders, bloodthirsty fans and flagrant disregard for safety. They involve ingenuity and automotive craftsmanship, calculated strategy and nerves of steel.

"And it just feels so good to go out there and just smack into somebody at 45 m.p.h." says Butch Pfankuchen of Simi Valley.

Even if that somebody is your wife.

Says Patsy Pfankuchen: "When you're out there, you really don't pick and choose who you're going to hit."

Meet the Pfankuchens: Butch, Patsy, Gary, Jerry and Terry, a pfamily pfeud of sorts, proof positive that the family that whales the tar out of each other together, stays together--even if their cars do not.

Says Butch: "We're all on the track at the same time."

Not exactly. Although the clan has competed en masse in both destruction derbies and train races over the past year at Saugus Speedway, Patsy, Butch's wife of 20 years, and sons Jerry, 22, and Terry, 18, are only part-time competitors.

But one can always expect to see brothers Butch, 45, and Gary, 43, piloting vehicular creations on destruction derby night. "It's a nice family thing to come out and watch," Gary says. "And it's a great bunch of guys out there."

The brothers Pfankuchen have been a staple of destruction derbies--"D. D.s," as they like to call them--and train races at Saugus since the pair began taking crash courses in 1980.

By his estimation, Butch, senior tool keeper of the Pierce College auto shop for the past 20 years, has buckled up for about 200 D.D.s (some at tracks other than Saugus) and has successfully slammed the competition into submission approximately 25 times.

Gary, a maintenance assistant at Valley College who lives in Van Nuys, has driven in about as many D.D.s as his brother and twice has been crowned track champion at Saugus. Butch has rammed his way to one track title. But the pair have yet to win a D.D. or a train race this season.

"Four years ago," Butch boasts, "there wasn't nobody who could touch me at Saugus."

Danger? During a destruction derby in June, Butch Pfankuchen's car burst into flames while ESPN was videotaping the event for its weekly show, "The Gamesman." Pfankuchen was captured on film leaping from the car unhurt.

But then he always emerges unscathed. "I never worry about it," he says.

Veterans of about 400 smash-up wars, the Pfankuchens, a portly pair with builds of Volvos, swear that they have checked out A-OK after every D.D.

Looking to unload that unsightly set of wheels? Butch will stand upon his head to beat all deals on beat-up cars.

"I'll buy your car for $25 to $100 and give you two free passes to go to Saugus Speedway," he offers. "I advertise that. I drive up and down the street, leaving flyers on dead cars. I'll come to your house and bring my own equipment. I don't care if it's been sitting for five years, I'll get it running."

In a one-acre, fenced-off field in Newhall, just a trophy dash from Saugus Speedway, lies Butch Pfankuchen's used car lot--where 25 to 50 very used cars are parked. "Ninety percent of them, I got for $100," he says. "I use them once, then junk them."

The automotive reserve has not gone to waste. In fact, it has made the Pfankuchens the undisputed kings of Saugus' construction derby, and an integral part of train racing, which has emerged in the past year as the track's most popular novelty event.

Of seven entries in last Saturday's train race--the fourth this season--three belonged to Pfankuchen. That's nine cars with Butch Pfankuchen's John Hancock on the pink slip.

In a typical D.D. with a field of 20, at least four entries belong to Butch Pfankuchen. Some entries are driven by auto-shop students who assist in construction.

"Their contribution is quite a lot," Saugus promoter Ray Wilkings says of the Pfankuchens. "He and his brother each field a car and are probably responsible for about four other cars. If I tell him I need more teams to make the train race exciting, he gets out and beats the bushes and gets some people."

Says Butch: "If I were to just completely stop going out there--which would mean my brother, too--train racing would fold right now. If you only have four teams, there wouldn't be enough action. Last year, I had my wife in train cars, I had my sons in the train cars. . . . If I didn't get enough trains out there, train racing would be no more."

Train racing might never have been, had it not been for Butch and Gary. Wilkings devised the event last season and summoned the pair to develop prototype trains.

Two years earlier, the Pfankuchens had served as Wilkings' "creative consultants" for the track's short-lived "demolition football" event, in which destruction derby vehicles tried to slam a beat-up Volkswagen (among other experimental items) through a makeshift goal.

Once again, Wilkings called upon the bash brothers to offer creative input for train racing.

Said Wilkings: "I figured, if anybody could do it, they could. Every track has tried, at one time or another, chain racing, which is two cars hooked together by a length of chain. So, I said, 'What would happen if we did, maybe, three of them instead of two?' "

The result has been a smashing success. The fans eat it up and the event has spread to short tracks throughout the country.

Wilkings was selected the 1988 Far West Region Promoter of the Year by Racing Promotion Monthly--thanks largely, he says, to the success of train racing.

But if the event is the brainchild of Wilkings, it is the brawn-child of the Pfankuchens, who devote "25 to 30 man hours" to the construction of each train.

"The front car is just like a destruction derby car," Butch says. "It doesn't need a full (roll) cage. The very last car has to have a full cage, fire extinguisher, everything in it."

For those having trouble imagining the event, a description: The "locomotive," usually a Cadillac or other one-time luxury car, contains a driver and tows two lighter engine-less vehicles, usually Ford Pintos. The middle car is empty. The "caboose," however, contains a driver for navigational purposes.

Nightly purses for train racing have grown to $2,300, including a $500 first-place prize. Destruction derbies offer a $1,650 purse, including $750 to win.

Butch Pfankuchen won two train races last year. But his biggest prize came this season when Wilkings presented him with a plaque during trophy ceremonies for his contribution. That made Butch feel good.

"If he called me up tomorrow and said, 'Hey, can you bring four cars over for a movie or whatever?', I can do it," Butch says. "If they say, 'Hey, we're gonna run a special destruction derby next week, everyone says, 'I don't have time to build it.' And I say, 'Oh, I have four cars ready.'

"You've gotta have backups and I have 'em. That's why they come to me."

Contrary to rational belief, there is planning and strategy involved in trying to knock someone senseless with the front bumper of a '68 Cadillac. But Butch Pfankuchen is guarded about discussing the matter.

"I don't want to give away all my secrets," he says with a smile.

Destruction derby vehicles typically are prepared to withstand punishment. Radiators, highly vulnerable in collisions, are drained of water, and gasoline is mixed with oil to prevent the engine from seizing. Doors are chained closed. Drivers, of course, strap on a crash helmet and hope for the best.

As for competitive strategy. . . .

"Just keep smackin'," Butch says. "Watch your hits. When I hit somebody, I hit them solid. If you hit them at an angle, you rip something off your car and you break tires. If you hit them straight, the frames are already pretty bent and they buckle up. And that's what you want to do."

Just don't let yourself buckle up.

"You can get hurt driving down the street," Gary Pfankuchen says. "I feel it's safer out there because you know you're gonna get hit. And we set the car up good. Not knowing when you're going to get hit is worst; the blind side, getting hit from behind."

So, why worry? Well, they don't.

"You're very safe in the car, you really are," Patsy Pfankuchen says. "It's just like any other hobby."

Yeah? And the wrecking ball is just another household appliance. At the Pfankuchen home, it probably is.

Actually, the family is not as crazy as one might surmise.

"I think safety first," Butch says. "Every one of my cars have up-to-date fire extinguishers. All my gas tanks are boat gas tanks--the kind that never flip over. And good helmets. I don't cheapen on any of the safety stuff.

"If it wasn't safe, I wouldn't let (my wife) out there. And if it wasn't safe, I wouldn't be out there."

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