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.