Sweat dripped from the tip of Tommy Iezek’s nose and splattered on the mud-covered concrete ground. It evaporated almost immediately under an unrelenting Iowa sun. A yellow tape measure clung to his faded blue jeans as he grabbed a brick set down by Angel Martinez on a table behind him. Iezek lathered its side in mortar and added it to the pristine yet hastily assembled wall of identical bricks in front of him.
Martinez kept himself busy. He churned the mortar, baking in the sun, with a water-dipped shovel to maintain its consistency. He arranged each brick to be used by Iezek in perfect order, making sure to point out irregularities in the wall before they became permanent.
The wall Iezek and Martinez constructed served no practical value that sweltering Friday afternoon. The intrinsic value, however, may be life-changing.
The duo, along with eight other teams of two, repeated this process in front of about 150 spectators for hours for a shot at rare glory. They all competed to earn a spot in the Spec Mix Bricklayer 500, a worldwide competition held in Las Vegas to determine the world’s most prolific masonry workers. With more than 563 bricks laid, Iezek and Martinez won that honor.
“It was nerve-wracking,” Iezek, a project manager for Maxson Masonry in West Branch, said. This was his second ever competition, but the first he has won.
Martinez, Iezek’s labor foreman, shared Iezek’s sentiments and said all he had to fall back on was what he knew.
“Let’s just come like it was a regular work day,” Martinez said. “When we have a regular work day, we’ll go in and kick ass and get stuff done.”
Teams in attendance first had to lay their foundations. An initial row, two bricks wide and 40 long, had to be perfectly assembled in an hour before the bulk of the work could be done. The competitors got an hour-long break before returning for the next hour’s marathon of stacking as many layers on that as they could.
The two segments weren’t equal by any stretch. What the foundation required in concentration and precision, the following layers required that plus rapid-fire volume.
Scott Ellingson, the regional manager of TCC Materials, whose lot served as the proving grounds for the competition, helped organize the event. He equivocated the mad scramble as squeezing in a day’s worth of effort into an hour.
“It’s like running a marathon in 20 minutes instead of two and a half hours,” Ellingson said. “They’re going to do eight hours of work here in an hour.
“It’s a rewarding event because it’s hard work,” he said.
After the hour of building their walls, teams had about 20 minutes to finish “striking,” or smoothing out the mortar between their bricks. “Tenders,” those in Martinez’s position of helping prepare materials for the bricklayers, pointed out imperfections in the wall while “mudslingers,” those in Iezek’s spot, ran small metal tools over the mortar to conceal holes and cracks.
“For the laborer, you’ve gotta be 12 steps ahead of your mason,” Martinez said. “If you’re falling behind, your mason’s falling behind.”
“A bricklayer’s only as good as his laborer,” Iezek confirmed.
After time was called, a handful of judges paced up and down the aisles to inspect each wall. They marked blemishes in yellow markers, measured the straightness of the planes and scrutinized handiwork for a solid hour before retreating inside to confer. Each mistake would cost each team a set amount of bricks from their total, emphasizing the importance of quality along with quantity.
In the end, Iezek and Martinez ended with a brick count of 563, more than enough to beat out the second-place team of Jamie Mikrot and Billy Jack Olsen, who came down from Minnesota to compete. Mikrot and Olsen finished with 506 bricks and went home with a $300 check.
With $1,100 already secured ($700 for the championship and $400 for the “Top Craftsman” distinction), Iezek and Martinez will make their way to Las Vegas in February to compete on an international stage for a shot at $125,000 in cash and prizes, including a new Ford F250. Iezek said he has been before and watched the competition. He described it as “insane.” Martinez has never been to Vegas.
The pair doesn’t know if they’ll gamble on their trip yet, but they do know one way they’ll participate in the local activities.
“We’ve gotta put some money on ourselves,” Iezek said.