No one would mistake the casino hotels overlooking the Las Vegas Convention Center’s exhibit lot for the stately spires of Churchill Downs. But few tests of a tradesperson’s skill offer a more fitting rival to the Kentucky Derby’s “fastest two minutes in sports” than the Mason Contractors Association of America's “Fastest Trowel on the Block” competition.
Held in conjunction with the annual World of Concrete-World of Masonry trade show since the early 1990s, the “Fastest Trowel on the Block” is a 20-minute showcase of a journeyman mason’s skill, confidence and craftsmanship. Competitors race against the clock and each other to build as much as possible of a 30-ft-long concrete masonry unit (CMU) block wall.
The association provides each competitor 180 full-size, 8-in. by 8-in. by 16-in. blocks and 12 halves for the competition. The masons provide their own tools, a tender to replenish the blocks and mortar supply, and an inherent understanding of masonry practices. That’s because the “Fastest Trowel on the Block” is more than a test of speed. Once the single 20-minute group heat is complete, a team of judges carefully assesses each competitor’s wall, awarding points for plumb, level, story, voids and overall workmanship. Deductions also are made for deviations of more than an eighth of an inch.
Although the “Fastest Trowel on the Block” typically attracts competitors from across the U.S. and Canada, Australia also was represented in 2016’s 20-team field. The top three competitors received trophies, complimentary products and cash prizes, with the winner taking home $8,000.
But in the eyes of association official Tim O’Toole, everyone who takes part is a winner. “The competitors are some of the best masons in the country,” he says. “All off them should be proud for making it to the national stage to compete and show off their skills.”
‘Fastest Trowel’ is a 20-Year Journeyman Used to Heat
As the clock ticked to the start of the 2016 “Fastest Trowel on the Block” competition, José Noe Martinez was nervous. That may be surprising to those who know the mason, 39, who came to the event with 20 years of masonry experience and previous skills contest wins. What’s more, it was a chilly morning in Las Vegas, a far cry from the hot workdays in Phoenix, where the temperature can reach 115°F. But when the starting horn blew, Martinez didn’t have long to contemplate his discomfort or anxiety, joining his 19 fellow competitors in the 20-minute race. Once judges inspected each CMU wall, they decided that Martinez’s work in placing 113 blocks showed the highest degree of quality and craftmanship.
ENR: How did you come to be a mason?
Martinez: My older brothers are masons, and I looked up to them. I began training for the job when I started as a laborer and continued learning over time.
Have you worked steadily, or have there been stretches of unemployment?
For the past three years, I’ve worked continuously.
How many times have you competed in the “Fastest Trowel” competition?
One of my coworkers invited me to watch one of the competitions here in Arizona, and that got me interested. I competed three times there, winning first place. This was the first time I competed in Las Vegas.
Did you do anything to prepare for the competition?
Yes, I prepared myself mentally and physically for the competition. Before Las Vegas, I practiced three times. But it still is a nerve-racking and anxious situation.
How did your family and co- workers react to your win?
My family’s reaction was a great feeling. They felt very proud and, most of all, happy and relieved afterward.