Pyrotechnics convention at Iowa Speedway draws public with music, massive fireworks shows

·6 min read

Aug. 4—When the sun sets, the fireworks start. The shocking booms echo through the community for miles as members of the Pyrotechnics Guild International light off the next volley. Dark rooms glimmer from the colorful explosions. Anyone close enough to Iowa Speedway not only sees the fireworks but feels them going off.

Although most of the activity at the PGI Convention in Newton — referred to by local organizers as Thunderstruck Over Iowa Speedway — is closed off to the public, non-members have been given three nights to check out the commotion, to see what exactly is transpiring in the infield and campgrounds of the racetrack.

Randy Ervin, a city council member and the lead organizer who pushed hard to have Newton host the annual convention, says people have been introduced to an experience like none other. The fireworks they see in that 90-minute window after live music performances on July 31, Aug. 2 and Aug. 5 are the real deal.

"This is something you are never going to see again or haven't seen up to this point, but we hope it does comes back," Ervin says to Newton News before the Hairball concert. "That's our goal. Other than the people that don't like the sound, go to Facebook and look at the people that have been here."

Indeed there are folks who do not approve of the sound and sporadic explosions, which occur through the afternoon up until 11 p.m. or midnight. Ervin admits it is extremely loud and apologizes for those upset by the noises, but he stands firm that the event is a "big win" for Newton.

Fireworks light up the Iowa Speedway during the public night on Aug. 2 of the Pyrotechnics Guild International (PGI) convention. The last public night of Thunderstruck Over Iowa Speedway will be held on Aug. 5 and will include live music, food trucks and a 90-minute fireworks display in the infield with the price of admission.

About 1,500 PGI members are attending the week-long convention, and with that stay comes economic impact. PGI is bringing in that extra foot traffic. When the fireworks aren't going off, Ervin says the convention folks are venturing outside into Newton and the other surrounding communities to eat, shop and play.

During the Aug. 2 public night, the convention sold about 2,500 tickets, which was more than the first public night. Word of mouth is spreading, and Ervin expects there will be even more folks lined up for the Aug. 5 public night. PGI members do not like to leave a convention with extra baggage.

Which means the final fireworks shows should brighten the sky of Iowa Speedway for some time. Phil Sandmeyer, of Kansas City, has been a member of PGI since 1973. He says there was some hesitation about hosting it at the racetrack, but those worries soon quelled when members arrived on-site.

For members, they get to spend time manufacturing their own fireworks and competing in a number of competitions. Sandmeyer estimates 20 percent of the pyrotechnics lit off at the convention have been made on-site. But the builders showcase, however, has practically everything built in special tents.

OK, sure, the fireworks are impressive. But Sandmeyer says the best part of the convention is meeting up with old friends, getting back together and enjoying the camaraderie. Sandmeyer has met a lot of his longtime friends through the PGI conventions, which have been held in the United States for more than 50 years.

Unlike the commercial fireworks for sale at vendors before the Fourth of July, the types of pyrotechnics used at the convention are harder to come by. At the Aug. 2 show, there was a lot of older, Italian-style shells fired off in the infield. These types are not made in large quantity.

"Basically all you see at most commercial shows are Chinese products. The old Italian-style is completely different than the Chinese," Sandmeyer says. "Maybe some of the old timers might remember back in the '50s and '60s and early '70s when the Italian-style shells were still pretty common."

It really, truly is a dying art, he says. Luckily, the PGI members don't get to hog all the glory for themselves. The public nights allow folks to see how these pyro masters utilize their ancient art form. Sandmeyer hopes the crowds walk away with a new appreciation for fireworks.

"It truly is an art, and the people that produce their own fireworks are artists in their own right, every bit as much as a painter or a sculptor," Sandmeyer says. "Fireworks make people happy."

Fireworks light up the Iowa Speedway during the public night on Aug. 2 of the Pyrotechnics Guild International (PGI) convention. The last public night of Thunderstruck Over Iowa Speedway will be held on Aug. 5 and will include live music, food trucks and a 90-minute fireworks display in the infield with the price of admission.

Cory Unruh, of North Dakota, is also a member and is setting up shop as a vendor at the convention. Specializing in old fireworks collectibles, Unruh gets to frequently mingle with his fellow PGI members, who are likely to feel nostalgic when browsing his classic products.

Finding antique firework is like a treasure hunt, Unruh says. Obviously, it is very difficult to find some of these old time fireworks; either folks threw them away or wasted no time in lighting them off as soon as they bought them. As a collector himself, the convention allows him to seek out those treasures, too.

In between sales, Unruh is also spectating the shows. He, too, is seeing the crowds pile in to see the fireworks. He listens to their cheers in between volleys.

"At the end of the day, it's nice to know the community stands behind it and is like, 'Wow! That was amazing!' And we hope they come back again so more people will show up," Unruh said. "As of right now, it's perfect. You can pretty much sit anywhere you want."

Word of mouth is working wonders for the convention. The pictures and videos posted from the July 31 public night certainly had an impact on the Aug. 2 show. Ervin is just happy to see people act on their curiosity, buy a ticket and then walk through the gate with their families.

"The emotion, the music, the fun, the laughter, the crowd. You don't even have time to say 'ooh' and 'ah.' I'm proud of the city," Ervin said. "I had a meeting with the PGI board last night and they looked at me and said, 'How quick can we come back?' They love the city. And the city has been supportive."

Ervin is taken aback by the amount of positive feedback he has seen from the public and PGI members. One year has passed since he first introduced the idea. Now with the help of an aggressive steering committee, it has come to fruition. Even though there are few days left, Ervin is still thinking what to do next.

"I don't know what else we can do to make this better, but we better find some things because they're coming back."

Contact Christopher Braunschweig at 641-792-3121 ext 6560 or