A winning connection

Prospect’s Hettinger puts his own touch on
‘Thunder Over Louisville’

Businessman helped create
the Derby Festival's largest event

By Don Ward

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (May 2005) – Each year when the Kentucky Derby Festival rolls around, Wayne Hettinger gets the best seat in the house – in the Thunder Over Louisville Command Center atop the 24th floor of the Galt House Hotel & Suites’ West Tower. It is there where the Prospect, Ky., resident orchestrates the largest fireworks show in North America.

May 2005 KY Cover

May 2005
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It’s a show he helped create 15 years ago after being tapped by one of his clients, Kroger, the show’s former sponsor. Since then, he has developed the show into one of Louisville’s largest and most favorite festivals, combining the elaborately staged fireworks by the famed Zambelli family, booming music across a fleet of loudspeakers placed on both sides of the Ohio River and, of course, the nearly all-day air show. This year’s show payed tribute to “50 Years of Rock ‘n Roll.”
“We’re a bunch of middle-aged guys safely doing 13-year-old things,” said Hettinger, 59, who produced his 16th Thunder show on April 23.
Hettinger has help from a staff of 15 people during the show. But it is the buildup to the show date that has the group working overtime.
“My work comes in the days leading up to the event. When the show day finally arrives, I just have to sit back and stay out of the way and let these guys do what they do best,” he said.
Hettinger sits in front of a large computer monitor that illustrates the air show grid over the Ohio River. He and his technicians key the various music and watch as the show unfolds before nearly 750,000 spectators below. Due to cold, rainy weather, this year’s Thunder attracted about 300,000 people, officials estimated, less than half the usual number. But the excitement and awe was still there for those who braved the elements to take it all in.

Wayne Hettinger and staff

Photo by Don Ward

Wayne Hettinger (left) with his Thunder team that includes (from left) Dave Crites, audio engineer; Mike Reardon, assistant air boss; and Larry Huber, marine operations.

Hettinger got the job of producing Thunder after Kroger officials asked him to become involved. Kroger was a client of Hettinger’s 30-year-old company, Visual Presentations, which produces corporate slide shows and video presentations among other things.
“This has been my toy all along, but technology has really changed everything for us,” Hettinger said.
One example is in how the sound is broadcast across dozens of loudspeakers on both sides of the river – by microwave now instead of wires. And the music sound tracks are digitized now instead of played using magnetic tape in the earlier days.
It takes the crew about a week to set up. Hettinger said the pilots and his crew will start making plans for next year’s Thunder at a dinner held the night before this year’s event.
“We’re always talking about new ways and new things to add to the show,” he said. “It is always evolving.”
Hettinger used to use about 15 of his own employees to work the show, but now they come from other sources and backgrounds. He and his stepson, Marcus Cambron, do much of the work, along with his computer and audio visual expert Tim Creed, who helped develop the show with Hettinger over the years.
What started out as a fire What started out as a fireworks show at Cardinal Stadium at the Kentucky Fair and Exposition Center in 1990 has now grown into an elaborate affair that must be rotated each year among the four Louisville TV stations for broadcast rights. It is also re-broadcast in 158 other countries and across the U.S. Armed Services TV network on the Fourth of July. “Believe it or not, our biggest TV audience is in Russia,” Hettinger said.

Larry Huber

Photo by Don Ward

Larry Huber directs
the marine operations.

In 1991, the fireworks-only show moved to the riverfront. It became the signature opening ceremony for the Kentucky Derby Festival in 1993. When Kroger saw the potential of those early shows, they took on the event and doubled the $40,000 budget at the time, said Ben Harper of the Kroger. By policy, the festival does not disclose actual event budgets.
“It’s fascinating to watch on the ground, but what these guys do in here is a miracle,” Harper said. “What’s really unique about this show is that it’s free. But here, you get a fireworks show and an air show. Anywhere else, you’d have to pay $7 to $12 just to see an air show like this.”
Thunder attracts about 100 aircraft each year, and pilots line up to participate, Hettinger said. They are directed by at least three air bosses, who control the action from neighboring rooms atop the Galt House. The U.S. Coast Guard provides marine and safety support.
“It’s great to sit here and see that many people out there enjoying something these guys produced,” Harper said.
Hettinger, meanwhile, attributes the show’s success to the city’s “great attitude” toward staging the event each year. “I defy any other city to do it because it’s all about attitude,” he said. “And the support we get here is terrific.”

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