The Explosive Past And Uncertain Future Of The All-American Punkin Chunk - Atlas Obscura
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The Explosive Past And Uncertain Future Of The All-American Punkin Chunk

 A punkin, mid-chunk.

A punkin, mid-chunk. (Photo: Room 237/WikiCommons CC BY-SA 3.0)

It’s the saddest sight of fall: a rotting pumpkin on a stoop, its little face crumpled into a goopy mess that won’t get moved until Thanksgiving. But not every gourd goes out in such lackluster way.

Some get picked for chunkin, getting hurled thousands of feet at great speed for crowds that can top 40,000, shattering world records and making global headlines. At the biggest chunkin event, the Punkin Chunkin in Delaware, competitors launch pumpkins as far as they can, using enormous hand-built machines—catapults, air cannons, trebuchets, and more. It combines strength, engineering skills, and pure lunacy, and has the kind of dedicated following usually reserved for more monied sports.

But not all is well at the patch. This year, for the second year in a row, its biggest showcase has been cancelled, disappointing fans and competitors, and threatening a local legacy that is determined to keep on chunkin’.  

A pumpkin blasts out of an air cannon.

A pumpkin blasts out of an air cannon. (Photo: Shadow6934/WikiCommons CC BY-SA 3.0)

So how did this sport get started? “Depends on what legend you listen to,” says World Champion Punkin Chunkin media director Frank Shade. One version is that Punkin Chunkin grew out of four Delaware guys trying to one-up each other in a blacksmith’s shop 29 years ago. After anvil-tossing proved too hard on their backs, and inspired by a nearby college fundraiser, they turned to a lighter type of ammunition—pumpkins. Riffing on their surroundings, they challenged each other to build medieval-style pumpkin-tossing machines, and to meet at a local field the weekend after Halloween, when the gourds are free and plentiful. 

When the day arrived, three machines rolled up to the firing line. “They were built out of spare parts, garage door springs, twisted ropes, whatever they felt would propel the pumpkin the farthest,” says Shade. “The longest throw was about 114 feet.” They vowed to do it again the next year, and then the next—and thus was born the annual World Champion Punkin Chunkin, or WCPC, for short.

Air cannons, currently the most powerful Punkin Chunkin technology available. Since the advent of these, the championships have been subdivided into multiple categories to keep things fair.

Air cannons, currently the most powerful chunkin’ technology available. Since the advent of these, the championships have been subdivided into multiple categories to keep things fair. (Photo: Chris Connelly/Flickr)

In the years since, chunkin’ devotees have sent gourds sailing over fields and farms from New Hampshire to Colorado. Last weekend alone saw a schoolkid competition in East Lake County, Florida, and an educational demonstration at Queens’s New York Hall of Science. But the stringy heart of the sport still lies in Sussex County, where its popularity has swelled like a prize-winning Atlantic Giant. Tens of thousands of people mob the Championships every year to listen to music, eat barbecue, and watch over 100 pumpkin-slingers go throw-to-throw. The machines keep evolving, and the distances keep improving, but everything remains motivated by that original sense of roughhousing camaraderie, says Shade. 

Chunkin’ in Sussex County was first complicated in 2011, when a volunteer got hurt during the event, and sued for “an outrageous amount of money,” Shade explains, “When that happened, the [long-time host] could no longer let us onto his land until the lawsuit was done.”Attempts to find a new location have been stymied by bureaucracy and high costs, and for two years in a row organizers of the WCPC have had to cancel. Determined that their lack of a home not halt progress, this year, for the first time, they have agreed to count distances recorded at other licensed Chunks—and to allow competitors to stage their own throws, provided they follow all official rules and are measured by a licensed surveyor.

If you’d like to hold your own, a proper punkin chunk goes like this: first, to streamline things, you break off the pumpkin’s stem. Then you cradle your vegetable-projectile in the trebuchet sling (or load it into the air cannon tube, or position it on the centrifuge arm… there are many types of chunker). A counterweight falls or an arm swings, and the orange missile whips through the air like a demonic Cinderella coach until—hundreds or even thousands of feet away—it finally splats. 

Dedicated chunkers pay attention to every detail, from the thickness of the atmosphere to the variety of pumpkin. Your average catapult will send your average jack-o-lantern streaking beautifully across the blue, but for longer, Championship-caliber journeys, you need a hardier specimen. The official pumpkin of the WCPC is the La Estrella, a smooth-skinned, dense variety that barely tops out at 10 pounds. Anything bigger or flimsier often can’t take the air pressure, and will explode mid-sky—a disqualifier that, in Punkin parlance, is called “pieing.” For the past six years, Sussex County farmer Rick Dickerson has given over about 10 percent of his fields to La Estrellas for the WCPC, and this season, without it, he has had to let almost all 7,000 pumpkins rot. “They’re not really good for anything else,” he told Delvarmanow.com. “The whole situation is a shame.” 

Chunkers agree—especially, of course, in Sussex County, where the WCPC’s trouble has led to a robust social media campaign (hashtag: #savethechunk). State senator Brian Pettyjohn has introduced several bills meant to cap personal injury awards in lawsuits against non-profits, but none have passed. He and others fear that making it too difficult for the championships to continue in Delaware will force them (and their money) to look elsewhere.

Fans and their ammo at the 2008 World Champion Punkin Chunkin.

Fans and their ammo at the 2008 World Champion Punkin Chunkin. (Photo: Chris Connelly/Flickr

Even without the pomp brought by a huge event, both competitive stakes and hometown pride remain high. Fans and competitors are hopped up for one showdown in particular, between world record-holder American Chunker—a patriotically painted air cannon from New Hampshire that occasionally breaks the sound barrier—and Young Glory III, a down-home Delaware favorite. Earlier this month, American Chunker shot a pumpkin 4,536.57 feet, but its 2013 mark, of 4,694.68 ft, is the real one to beat. Young Glory III will go for it this coming Saturday, at a members-only WCPC event.

Shade is working to get the traditional competition will get back on its feet next year, and he’s optimistic. After all, he says, throwing is in people’s blood. “It’s hard to keep a baby holding a pacifier—they all throw them,” he says. “The baby gets a little older, you put him in a high chair, you put food in front of him, and they throw the food, too. And then they grow up, and now they’re doing sports… and then you reach a stage where you’ve thrown everything!” The next step, of course, is throwing pumpkins. 

Besides, if Punkin Chunkin goes out, it has to be with a bang.