Dozens of massive medieval catapults, and other machines of war, line a muddy field in Bridgeville, Delaware, opposing a line of behemoth, intimidating cannons, each machine cocked, loaded and ready to do its worst.
There isn’t a battle breaking out in this otherwise quiet, rural community, and there’s no historical reenactment society in sight. No, it’s the 25th World Championship Punkin’ Chunkin’, an annual competition to see who and what can blast a pumpkin as far off into the distance as possible.
Over 100 teams are on hand with the devices they’ve constructed, falling into different classifications including air cannons, catapults, centrifugal machines, trebuchets, and more. Each team has the same goal, to launch an 8-10 pound pumpkin as far as possible without destroying the pumpkin before it has a smash landing, and to have as much fun as they can in the process. They launch those pumpkins pretty far too, with a world record of nearly 4,500 feet set in 2008 by an air cannon team named Young Glory III.
“Chunk it, chunk it, chunk it!!!” the crowd chants as a team gets ready to fire their contraption. An air horn honks three times, a warning that a machine is about to fire, and that you should take notice. WHOOOOSSSSH! It’s the ear-numbing sound of a 100 foot air cannon called Chunkin’ Under da Influence, firing its pumpkin some 3,500 feet towards the horizon.
Gasps from the crowd and celebratory shouts from the team follow, as the cannon continues to hiss and smoke, and half a dozen ATVs speed off in the mud to go find the landing spot and measure the results. The team is swarmed by television crews from the Discovery Channel and Science Channel, which will air two specials over Thanksgiving about the event.
After an air cannon shoots, spectators desperately search for the pumpkin in the air, trying to find its trajectory and see how far it goes. If you didn’t see the pumpkin right from the start, your eyes have no chance to catch up to it as it zooms off into the sky.
For catapults and trebuchets, anything can happen in a launch. The machine might misfire, sending the pumpkin straight up into the air and team members scrambling around to avoid being hit on the head from the crash landing of an 8-pound projectile. A machine might break and send a large piece of itself off into the field after a shot, ending the competition for a squad and disqualifying its launch. That unpredictability, that element of surprise, adds to the excitement and anticipation in the air as each team readies its shot.
It’s estimated that over 100,000 people were on hand for the weekend-long competition and festival, and from the five mile buildup of cars waiting to come in and park, the crowd looked to be every bit of it. While the teams are trying to break records and hurl pumpkins, the entire event is more of a festival, loaded with activities and sideshows.
The teams gather around to watch one another’s shots, and to cheer the results or share in the anguish. Musicians and bands provide a soundtrack from a stage off to the side. There are pumpkin cooking contests, chili cook-offs and even beauty pageants being held, declaring the winner as Miss Punkin’ Chunkin’. The day is capped off with a massive fireworks display, and all day long spectators fill up on carnival food and drink. Unlike many other large events, this is BYOB, and so groups of fans walk in with coolers loaded with beer, and the crowd gets lathered up, adding even more enthusiasm, and creativity, to their chants and cheers.
The machines are lined up in two long rows, with the air cannons forming one half of a “V”, and all of the other machines forming the other side. For the competition, the teams shoot one at a time, going all the way down the line from one end of the V to the other. Each team has several minutes to get their shot off, which means the official contest lasts from morning deep into the afternoon, one machine shooting after the other.
Once the air cannons are finished, an intermission of sorts is held, giving the crowd time to relocate from their perches behind the air cannons to new spots behind the trebuchets and catapults. After all teams have tallied their official contest shot of the day, a free for all follows, where teams can practice and hone their techniques for the following day.
There’s no money at stake in the competition, and all of the proceeds go to charity. So why in the world do these people dedicate so much of their time, energy, and in many cases, money, to abuse some pumpkins?
For some teams, like Fibonacci II, the world record holders in the catapult class with a distance of over 2,800 feet in 2005, it’s all about the competition and achieving their goals. Team member Richard Arnold estimates that they have spent $16,000 constructing and maintaining the device, not to mention traveling expenses getting to the competition with their gigantic machine from Massachusetts. Alright, it’s the competition, but how did they get started? “We saw an article in the Wall St. Journal,” Arnold says, and the crew decided right then that they wanted to get in on the action for themselves.
The competition is fierce as all of the teams try to outdo one another, and for some, like the trebuchet Pumpkin Hammer, finally breaking through and getting a win is the main goal. Jim Riley and the rest of his teammates had been tired of being the “bridesmaid” to teams like Yankee Siege, which set a record of 2,034 feet in 2009. So they spent six months tweaking and refining, and on day one fired a shot of 1,950 feet, best in its class for the day, ready to hopefully break some 2,200 feet with their next launch. Of course, Yankee Siege was not at the 2010 competition, so even if they had broke the record, they won’t have had the satisfaction of taking out their old rivals head-to-head.
For others, the competition is less fierce, and Punkin’ Chunkin’ is about the camaraderie. Alan Peters of human-powered catapult team Never Forget says that, “Just to get the shot out is all that matters,” and having a good time with his buddies while building the machine and hanging out at the event is most important.
Barbara Stevens of the trebuchet Hokie Hurler agrees, saying that while they want to beat their own mark of the previous year, that it’s more fun than anything else. “So many great, nice people all throughout the event each time out,” keeps them coming back, in addition to their own drive to improve. Barbara and her husband Mark, who spent several hundred hours building and tweaking the device using scrap metal from his work, have been competing for several years and got started after coming down to the event to watch the cannons. Intrigued about the mechanical engineering involved, they built their own, and placed as high as fourth in the 2009 competition.
There are no style points involved, it’s all about chunkin’ that punkin’ as far as you can. Unless, of course, you’re in the theatrical class, where style is all that matters. Instead of aiming to launch a pumpkin as far as they can, teams in the theatrical division put on a show and get judged on how creative and entertaining they can be.
Team Pumpkin Trap, modeled off the board game Mouse Trap, has been competing for six years, taking home first or second each time out. Official “Team Chaplain” Jim Holt jokes that he, “Just wanted to be close to the big machines, and the best way to do that was build something like this,” and so he stays and watches the gargantuan war machines, some weighing over 50,000 pounds, do their thing as the Pumpkin Trap keeps their performance going all day long.
But even for the most competitive of the bunch, the Punkin’ Chunkin’ has a feel of community and bonding. If a team misfires or their machine breaks, the competition doesn’t cheer, they share in the disappointment, knowing not only what that must feel like, but also knowing they didn’t get to see the best of what that team had to offer.
Make no mistake about it, for the tens of thousands of fans, standing around in the mud all day long, eating food and drinking beer, “oohing” and “aaahing” as the machines take their turns firing away, it’s all about the chunkin’.
This story was first published by Jake Emen on Yahoo Sports on November 10, 2010