As most Delawareans know, baking and carving are mere child’s play when you examine the diversity of October’s most notorious produce. And, for more than two decades now, there’s been nothing quite as down-home and Sussex Countian than launching an orange orb as far as you can across a crisp, autumn sky. That’s right – World Championship Punkin’ Chunkin’ is back this weekend and hosting its largest event ever.
For more than 20 years, the first weekend of November has been coaxing engineers, thrill-seekers and even those who just want another hobby to an open field, where contraptions of all shapes, sizes and systems attempt to bring home the Punkin’ Chunkin’ title, now spanning 13 divisions and classes. From catapult and centrifugal systems, trebuchets and torsion divisions, and, of course, the never-disappointing air-pressured cannons, 125 entrants will send their squash sailing this weekend for the biggest turnout in Chunkin’ history.
“Every year, we’re getting bigger and better,” said John Huber, six-year vice-president of the Punkin’ Chunkin’ Association. “Everything has grown, from the carnival, the side attractions and even our fireworks display. We’re putting more vendors out there, and we have more stage bands coming this year. Two to three years ago, we were cutting off the registration at 75 entrants, and the fire line was a mile long. Now, we’ve almost doubled that number and expanded our space.”
Huber himself is captain of the team “Hypertension,” which competes in the adult catapult division. They hope to improve on last year’s second-place showing in their category – netted with a hurl of 1,765 feet.
Last year, air competitor “Big 10-Inch” came out on top, sending a helpless pumpkin more than 4,200 feet. But there is also much anticipation surrounding “Second Amendment,” a Michigan-based team that finished as second runners-up last year and has clenched the title four times, including the world-record-breaking flight of 4,434.28 feet in 2003.
A new world record was set last year in the Adult Female Air category by team “Let’s Bounce,” confirming that records were indeed made to be broken.
Like their competitors, air-cannon entrants meticulously calculate the appropriate settings to avoid what regulars call “pie-ing it,” in which a would-be qualified launch results in nothing more than an orange haze.
Wayne Sennett, a former punkin’ chunker and member of the association, is geared up for a weekend unlike any other.
“There are some big guns coming out this year,” he said. “Keep your eye on ‘Why Ask Why’ and ‘Bad to the Bone.’ They’re going to really put on a show.”
Now retired from the engineering aspect of the event, Sennett finds himself more of a spectator.
“It’s incredible what these machines can do,” he added. “It all got too expensive for me, but things are getting detailed and intricate. You’ll have teams out there measuring the release-time temperature. This is serious stuff. It’s like our own NASA station. You wouldn’t believe the time and dedication that people put into Punkin’ Chunkin’.”
In addition to the headlining attraction and its rain of squashes, Punkin’ Chunkin’ has brought out some of the most recognized names in music, and this year is no exception. This Friday, Oct. 31, guests can catch The Charlie Daniels Band and the lead singer from country-rock band Alabama, Randy Owen.
With more than 40,000 guests at last year’s event, Punkin’ Chunkin’ is truly reaching new heights and accommodating audiences accordingly. For the first time, the Little Miss, Junior Miss and Miss Punkin’ Chunkin’ Pageant will be held and winners crowned. And, of course, guests can partake in all the event’s other happenings, including carnival rides and cook-offs.
“We learn every year,” said Huber, “and we’re constantly solving things from years past. For example, people have told us that the camping was expensive, so this year we reduced the price and combined it with admission. We realize that some people are traveling quite a distance to be here.
“Safety’s another importance,” he said, “and we’ve put tens of thousands of dollars on new netting, 25 feet tall, that will give spectators a full view and ensure they’re safe.”
The event has drawn curious eyes from across the nation, with media coverage hitting CNN, the History Channel, MSNBC and even ESPN. Books and movies have even been inspired. Next to race day at Dover Downs, Punkin’ Chinkin’ has become the second-largest tourist attraction in the state.
“After 23 years, we’ve grown into 12 states,” said Huber of the range of participating chunkers, “and they even now hold similar events in Canada, Belgium and England. It’s become an international phenomenon.”
And, as competitive as Punkin’ Chunkin’ has become, it’s proven very beneficial in its nature as a nonprofit and trademarked event.
“We promote it with a lot of charitable organizations,” Huber added. “We don’t try to bully other events, nor do we pay royalties. In fact, we’ve been active in helping others get their events started. We want to support it and keep it going.”
This year, Punkin’ Chunkin’ will be held along Seashore Highway, between Bridgeville and Redden, just northeast of Seaford. The three-day event will begin on Friday, Oct. 31, and run through Sunday, Nov. 2, with plenty of entertaining activities for the entire family.
A practice session for all machines will kick off at dawn on Friday, with gates opening to the public at 7:30 a.m. Competition will be held all three days, with the first starting on Friday at 10:30 a.m. On Saturday, attendants can hear tunes from several local bands, with the cooking contest starting at 11 a.m.
The crowning of the 2008 World Champion will take place on Sunday at 5 p.m.
Admission costs $9 per adult and $2 for parking per vehicle. Children younger than 10 are admitted free of charge. For more information, including rules, directions and Punkin’ Chunkin’ history, visit www.punkinchunkin.com online.