The Mind-Boggling History of Punkin Chunkin (aka Pumpkin Launching)

By any name, this wacky fall activity has become a pop-culture hit.

Pumpkin wearing a hat with a worried face drawn on in sharpieSteve Pierce, Team American Chunker

Besides starring in lattes, muffins, and pretty much anything edible and drinkable this time of year, pumpkins take center stage in a fascinating pastime known as Punkin Chunkin. A sport that became a thing back in the early ’80s, Punkin Chunkin (generically called “pumpkin launching”) has aired on the Discovery and Science channels. There are more than 40,000 videos on YouTube. And the sport has even made its way into an episode of Modern Family.

To participate, men, women and children (in special youth divisions) build often-complex mechanical devices for the sole purpose of hurling pumpkins across open fields and farmland. The team whose pumpkin smashes at the farthest distance wins, says Steve Pierce, a member of the world champion American Chunker team.

According to Pierce, the sport had humble beginnings: “A few guys were at a farm after the harvest, looking at a pile of pumpkins. One basically said, ‘I bet I can throw this farther than you.'”

They all took a turn. “The best toss probably landed about 120 feet away,” Pierce says. But guys will be guys. If a burly dude can toss a pumpkin that distance, imagine adding force with a machine. How far could a pumpkin go?

Enter Medieval Weapons and Genetically Engineered Pumpkins

As Pierce explains, Punkin Chunkin advanced in a very Game of Thrones-like way. Teams initially used giant slingshots, catapults and trebuchets. But instead of taking out Casterly Rock with boulders or heavy metal objects, their versions were engineered specifically for the weight and density of pumpkins. With catapults and trebuchets—some measuring two stories tall—pumpkins sailed farther and farther, tracking thousands of feet.

But these machines can be unreliable, Pierce says, misfiring and sending pumpkins straight up into the air or, worse, backward into crowds that are roped off for safety behind the teams.

Steve Pierce, Team American Chunker

Cue the pneumatic air cannon. These machines shoot out pumpkins through a long, fat metal tube. A valve separates the pumpkin from a large tank of pressurized air. Release the valve, and the air pushes the pumpkin out of the gun, sending it soaring in a more targeted direction. Wired offers an explanation of the various Punkin Chunkers in its article “The Physics of Punkin Chunkin.”

Suffice it to say, the sport is becoming increasingly high-tech; there’s even science behind the projectile pumpkins. One called La Estrella, for example, is a genetically engineered hybrid developed by Don Maynard in the labs of the University of Florida. Apparently, the flesh of this winter squash is good in soups, purees and pies (try it in place of canned pumpkin in our recipes). But especially important for chunkers, it’s bred to be more dense, making it heavier and able to travel longer distances.

Steve Pierce, Team American Chunker

On Becoming a Champion Chunker—Rewards and Risks

Although there are Punkin Chunkin exhibitions from coast to coast, the biggest events (and fanatics) reside in the East. Until this year, the World Champion Punkin Chunkin Association (WCPCA) hosted the premier competition in Bridgeville, Delaware. Farmers teamed up with engineers, ballistics specialists, scientists and other experts to push their machines to the limits, with the goal of winning the Punkin Chunkin trophy: a wood-carved statue of a husky, bearded fellow holding up a gigantic pumpkin.

“It’s like the Stanley Cup,” Pierce says. And he and American Chunkers teammates, with their air cannon, have it—indefinitely.

That’s because this year (2017), there is no World Championship Punkin Chunkin event. At last year’s competition, which was televised and raised more than $1 million for local charities, a woman suffered a serious head injury when an air cannon exploded, sending metal debris into the air. As Pierce points out, there are no explosives, chemicals or gases used in any of the machines. It’s against the rules. But gear still malfunctions—sometimes with great force.

Liability issues and litigation have resulted in an uncertain future for the association and its annual event.

Steve Pierce, Team American Chunker

Yet the Show Goes On

While the American Chunker champs hang on to their title and trophy (they hold the WCPCA record of 4,694.68 feet), competition continues at Extreme Chunkin 2017. Held annually at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway, attendees experience a variety of demonstrations, costumed fans, exotic pumpkin carvings and appearances by their favorite teams.

Undoubtedly, someone will attempt to break team Big 10 Inch‘s current Guinness world record of 5,545.43 feet (that’s over a mile or the equivalent of about four football fields). And teams like Launch-Ness Monster, Chunk Norris and Mista Ballista will likely be on hand to deliver gobs of oohs and ahs, and plenty of laughter. After all, at last year’s Extreme Chunkin, pumpkins weren’t the only thing that went flying. In demonstrations, teams flung cars and giant pianos. So there’s something for everyone.

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