Punkin Chunkin 2009

Update: Minor corrections and added a must-watch video.

Update: Rumor has it Chucky III got a throw off on the last day for a distance of 1,000+ feet. Way to go!

“Fire in the hole!”

It’s the first warning you get that a 10 pound pumpkin is about to fly out of an air canon for nearly a mile at speeds close to 600 miles per hour. And it’s the rallying cry for the Punkin Chunkin 2009 World Championship.

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The what?

Yup, Punkin Chunkin…or pumpkin chucking for those less informed. It’s a 25 year-old tradition in Delaware where teams compete to see who can launch a pumpkin the farthest distance. Come to find out, it’s also one helluva day of tailgating.

The Punkin Chunkin Anthem
Written in 1989 by William and Dawn Thompson. Part of the opening ceremonies.

It was the end of October, the beginning of November.
The air was cold and clear and I said, Boys listen here,
I think I can make a punkin fly.
John said, Cannot. I said, Can too.
So we put that punkin in a bucket, swung around, away it flew.
John said, No fair. We said, Hell, it’s in the air.
So the challenge was made and the gauntlet was laid
To build a machine to power a punkin through the air.
John said, Springs are the way to go. Bill said, I don’t believe so.
It’s Punkin Chunkin time again.
Come on, all you neighbors and friends.
I’ll show you how to make a punkin fly..rain, snow or blow.
Them punkins are gonna go!

Not knowing exactly what to expect, Jenn and I packed the girls and the mother-in-law into the family truckster and shot down I-95 to my parents’ house in Delaware to experience a Saturday of pumpkin chuckin. Well, we knew a little of what to expect, since Jenn’s childhood friend was part of the 2008 adult torsion record-holding team, Chucky II (which managed to chuck a pumpkin 3091.78 feet in 2008) and my parents TiVo’ed the Discovery/Science Channel’s coverage of the 2008 competition. Even that wasn’t enough to prepare us for the day.

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Pulling into the parking lot — er, into this massive farmer’s field — we were greeted by the sound of a jet plane taking off from a carrier deck about 100 meters away. Except it wasn’t a jet. It was a pumpkin launching out of a 50 foot-long cannon sticking out of the top of a converted yellow school bus. Car parked, we set up our chairs and cooler near the fence behind Team Chucky and started the day’s festivities (fueled in part by some nice bottles of wine and Landshark Lager). The tailgating scene is best painted as an unholy trinity of Jimmy Buffett, NASCAR and MIT. The party atmosphere represented the best of a Jimmy Buffett pre-concert parking lot, complete with funny costumes, games of beer pong and camaraderie; the look of a NASCAR race, complete with cowboy hats and couches in the beds of jacked-up pickup trucks; and the brains of MIT, complete with feats of engineering normally reserved for endeavors more suited to national safety than gourd chucking.

The competitors lined up in a semicircle along the outside edges of the field. At the far end, were the children’s launchers, followed by the giant air cannons piercing the sky, the mechanical trebuchets and catapults, and the torsion-powered launchers like Chucky III. All-in-all there were more than 100 contraptions, each manned (and womanned) by teams of 5-20 people, watched by a crowd of 80,000. The contraptions were as varied as the crowd: some made out of pure wood, some scrapped together from junkyard parts, and others looking like they were built by NASA using leftover rocket parts. And the teams were just as eclectic: Chucky III was built by a team that included an IT exec and a botanist.

Alas, Chucky III failed to launch the day we watched, the result of a new design and not enough time to test it (as if having 80,000 people waiting for you to launch a pumpkin 5,000 feet isn’t enough, each team only gets to take one shot a day…three over the entire competition). But that’s ok. Like Team Chucky, we’ll be back next year, stronger and more prepared (although our preparations will be of the tailgating kind). Until then, make sure you catch the 2009 Punkin Chunkin World Championships this Thanksgiving eve, November 26, at 8pm ET on the Science/Discovery Channel and check out my 2009 Punkin Chunkin photostream.

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