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Punkin Chunkin

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Well, here it is, the promised report on the World Championship Punkin Chunkin. First, some background.

It seems that about 9 years ago, a bunch of guys in lower (slower) Delaware decided to see who could build a machine who could throw a 10 lb. pumpkin farthest. The event quickly outgrew its humble beginnings as the contestants got better and better at this task, and eventually its organization and production was taken over by the Lewes Chamber of Commerce and moved to an abandoned airfield. It now draws in excess of 10,000 observers and contestants to a day- long event featuring multiple classes of pumpkin throwing. But the big event of the day is still the Unlimited Class, where anything short of explosives can be used to throw a pumpkin. (The other two rules are that the pumpkin must be launched intact, and that no part of the machine may cross the finish line. {I imagine this is to prevent the attachment of booster rockets, wings, or an engine to the gourd.}) The contestants apparently do this for pride and bragging rights, and the amount of trash-talking in the week leading up to the '94 Chunkin rivaled that of anything the NFL or NBA produces.

Last year saw an end to the three-year domination by centrifugal machines, when a pneumatic slingshot launched a pumpkin 1,024 feet, beating the closest competitor by over 200 feet. The centrifugal boys were aiming for revenge, vowing to build bigger and faster machines. Everyone was predicting winning throws in the quarter-mile range. Meanwhile, the guy who had retired from the event after winning the first three years because "it was just to damn easy to beat all them other guys," came out of retirement to show everybody he could "still whip their butts," entering his newest creation, a pneumatic cannon with a 22 foot barrel that he could crank up to "2500, mebbe 3,000 psi."...

We rolled up to the event site at about 1. There were thousands and thousands(the newspaper later estimated a crowd of over 10,000) of folks on this long field. The state cops were directing traffic, flags were flying, vendors were selling food and drink, helicopter and plane rides were being offered.

The machines were quite impressive looking. There were three centrifugal machines, "Bad to the Bone," "De-Terminator" and "Ultimate Warrior", which essentially were frames supporting 15-30 foot rotating arms with buckets at the end. Last years winner, "Under Pressure", was a big steel frame like a crane arm with a "Y" at the end and a complicated series of cables, all painted pumpkin orange--I never did get close enough to figure out how it worked. The Polytechnic Institute of Gravitational Science had a 150 foot crane with a wrecking ball attached--obviously this was some sort of a gravity-powered slingshot. "Loaded Boing" resembled a traditional slingshot with a bad hyperthyroid problem: it looked like a pair of bridge pilings (or very obese telephone poles, maybe 2 or 3x normal diameter) had been sunk into the ground and guy-wired, and 3 or 4 pieces of what looked like latex surgical tubing except that it must have been about a foot in diameter attached to some sort of pumpkin holder were slung between the poles; the whole thing was drawn back by a power winch. Then there was the New Bethel Church Marching Band Tabernacle Choir Motorcycle Club Pumpkin Throwing Team of Reston Virginia, who were there mostly for a good time and armed with a flexible fiberglass pole that was to act as a catapult, mounted on the roof of a bus. And finally, there was "Universal Soldier", the pneumatic cannon, which was mounted on a vehicle that consisted of an old station wagon body on a 3/4 ton truck chassis; the whole thing was painted in cammo and the barrel, all 22 feet, was elevated to a 45 degree angle.

The centrifugal machines were impressive to watch. "Bad to the Bone" seemed to be powered, we think, by a diesel-electric motor. A huge frame shaped like a swingset frame was mounted on a flatbed, and the motors were on the top. They would crank up loudspeakers with George Thoroughgood's "Bad to the Bone" at high decibels, fire up a diesel engine, and the arm, painted bright orange, would start spinning faster and faster. At something between 1 and 2 revs per second, a trap door at the bottom of the bucket at the end of the arm sprung open, and the pumpkin would fly in this amazing arc and splat around 1200 feet down-range. "Ultimate Warrior" seemed to have some kind of monster engine mounted on top and connected to the shaft, and it too would spin up to incredible speeds before launch. I'm not sure what powered the "De-Terminator". Then the PIGS fired up. The crowd was warned to pay close attention, since this machine had never before fired a pumpkin. And in the launch area, people were asked to stay out from underneath the crane. Suddenly, the wrecking ball began to drop, and cable running over the top of the crane began to pay out very fast, and then pieces of pumpkin came flying over the top of the crane. The NBCMBTCMCPT Team went next. They all crowded around their shaft, bodily bending it down. With a loud cheer they let it go, and the pumpkin payload flew up and out about 20 feet. Backwards. "Under Pressure" went next--like I said, I'm not sure how I worked--but suddenly pieces of pumpkin came flying through the Y. Another pumpkin pie throw. Then it was "Loaded Boing's" turn. The winch began to pull back the slingshot, and ever so slowly it stretched more and more. Then the sling came flying forward, and . . . nothing came out. At first. The payload jumped back and forth between the posts about 3 times until suddenly the pumpkin was released. Also backwards, setting a new reverse throw world record of maybe 50 feet. And then it was time for the "Universal Soldier" to take a turn. The crowd was warned to watch very closely. Suddenly there was a sound like the cork popping from the universe's largest champagne bottle, as a cloud of vapor shot out of the barrel. But nobody saw any pumpkins flying through the air. People in the crowd looked at each other, puzzled. One of the spotters, standing maybe 1200 feet downrange, was wandering around in a confused manner. Suddenly, his companion jumped into his pickup and went bouncing downrange at high speed. And then, over the loudspeakers came the announcement that pieces of pumpkin had been found in the bottom of a crater about 2000 feet away!

At this point, we were more than a little skeptical. We couldn't imagine how the pumpkin hadn't been turned into microscopic spray, and figured that somebody had simply dropped a pumpkin down by the road. Put we were proven wrong.

The second round was pretty much a repeat of the first, except that the Motorcycle Club Etc. launched an orange helium balloon instead of a pumpkin, which of course fooled nobody but was pretty funny nonetheless. And the slingshot managed to fire correctly this time; however, they were set up to fire at about a 15 degree angle instead of the necessary 45, and so the crowd was treated to the spectacle of a pumpkin travelling very fast and nearly horizontally, and in fact it must have shot around 300 feet at least. And when it came time for the "Soldier" to fire, I (and probably the rest of the crowd) resolved to watch *very* closely. This time they stopped traffic on the highway beyond the end of the field--clearly they were being serious about this world record stuff. They were also waiting for a break in the helo traffic, as the copters were landing through what had suddenly turned out to be the flight path of high-speed gourds, a collision with which would almost certainly be disastrous. Then, with a loud *FOOP* and a cloud of vapor, they fired, and suddenly, way up in the sky, over the spot where the best of the other machines were landing their pumpkins, I spotted a small orange dot, and it was still going up!. At an impossible speed, too! And then for a microsecond I lost my concentration, and it disappeared from view. Word came back that it had indeed landed on the highway (flying over where my car was parked -Yikes!), but they were having trouble figuring out exactly how far the shot had gone, as there were buildings and trees and, for all I know, the curvature of the earth, between the launch and impact spots, all things guaranteed to make laser rangefinding problematic. But somehow they finally figured out that they had shot a pumpkin over 2500 feet!...

[Editor's note: you don't believe it? Go check out the 2000 World Championship Punkin' Chunkin' website for more details about the last and the upcoming contests.]


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Thomas Bätzler,