Across the sprawling cornfield on a crisp November morning, a mile-long row of towering, bizarre-looking contraptionsoversized slingshots, catapults and cannonsstand side by side at Wheatley Farm in Bridgeville, Del. (pop. 1,630).
Suddenly, there's a flurry of activity around one of the devices, an enormous air cannon operated by Young Glory III, a team from nearby Milton. The team captain picks up an 8-pound pumpkin and drops it into the barrel. A teammate fills the tank with compressed air and opens a valve. "Fire in the hole!" he yells.
The assembled crowd of more than 50,000 lets out a collective whoop as the pumpkin blasts from the cannon and soars out of sight. The annual World Championship Punkin Chunkin competition is under way.
According to Rick Garloff, owner of Chunk'Nology, one of 110 teams from all over the country that competed at this year's event, "We all want to do one thing: Shoot a pumpkin farther than the next guy."
The World Championship Punkin Chunkin has inspired a dozen similar events in the United States and several in Europe, which the Delaware-based Punkin Chunkin Association sometimes helps plan and promote.
"We are trademarked, though," says association president John Huber. "We retain the rights to any event where fruits and vegetables are thrown for the purpose of entertainment."
It all began in the autumn of 1986. Four friends, John Ellsworth, Don Pepper, Trey Melson and Bill Thompson (a blacksmith, an electrician, a plumber and a well-digger), were sitting around Ellsworth's blacksmith shop in Lewes, Del., discussing a story they'd heard about physics students throwing pumpkins.
The next weekend, the men re-created the experiment as a three-team contest in Thompson's backyard, using a rubber band machine and a catapult made of rough-cut oak and garage door springs with a bucket on the end of a pole. That year, the winning "chunk" measured 162 feet.
More than 20 years later, at last year's eventa three-day carnival complete with tailgating, a beauty contest and a pumpkin cookoffa new world record was set with a winning chunk of 4,483 feet.
Today, serious contenders across six divisionsincluding theatrical, air cannon, human-powered, catapult and trebuchetshare a common quest: to throw a gourd a mile. According to the rules, the pumpkin must stay intact during the launch; otherwise it's deemed "pie in the sky."
Whether or not one of the teamswith names such as Hypertension, Sir Chunks-A-Lot and United Flingdomhits the mile mark, chunkers come to win.
"The whole thing is about bragging rights," says Mike Sorensen, executive producer of the Science Channel programs On the Road to Punkin Chunkin and Punkin Chunkin 2009. "There are such great rivalries!"
Besides the honor of taking home a trophy, teams win prize money for charity. The Punkin Chunkin Association donates proceeds from ticket and merchandise sales to worthy causes, including St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital, the Boys and Girls Clubs, and its own scholarship fund.
"A lot of good comes from all the charitable donations," says Huber, who sports a flying pumpkin tattoo on his arm. "But basically it's a bunch of people getting together on a cornfield once a year to have a helluva good time."