Weird Competitions: Punkin Chunkin

Frank Shade has a theory: We’re meant to throw things. When we’re babies, we throw our pacifiers. When we finally get the pleasure of eating food, we throw that, too. And then, when we’re older, we channel our throwing into something productive, like sports. Once adulthood hits, there’s not a whole lot left to throw without some kind of lawsuit. But Shade knows the solution: “Pumpkins are the next logical thing,” he says.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that Shade has been involved with the world championship of pumpkin throwing for over 20 years and currently serves as the director of media and promotions for the World Championship Punkin Chunkin Association (WCPCA). Yeah, pumpkin throwing is a thing. And yeah, there’s an association for it.

Punkin Chunkin has been the can’t-miss event we didn’t know we were missing since 1986. What started out as a friendly competition in Sussex County, Delaware, to see who could blast a pumpkin the farthest has grown into a three-day extravaganza. More than one hundred teams bring machines to compete—and some even come across the pond. A group of Aussies brought the Chunka from Down Unda a few years back.

Air cannons, catapults, and trebuchets (among other machines) can all be found on the starting lineup. So what’s the secret to hurling a pumpkin the farthest? For air cannons, finding the proper ratio of air speed and force to propel the pumpkin down the barrel of the machine without crushing it and causing unintentional pumpkin pie.

For catapults and trebuchets, getting the sling length and release time exactly right is vital to minimizing arc and maximizing distance. Of course, each team has its own beliefs as to what will give their machine the best advantage, Shade says.

Each type of machine has its own category, meaning multiple teams proudly get to call themselves worldclass chunkers. Brian Labrie and his team are the current world champions and record holders in the adult air cannon division for their machine, American Chunker. Hailing from New Hampshire, Labrie has been a competitor since 2010.

But bragging rights and good times aren’t the only incentives to construct these pumpkin-flinging contraptions. “There are a lot of great friends, a lot of great times, and a lot of great achievements,” Labrie says. Every year, a share of the proceeds from Punkin Chunkin goes to a charity, such as Childhelp and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. And, almost since its inception, the association has given out scholarships to students planning to study engineering, physics, or “anything Chunkin related,” Shade says. Last year, $60,000 was awarded to 27 students.

While there are rules (or guidelines, as Shade refers to them)—such as no explosives—most of them simply deal with safety. So, as long as the machine won’t hurl a pumpkin straight at the Aussies, it’s probably fair game.

And while the WCPCA does supply projectiles, many teams choose to bring their own. They just have to pass inspection. So what does that mean? No gourds here, folks.

Spectators come for the flying pumpkins and stay for everything else. Punkin Chunkin offers live entertainment, brings in vendors, and holds a pageant—because what spectacle is complete without a pageant? But make sure to pack some alcohol with that ball gown because this party is BYOB. (We’re giving fair warning, kiddos. Plan accordingly.) Of course, the atmosphere itself is reason enough to chunk. “You can enjoy the camaraderie of 30,000 people in a cornfield who all have one thing in common—and that’s Punkin Chunkin,” Shade says. Shade served as president of the WCPCA for seven years. On top of that, he’s a trustee with the organization. “But most importantly, I’m ate up with Punkin Chunkin.”

And the one word Shade would use to describe this exhibition that has taken on a life of its own? “Unbelievable,” he says. “You have to see it to believe it.”

Let the punkins fly.