On a blustery Sunday afternoon in a Delaware soybean field, Marc Gussen paces around the catapult he and his team have built for the sole purpose of throwing pumpkins as far as humanly possible in competition. Gussen, the captain of Team Chucky, is wearing a red hard hat, a logo shirt, cargo shorts, Crocs and a scowl.
There are concerns that strong crosswinds could cut the gourd’s flight short but Team Chucky, straight outta Asbury, New Jersey, thrives on adversity. Spectators behind a fence chant the team’s name as they squint through swirls of windswept dust and the glare of the midday sun.
All eyes are on the 10,000-pound catapult, an orange and black colossus named Chucky III that’s modeled after the siege engines that once defended the Roman Empire.
It’s Day 3 of the World Championship Punkin Chunkin 2016, a post-Halloween charity showdown featuring medieval war machines repurposed as long distance dispensers of squash. The event, which dates back to 1986, is Americana writ large, an autumn duel that celebrates ingenuity, vision, wit, monster armaments and flying foodstuff.
The chunk has evolved from an impromptu backyard challenge into an epic international tournament, with 100 teams, some 60,000 fans and an annual Thanksgiving special on the Science Channel. There’s no prize money for the winner, just a trophy of a farmer hoisting a pumpkin on his shoulders, like Atlas from Greek mythology.
“I think it’s amazing that this is the kind of country we live in, where if you want to do this, if you have the resources to do this, what you’re capable of is beyond belief,” says Gussen, 45, a naturalist and married father of two. He co-founded the team in 2001 with his brother, Adam, and their friend, Daniel Collins.
“It’s personal liberty,” says Gussen. “We’re competing against aerospace engineers and our machine is so stinkin’ nasty that every captain, every designer, they look at Chucky like, ‘Holy sh– man, I can’t believe it.’ When they shake my hand, it’s a real handshake.”
Field of dreams
With youth and adult divisions, the array of devices on the Punkin Chunkin firing line includes catapults, slingshots, trebuchets and centrifugal chuckers with names like Chunk Norris, First in Fright and Yankee Siege II. The old-time mechanical machines are pitted against high tech air cannons, which blast pumpkins out of towering steel and aluminum barrels. A weekend of gourds streaking across the southern Delaware sky like fiery comets, Punkin Chunkin is one of the biggest sporting events in state, second only to NASCAR.
“It’s the culture of people coming together for one purpose,” says Frank Payton, president of the World Championship Punkin Chunkin Association. “They drop everything that they normally do on a day-to-day basis, their profession, whatever stresses that are occurring, they drop it all just to be able to either see a pumpkin fly or participate in shooting pumpkins through the air. It’s really for the children because society has taken a lot away from them. You can’t do this. You can’t do that because you might get sued and Punkin Chunkin to me was one of those last straw type of deals. You can’t take it away.”
Team Chucky busted its rope bundle during a pregame test shot and worked the phones to get an emergency overnight shipment of industrial rope from Seattle rushed to the Delaware field via UPS. “We’re at the intersection of Farm Lane and Apple Tree Road,” said Gussen’s brother, Adam, on his cellphone coordinating the cross-country delivery from the Puget Sound Rope company.
With a precedent shattering two armed catapult, a flair for the dramatic and no small amount of Jersey moxie, the team is Chunkin legend.
“We put on a show,” says Adrian Hamill, 58, a computer tape drive repair specialist by day. “It’s like we’re Aerosmith even though we’re just throwing a pumpkin.”
Chucky III is powered by a high tension bundle of twisted rope that generates 180,000 foot-pounds of torque. The coiled rope is attached to a power arm and an 18-foot throwing arm. When the tension is released, the throwing arm snaps forward and flings the pumpkin at speeds approaching 600 miles per hour. Chucky III currently holds the Punkin Chunkin world record for the longest throw by a mechanical machine – 3,636.39 feet. The team’s ultimate goal is to join the elite 4,000-foot club and serve the air cannon captains humble pie.
“You see events that you would say, ‘This could only be in America,'” says Collins, 50, an applications scientist at GE Healthcare. “This is the pinnacle because we get so wrapped up in it and we really want to win but if you stand back from it, we’re throwing pumpkins. It’s a pointless exercise that people really get involved with and it shows off their creativity and their work ethic and the fact that in America, even if we’re blue collar people, we can figure out how to get a little bit of money or materials together.”
Team Chucky’s air cannon adversary is American Chunker, a $200,000 machine that shot a pumpkin 4,694.68 feet in 2013. That’s the closest any team has come to the coveted mile mark.
“We take a lot of heat because our cannon costs a lot of money,” says American Chunker captain Brian Labrie, 43, a New Hampshire landscaper who’s converted his basement into a “Pumpkin Nest.” There he gives each gourd a bath and critiques them to select nine perfect specimens for the competition from a herd of hundreds.
“People will send me some email that says, ‘You could feed a third-world country for what you put into that machine,'” says Labrie. “But it’s like, ‘Dude, that’s what America’s all about.’ Some people choose to go to Las Vegas and blow two hundred grand in an afternoon. This is America. Deal with it. Everybody in the NFL hates the Patriots because all they do is win. I’m not condoning some of the crap that they’ve tried to pull but they’re under a microscope. I’m not saying I’m Brad Pitt, but the more success you have, the more people resent you.”
Fire in the hole
American Chunker fired a pumpkin 4,305.92 feet on Day 2 of the event to take the lead in the competition. But everything seems possible for Team Chucky on this sunny, if breezy, November afternoon. Hydraulic rams tension up the rope bundle while Gussen circles the machine holding his signature sledgehammer.
After two honks of a truck horn, a countdown and a cry of “Fire in the hole,” the trigger is pulled and the arm arcs up with a whoosh, hurling the pumpkin heavenward.
The good news: The gourd does not burst into bits during its launch. The bad news: the fruit gets caught in the crosswind and hooks down, falling to earth about 1,700 feet from the firing line. Chucky fails to outshoot American Chunker.
Gussen smashes a folding chair with the sledgehammer and throws his hard hat into the dirt. After all that work, thousands of hours fabricating what Gussen calls “the baddest catapult ever,” it’s a crushing disappointment. The mood is grim. The spectators quietly turn towards the next team on the firing line.
“What we decided to do was to make a machine that no pumpkin could withstand and that’s what we did,” says Gussen. “And we had it at half power. There’s innovators and there’s people who take it to the next level and without them, we’d still be living in caves. You have to buck the system. You have to step it up. We’d still be climbing trees for fruit had it not been for people willing to go so far that everyone around them called them crazy.”
Collins is philosophical. “One of these days, it’s going to happen,” says Collins. “Never give up. By the way, do you want to buy a slightly used catapult?”
“Maybe next year,” is the mantra as the team begins tearing down Chucky III. Meanwhile, the air cannons are firing their last shots for the weekend down the field and the afternoon is about to take a darker turn.
A tragic accident
The specter of a catastrophic malfunction looms over Punkin Chunkin, much like the possibility of a deadly wreck haunts every NASCAR race. People have been injured at the chunk falling off ladders and crashing ATV’s but there has never been a serious incident involving a defective machine in the three-decade history of the event.
A nightmare scenario became reality at the end of the competition when a metal plate blew off the Pumpkin Reaper air cannon and struck a TV producer in the head and face. The 39-year-old woman, whose name is not being released by the Delaware State Police, has been hospitalized for nearly two weeks in critical condition. A second person suffered non-life threatening injuries. Authorities shut the event down after the accident and the Science Channel has canceled its special, which was scheduled to air on November 26.
It was a tragic coda for a tournament that was making a comeback after years of tumult. The trouble started in 2011, when a volunteer pumpkin spotter got seriously hurt in an ATV accident while racing to find a gourd in the field. The volunteer sued the World Championship Punkin Chunkin Association, the nonprofit group that organizes the competition, as well as the farmer who hosts the event in Bridgeville, Delaware. While the case was making its way through the courts, the chunk was forced to find a new location due to the farmer’s liability concerns.
Organizers tried to reboot the competition at the Dover International Speedway but the venue lacked the open space for long throws. The WCPCA could not find an insurance company that would cover the event and the contest was scrapped in 2014 and 2015.
A new president took the reins of the WCPCA at the beginning of 2016 and the lawsuit was dismissed, paving the way for a return to Bridgeville. The organization secured a new insurance policy and implemented new safety rules, restricting the types of vehicles allowed on the field, banning alcohol on the firing line and prohibiting BYOB for daily ticket holders. Safety inspectors examined machines before each throw. Volunteers hoisted up tape barricades to block people from getting too close to the cannons, catapults, trebuchets and centrifugal chuckers.
The weather was good, the mood was giddy and it seemed the stars had aligned for a successful chunk. Less than two hours before the closing ceremony was set to begin, the carnival of science and kitsch took a horrific turn and the scene became a vigil with prayers for the injured.
The specter of danger
Even before the accident, chunkers grappled with the idea that one accident could doom the sport.
“You don’t know the quality of other people’s welding skills,” said Collins, during a phone interview before the event. “You don’t know whether the design is any good. There’s a lot of people that play this game that are normal human beings that treat it like a hobby instead of a full-on obsession. It adds to the danger. The probability that someone gets killed doing this is reasonable. People get killed in NASCAR. Air shows, people get killed. And yet they continue to have them. If something happened at Punkin Chunkin, they may not have the financial backing to continue.”
Dawn Thompson, who made history in 2010 as the first female Punkin Chunkin champ, said that she did not witness the explosion but she’s been out on the field for days helping the farmer clean up his property. The pumpkin trophy still sits near the firing line, a lonely totem that signifies all the promise of the weekend and all the chaos that followed the accident.
“I hope we can do this again next year,” said Thompson, whose winning air cannon was named Hormone Blaster. “I don’t know what the future holds but we want to come back.”