Punkin’ Chunkin’ competition comes to town

Last modified: 10/27/2014 7:49:35 PM
Editor's note: A previous posting of this story erroneously stated that "Punkin' Chunkin'" is an episode of the show “Mythbusters” and that the "Punkin' Chunkin'" competition first took place in 2002.

Myths were busted, cannons were shot and trebuchets were revived from the scrapheap of military history at a farm in Greenfield this weekend, where a pumpkin-launching contest annually featured on a nationally broadcasted TV show entered its 28th year — largely thanks to a local farmer’s initiative.

The Discovery Channel came to Greenfield to film its annual episode of “Punkin’ Chunkin” at the invitation of Greenfield farmer Steve Seigars. The event, first held in 1986, has typically been held in various locations in rural Sussex County, Delaware, but this year was filmed for the first time at Seigars’ Yankee Siege Farm on Forest Road in Greenfield. Punkin’ Chunkin’, or “Pumpkin Chucking” in proper English, is a sport in which contestants compete to see how far they can launch a pumpkin. Any form of propulsion — even a slingshot — is technically allowed, though this weekend’s Yankee Siege featured highly pressurized cannons and trebuchets.

The Discovery Channel filming on Saturday drew dozens of fans to Yankee Siege, with cars lining the sides of Route 136 to see five teams compete for the Punkin’ Chunkin’ World Championship, as well as two of the show’s hosts, Tory Belleci and Kari Byron. The PCWC has been a “Mythbusters” mainstay during the last decade, first taking place in 1986 and being televised again from 2008 to 2013. However, the 2014 iteration faced major obstacles, according to Discovery Channel Spokesman Brittany Whiteford, when the Delaware iteration of the contest that has taken place since 1986 was postponed.

The Punkin’ Chunkin’ Association was sued in October 2013 for an accident that took place at the 2011 contest involving an all-terrain vehicle on festival grounds. The lawsuit forced the competition to attempt a last-minute move to Dover International Speedway in Delaware for an Oct. 24 start date and, according to World Championship Punkin Chunkin Association President John Huber, the last-minute move to Dover was too logistically challenging.

“Moving an event the size of Punkin’ Chunkin’ is not easy even when time is not a factor,” Huber said in an organization press release.

However, even though the official Punkin’ Chunkin’ World Championship contest was postponed to Nov. 6-8, 2015, this year’s iteration still took place, albeit under slightly different circumstances.

Instead of the typical competition, the winner of this year’s challenge will be crowned according to “by taking on various challenges to chunk everyday objects into a cornfield. TV’s, pianos, and even cars,” said Rita Mullin, general manager of Science Channel in a press release — in other words, it was more about the love of the game than competing.

Seigars’ Siege

The PCWC’s legal issues led it to Greenfield, where they found a ready host in Yankee Siege owner Steve Seigars of Greenfield, who owns Yankee Siege. However, Seigars is no ordinary landlord — he is also a longtime Punkin’ Chunkin’ contestant, first leading his “Yankee Siege” squad to Delaware in 2004.

Seigars could be described as a Punkin’ Chunkin’ fanatic. Even when a competition is not taking place on his lawn, Seigars has two trebuchets in his yard that he built himself for the competition. Seigars even grows his own pumpkins in the fall, though he cautions on his personal website that aspiring pumpkin launchers should look for a Lumina pumpkin, a “smooth skinned, relatively spherical, thick-walled and dense white pumpkin,” which are infinitely more launchable than their smaller orange cousins that Americans regularly carve and display in their backyards around Halloween, he said.

However, Punkin’ Chunkin’s presence at Yankee Siege was still surprising. Seigars, who is 62, had promised his wife Kathleen back when he started that he would retire from his gourd-shooting hobby after eclipsing a goal of 2000 ft. in 2009, but returned to the competition in 2011, a discrepancy he explained to the Ledger-Transcript in a Saturday interview.

“I promised my wife once I reached 2,000 feet, I would retire, but I meant that I would retire this machine,” he said jokingly, pointing at a trusty trebuchet that has since been replaced.

After launching a pumpkin 2,034 ft. in 2009, Seigars attended the competition in 2010 and decided that he missed participating too much. He built a new trebuchet which he said takes “about 2,000 hours” of work, and the hard work paid off when newly rebranded Yankee Siege II reclaimed the Adult Trebuchet crown. Yankee Siege I would go on to set a world record by flinging a pumpkin 2,835.81 feet on the second of the three allotted tries.

Seigars added that his continuing participation in Punkin’ Chunkin’ is not a grave issue for his marriage, and that his wife, Kathleen, enjoys the competition as a way for the couple to spend time together. There is a more pressing problem, he said, which is Punkin’ Chunkin’s prohibitive cost. Just competing in the competition, according to Seigars’ personal website, costs $15,000 due to transportation, hotel and other expenses, let alone constructing the necessary siege engine.

“It’s an expensive sport,” Seigars said. “It’s hard to build a machine for 20,000 dollars.”

Cost will be less of an issue for Seigars this year since he is being paid to rent out Yankee Siege for the contest. However, that won’t be much — Seigars typically charges $3,000 a day to rent out Yankee Siege for any other event, but that he did not make the arrangement for the money.

“I have no sponsors, I do it out of my own pocket,” Seigars said. “My real job is [being] a dentist,” he added jokingly.

Seigars said he had contacts at Sharp Entertainment, the producer the Science Channel has hired to produce the show, due to his habitual participation in the PCWC. Sharp asked him to host the competition this year and Seigars not only agreed to do so but also had plenty of ideas for how to liven up the competition after the previous Punkin’ Chunkin’ was canceled.

“Sharp Entertainment contacted us and said, ‘What are you willing to throw? A piano is something everyone has an idea of — it’s big, it weighs a lot,” he said. “A car, everyone has an idea of what a car looks like.”

Visitors from afar

Even though Seigars’ version of Punkin’ Chunkin’ featured only three air cannons and two trebuchets — previous ones have included over 50 competitors across multiple categories — enthusiasm still pervaded the atmosphere, and competitors had traveled from as far as Culpepper, Virginia, around 70 miles southwest of Washington, D.C., to attend.

Tom Malatt, who traveled from Frederick, Maryland to lead Team Smokin’ at Punkin’ Chunkin’, said Seigars’ venue, while unexpected, appealed to his love of the outdoors.

“It’s nice out here — it’s a lot of wilderness,” Malatt said. “Down where I am, everything’s just becoming developed.”

At one point interrupted by a “21-gun salute” — featuring pumpkins instead of bullets — Malatt gave an intricate overview of the safety precautions associated with the Punkin’ Chunkin’ competition. The air cannons have to be tested to show they can be safely pressurized to 375 pascals — one and a half times the allotted amount during the competition — in order to make sure they are ready for Punkin’ Chunkin’.

Seigars is also not simply a pumpkin-launching ‘weekend warrior,’ but is guided by his love of science. Fresh off a weeklong course in Tribology — a branch of mechanical engineering that concerns how surfaces interact — at MIT, Seigars gave an intricate explanation of the workings of the trebuchet — “it goes out backwards and overthrows itself” — as well as its history as a medieval bombardment weapon for launching projectiles, mainly boulders — “they reigned until around the year 1500, when the cannon was invented.” Unlike the trebuchets of old, however, Seigars’ are made out of steel, not wood.

Seigars said the competition helps him connect with his day job, dentistry — much as a dentist’s livelihood hinges on how well he applies friction to a patient’s tooth, Seigars said a knowledge of physics and mechanics drives his trebuchet’s success at flinging objects.

“You learn things at the same time,” he said. “You learn how to build things, you learn how to weld.”

National TV

The event is also an opportunity for Seigars to expose his farm to a national audience.

The hosts of Mythbusters, Kari Byron and Tory Belleci, both attended Saturday’s filming. The two, who have been regulars on the show since 2003 but will be departing this year, spoke to the Ledger-Transcript Saturday afternoon.

Belleci was the first out of a trailer stationed across the way from the Yankee Siege Castle. He spoke at length about how the competition’s postponement had given the Science Channel a new set of rules and regulations to work with.

“This time it’s more of a recap of all of the really cool highlights of the chunk, and there are no rules,” he said. “You could throw multiple pumpkins, you can throw things other than pumpkins — you have a lot more flexibility in this event.”

Belleci, who got a visit from a police officer for making a pipe bomb at the age of 19, is known as the daredevil on the Science Channel show. He said he wouldn’t be doing anything similar this time, since he and Byron are mainly commentators for “Punkin’ Chunkin’,” but that he would unleash his daredevil instincts instead at Manchester club ManchVegas, where he and the rest of the crew were headed to spend their Saturday night.

Belleci said Punkin’ Chunkin’ is his favorite episode of “Mythbusters” “just because the people are so cool and it’s like a big family,” pointing out that the event raises hundreds of thousands of dollars for charity.

Byron, drinking tea in order to recover from a slight head cold, agreed. She said that in spite of the postponement of the Punkin’ Chunkin’ competition in Delaware, it was thanks to the competitors that the competition had continued up in Greenfield and the new format was proof of their dedication.

“It’s almost like we don’t know what to expect, it’s a little rogue,” Byron said. “It’s just a little wild style, it’s fun.”

And the alleged myth they plan to confront?

“Is it true that a person will put thousands of hours and thousands of dollars into building a machine solely to throw a pumpkin? — and I would say that’s confirmed,” Belleci said.

Punkin’ Chunkin’ 2014 will be broadcast simultaneously on the Discovery and Science Channels on Nov. 29 at 8 p.m.

David Blumenthal can be reached at 924-7172, ext. 232. or dblumenthal@ledgertranscript.com. He is on Twitter @DBlumenthalMLT.


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