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'Renaissance rednecks' make pumpkins fly

"Punkin Chunkin" has evolved from a casual fall contest 20 years ago among friends throwing pumpkins to a $25-a-head event that draws 40,000 people — who spend as much as $200,000 to build a 100-foot-long "gun" — and corporate sponsorship.
Ray Tolson, world champion of "Punkin Chunkin," calls his 100-foot-long hurling machine Second Amendment Too.
Ray Tolson, world champion of "Punkin Chunkin," calls his 100-foot-long hurling machine Second Amendment Too. Margaret Thomas / The Washington Post
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

There once was a time when Ray Tolson thought the sport of "Punkin Chunkin" sounded as crazy as can be, when the notion of spending as much as $200,000 to build a 100-foot-long "gun" designed to fire a pumpkin nearly a mile seemed silly.

But that was another Ray Tolson, a Ray Tolson who didn't study air pressure and cloud speed in search of the perfect "air shelf" where an 8- to 10-pound pumpkin could sail perfectly. Who didn't commission university horticulturists to breed pumpkins that are precisely 9.5 inches in diameter, round and with a thick skin -- the perfect projectile.

With the World Championship Punkin Chunkin and a chance to best his world record of 4,434.28 feet less than three weeks away, Tolson, 61, was in his yard in Culpeper County on Friday, furiously fiddling with the gun. He said he has spent 5,000 hours building the glistening, black steel Second Amendment Too, which is why, he said, the grass has grown tall on his five acres, partially obscuring the half-dozen vehicles he used to spend his free time tinkering with.

"I haven't had time to mow," said Tolson, a small man who calls himself a high-tech redneck. "The point is to use the maximum G4 force on the pumpkin without destroying it."

His blue eyes twinkle.

A smile lifts his bushy, brown-and-gray beard.

"There's nothing like it!"

Tolson's fanaticism is hardly unusual in a sport that went from a casual fall contest 20 years ago among friends throwing anvils (then pumpkins, once their backs started hurting) to a $25-a-head event that draws 40,000 people and corporate sponsorship. This year, all machines are required to comply with American Society of Mechanical Engineers standards.

Any increase in bureaucracy hasn't hurt popularity. About 60 teams were turned away from participating in the Nov. 4 to 6 contest because there just wasn't space for them in Millsboro, Del. One hundred teams will compete.

'Renaissance rednecks'
Since the original Punkin Chunkin began in Georgetown, Del., 40 to 50 similar events have sprung up across the country. These chunkers describe themselves as "renaissance rednecks," people who are into engineering, ballistics and gadgets to the degree that the championship Web site lists this as one of its top questions attendees may ask: "What are the GPS coordinates of the Chunk location?"

Frank Shade, president of the Punkin Chunkin championship event, said the growth hasn't changed the essential character of a chunker: "Chunkers are fun-loving, gregarious people. At the drop of a hat, they're going to go chunk."

Despite increasingly taking on the tone of a big, corporate festival, Punkin Chunkin is essentially a service organization. Everyone who helps put on the event is a volunteer, and all the profit goes to college scholarships and to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis. The event gives away about $80,000 each year.

Tolson may look like the native Culpeper boy he is when he is scurrying around on the "big gun," but he's hardly small-town. As the top service engineer for the U.S. office of Kaeser Compressors Inc., he is sent worldwide to troubleshoot on the company's devices, which use air power in manufacturing.

Always a problem solver, Tolson was spending his free time fixing the home he built and toying with cars back in 1997 when he was asked to join a Michigan-based team that was building a Punkin Chunkin gun and wanted his expertise with the science of air power. He was hooked.

The team of nine people, including Tolson as air tech, won the world championship in 2002 and 2003 with a 20,000-pound gun called the Second Amendment. The 2003 record still stands.

Bringing inspiration to today's youth
Two years ago, Tolson began working on the Second Amendment Too. And while he has let his cars and his lawn go, he said, the sport has inspired him to bring the joys and challenges of Punkin Chunkin to today's youth. He has helped some budding engineering students and is hoping to start a more regular project with a high school class, so students can enter the event and learn everything from metalworking and physics to T-shirt design.

"If I can take one kid who might have been a bad apple and turn him around ... I've accomplished a lot; I've given something back," he said.

Keeping things simple and fun has become increasingly difficult. With some people holding pseudo-Punkin Chunkin events and not donating the money, the group has hired an attorney, and Shade said the organization is in litigation over the trademark of its name. The list of safety rules gets longer every year, and last year after a barrel made of PVC pipe exploded, the group banned all substances but metal.

But at their essence, chunkers are innovators. They train not only with pumpkins but also with melons, bowling balls and frozen turkeys. On the ground in Tolson's yard was a pile of basketballs he filled with water and fired for practice toward the Blue Ridge Mountains in the distance.

While Tolson will talk generally about the skills involved in becoming a world champion -- meteorology, proper pumpkin selection, thousands of hours of mechanics -- there is a limit to how much he will say.

He won't say the precise pressure in his air cannon, nor the velocity of the fruit. The secret is a cocktail of air and pressure. "I'll just say it's controlled power."