Punkin Chunkin wants to come home

Association looking for a location closer to its Sussex County roots
February 14, 2020

For the World Championship Punkin Chunkin Association, there is no place like home. The words “Bring Us Home” fill nearly the entire homepage on the association’s website.

After a year on the road with a two-day event in Rantoul, Ill., in 2019, the association wants pumpkins to fly closer to the event's roots in Sussex County. “We can grow the event there, but would prefer to have it closer to our base in Sussex County,” said association President Frank Payton.

Closer is the operative word. “Without needed legislation limiting the liability that nonprofit organizations and landowners leasing their property may be exposed to from frivolous lawsuits, holding an event on private property within the state [Delaware] is not feasible,” according to a recent association press release.

After nearly three decades of staging an event each November in Sussex County, the association ran into legal, insurance and logistics issues and was forced to cancel the event four times over a five-year period in 2014, 2015, 2017 and 2018, before working out a deal to move the event to Illinois.

The association is looking for a site of about 600 acres, which provides enough room for vendors, parking, camping, spectators, special events and chunking machines. Some air cannons can fire pumpkins nearly 5,000 feet; the world record of 4,694 feet for air cannons was set in 2013 by American Chunker from Merrimack, N.H.

Payton said the association will make a final decision on a site April 1. He said there have been responses from interested parties in Virginia, and association members have already scheduled site visits.

Payton said a partnership with Delaware or a county to stage the event on state- or county-owned land would extend liability protection to the association.

In Delaware, Payton said there is no monetary limit on lawsuits, but both Maryland and Virginia have liability caps. Legislation would be required to change Delaware law, but Payton said he sees no movement by legislators in that direction.

Ideally, Payton said, the association would like to partner with Sussex County government and bring the event back to the county where it started in 1986 in Lewes.

He said the county's farm fields at the Inland Bays wastewater treatment facility near Long Neck would be a perfect location. “We really want to hear from the county,” he said. “We think a partnership with them would keep the tradition going, provide an economic boost to the county and give us enough liability coverage,” Payton said.


Legal, logistics issues surface

In 2013, a civil lawsuit filed by an injured volunteer forced the association to leave the Wheatley farm near Bridgeville and cancel the event in 2014 and 2015. That lawsuit was dismissed in summer 2015.

In 2015, organizers planned to have the event at The Woodlands at Dover International Speedway, but logistical problems forced the association to cancel the event once again.

After bringing the event back to the Wheatley farm in 2016, another lawsuit resulted in cancellation in 2017 and 2018.

A producer from Discovery Channel, who was injured when an air cannon misfired, filed a federal lawsuit in August 2017. That lawsuit was dismissed last January in U.S. District Court.

Discovery Channel did not air its show in 2016 and withdrew its $125,000 sponsorship from any future events.


Event dates back to 1986

The event started more than four decades ago when a few friends in Lewes built rudimentary machines to chunk leftover Halloween pumpkins. Over the years the event attracted national and even international attention, thanks in part to an annual Thanksgiving special aired by Discovery/Science Channel.

In its heyday, more than 100 machines participated in the event with 50,000 to 70,000 spectators looking skyward.

More than 30,000 spectators attended the 2016 event, the last time it took place in Sussex County.

Payton said the Illinois event attracted fewer than 15,000 spectators. The association, which has donated more than $1 million to charities over the years, set aside $1,500 for scholarships from last year's event. “We want that number to grow back to where it was,” Payton said.

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