Morton-area group glad for Punkin Chunkin's move to Rantoul

The Acme Catapult LLC group is shown in what Doug Diebenbach calls their "hero pose" following a competition. The Morton area-based group, which has rubbed shoulders with celebrities ranging from Jay Leno to Dolly Parton, will compete in the Punkin Chunkin event in Rantoul this weekend.

RANTOUL — Doug Diefenbach and his pumpkin-slinging crew from the Morton area were glad to hear the World Championship Punkin Chunkin event would move this year from Delaware to Rantoul.

Their drive time is cut from about 13 hours to 90 minutes.

Dolly Parton II

In 2003, the Acme crew appeared in Hollywood on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.” Dolly Parton was on hand. The Acme punkin chunkers will compete in this week’s event in Rantoul.

Diefenbach and his catapult buddies have been sending the orange gourds skyward since 1996 when Morton — the pumpkin capital of the universe — decided to have a pumpkin-throwing event.

“I worked for a company called Morton Metalcraft,” Diefenbach said. “The chamber wanted to start a contest here, and they asked some of the local businesses to get it going by building a machine.”

They built a modern-day catapult that is powered by large springs.

Jay Leno II

The Acme group is shown with Jay Leno in Hollywood when they appeared on The Tonight Show.

The Acme Catapult LLC group,  which is headquartered in nearby Tremont, has competed four times at the world championships — the first time in 2000 when it brought home a first-place trophy.

“Our machine is actually kind of an old design now,” Diefenbach said. “Some of the newer machines are more high tech and powerful, but we still enjoy doing it.”

Their winning distance in 2000 was about 1,700 feet. They have souped up their machine, and the past two years they have competed in an Aurora, Colo., event, where the air is thinner, and have thrown 2,545 feet.

Diefenbach and Bob Kruse own the machine. The pair and a group of three or four friends help in the competition.

Kruse, who is a tool-and-die maker and owns a welding shop, did most of the welding on their machine.  

Their catapult has already been to Rantoul. Punkin Chunkin Association officials in Delaware asked them to set up a display with the machine at Half Century of Progress farm show in August to promote Punkin Chunkin.

“I think it’s a fantastic location,” Diefenbach said of Rantoul National Aviation Center, where Punkin Chunkin will be held Saturday and Sunday.

There will be about a quarter of the number of machines competing in Rantoul compared to Delaware, and Diefenbach welcomes the smaller numbers.

“Twenty-nine to 30 machines is a great size for a contest,” he said. “They are going to have us shoot three times a day, so there will be more action.”

At Delaware they got to shoot only once a day.

Among the catapults, Diefenbach expects there to be eight competitors, divided into two sub categories.

“The neat thing about our machine that makes it unique, we can throw anything up to 200 pounds. We have done some crazy stuff.”

Some of that “crazy stuff” has led to them meeting some celebrities.

Ross and Evan

St. Malachy School seventh- and eighth-grade science students got into the Punkin Chunkin spirit by making their own machines. Testing took place Friday in the school gym. Shown at are eighth-grade winners Ross Gawenda and Evan Larson, whose machine had a distance of 28 feet 4 inches.

In 2003, they appeared in Hollywood “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.” Dolly Parton was there. It was all a promo for Sears appliances to show how durable they are — hardy enough to withstand getting tossed by a catapult.

A clip of that appearance is featured on youtube.

They have also thrown DeWalt coolers and threw Kid Rock tailgate grills.

But this week it will be all pumpkins — either 8- or 10-pounders.

The pumpkins cannot be frozen.

When they threw the DeWalt coolers, a company official stuck his smart phone inside one of them when it got the catapult heave-ho. The phone said the toss pulled 13 Gs. (A G is the amount of gravity the earth exerts on you when you fall.)

It takes a hardy pumpkin not to become pie — to break up when catapulted.

Bryan and Andrew

The seventh-grade team from St. Malachy School of Bryan Barajas and Andrew Fonner had the top distance in their class of 16 feet 7 inches.

The competitors supply their own pumpkins. Diefenbach’s crew uses only Laestrella pumpkins from Guatemala.

“They’re very dense, and they hold together well,” he said.

They participate in two to three competitions each year.

“We’re real excited about the contest being local,” he said.

dhinton@rantoulpress.com