RANTOUL — Todd Horton of Philo saw his first punkin chunkin competition in 2006 in Morton, the pumpkin capital of the world.
“There was an air cannon that threw a pumpkin 4,400 feet,” Horton said. “There’s something beautiful about seeing flying pumpkins.”
So he decided to build a small machine that would fit in the back of his pickup truck that didn’t throw nearly as far as the cannon — about 250 feet — but he had fun. He competed there in 2007 and 2008.
His competition days ended after that, and the wooden machine he built began to deteriorate, so he scrapped it. But when Horton heard Rantoul would be hosting the World Championship Punkin Chunkin competition Saturday and Sunday at the airport, he decided to bring back his glory days. With some coaxing.
“I almost had myself talked out of it, but my wife and daughter said that would be cool,” he said.
His daughter helped with framing the wood portion of the trebuchet during the summer.
“It’s considered a trebuchet, but it’s kind of unconventional in that you don’t have weight mounted directly on the arm,” he said.
Horton, who is program director of construction management at Parkland College, said coming home after work to tinker on the machine has been “a nice diversion ... to work on something creative and design something. Making it work is kind of satisfying.”
He said work on the frame went quickly, but fitting and welding all the linkage took some time.
The new machine throws a pumpkin about twice as far as the Horton model 1 a decade ago. At least that’s what it’s done on practice runs at his rural Philo residence.
It took some adjusting to get the bugs worked out. Horton used videos that he slowed down to help him adjust the machine. At first, the trebuchet was hammering a 10-pound test ball into the ground.
As late as Thursday night, he was finishing some of the safety details on the machine.
While Horton was working on his machine, nearby the crew on the Inertia III centrifuge machine fired up a Boeing turboshaft jet turbine that powers it.
All heads turned at the sound of the jet engine. Then jet fuel fumes wafted north.
“I didn’t think the airfield was active today,” Horton quipped. “Rantoul (former home of Chanute Air Force Base) hasn’t heard jet noise in a while. That smells like my past.”
Horton was a cadet in ROTC at the University of Illinois and used to venture to Rantoul to visit the BX and the base hospital.
The week’s rainy, then snowy weather made the airport grounds soggy, but thank goodness for the airport’s paved area, said one New Hampshire crew member who used to haul a punkin chunker to Delaware, former home of the event.
“As far as the setup goes, I’ve never been here before, but I’ll take this place 100 times over Delaware,” he said. “If I’m on asphalt, I love this place.”