World record set; weather, low crowd numbers take off some of lustre of Punkin Chunkin

The crew of the Chunk Norris catapult celebrates after hitting a shot more than 4,000 feet during the weekend at Rantoul National Aviation Center during the World Championship Punkin Chunkin competition. See more photos in Rantoul Press print edition.

RANTOUL — Kevin Applebee was on a golf cart preparing to head over to watch some of the World Championship Punkin Chunkin competition when he got a call.

The Chunk Norris machine had just hit a massive shot that organizers thought might have landed on the Willow Pond Golf Course that Applebee owns.

“They called me, and I (jumped) on my RTV and drove right to where it was. It was right to the south of the sixth tee,” Applebee said.

The shot was a world’s record for a mechanical device — a catapult. The distance was 4,091 feet. It outshot every other machine at Punkin Chunkin, which was held on the grounds of Rantoul National Aviation Center.

“It’s the first mechanical joining the 4,000-foot club,” said a jubilant Frank Payton, president of the Punkin Chunkin association. “We’re talking air cannons have been winning every year since ‘94. The last time a mechanical won was 1993.”

The Chunk Norris catapult was powered by essentially a rubber band.

“If you have a sling shot, it’s more heavy duty, more industrial type that fired the machine,” Payton said.

Applebee got a hat signed by the Chunk Norris crew and took a group photo. It was a memorable event.

For Payton, the weekend was a case of good news-bad news.  

The crowds were down, and so were the number of machines that showed up — 23 compared to more than 100 at Punkin Chunkin’s last championship in 2016 in Delaware.

The charity event, even though operating with a bare-bones budget of about $150,000, compared to about half a million dollars before, still lost money, Payton said.

“The crowds were very, very low. I’m spending the entire time thinking about that on the way home,” he said Monday morning while headed back to Delaware. “I do know about the Illinois football game, and it was Dad’s weekend. There were a lot of things going against us, and the weather. It was cold.”

Rain and snow during the week made the grounds muddy. Some machines cut large ruts in the ground.

But Payton is a glass-half-full kind of guy.

“We had a blast. We haven’t done this since 2016. It was nice to get back together. It was really cool seeing history made,” Payton said of the Chunk Norris distance.

While the number of chunkers was down, Payton said that turned out to be a good thing because there was difficulty getting shots off. Each chunker was supposed to get three shots both Saturday and Sunday, but they got only two each.

One problem was tracking the pumpkins to where they fell for measurement. Getting to the pumpkins made for long waits between shots.  

“There is no way to use any type of vehicles to get on the runway to the pumpkins quick enough,” he said of airport regulations. “The airport did not allow us to put mud on the runway. I understand that. They had to drive the golf cart down to the runway and then work into a semi-plowed field to try to find pumpkins.”

He said organizers will hold a post-event meeting to determine whether Punkin Chunkin returns next year.

“When you lose money like this, should we have taken that money and given it to (charity) and not continue trying to be profitable and hopefully bring it back and make money over time?” Payton wondered aloud.

That is one of the questions that has to be answered.

He called Rantoul the best option they have at present. The question is whether problems can be worked out.

It costs $5,000 a day to use the airport.

Whether Punkin Chunkin board members would consider moving the event up a few weeks in hopes of getting better weather might be considered, but Payton said, “If we moved it up it would be changing tradition we’ve had since 1986.”

One positive, Payton said, was the vendor area next to Grissom Hall hangar. Initially, the vendors were scheduled to be located just west of the chunkin staging area. But the field was too muddy for that. Payton said he thought the Grissom Hall area worked better anyway.

“The beer garden was awesome,” Payton said. “Utilizing the interior of that hangar, ... that was really, really impressive.”