STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Now as we've heard, you can do many things with pumpkins, and here's one more. In Millsboro, Delaware, this fall, thousands turned out for the 20th anniversary World Championship Punkin Chunkin contest. NPR's Allison Keyes reports on a sport that involves gourds, homemade artillery and fun for the family.

ALLISON KEYES reporting:

From the moment you step onto the dusty field, you feel a little like you're in "The Twilight Zone." What with the air cannons...

(Soundbite of air cannons)

KEYES: ...high-tech machines that look a bit like giant rifles, the centrifuges, contraptions that resemble helicopters lying on their sides, complete with the spinning blades...

(Soundbite of machinery; horn)

KEYES: ...and not to mention the medieval rock-throwing weapon of choice, the trebuchet.

(Soundbite of machinery; crowd)

KEYES: It's obvious to spectators that they've stumbled onto something rather unusual. The whole point is to see which machine can hurl an eight- to 10-pound pumpkin the farthest.

Ms. LOUISE HAYE (Spectator): I saw it on the Web site, and I thought, I have got to come and see this, especially...

KEYES: Louise Haye brought her nine-year-old daughter Karen from Hagerstown, Maryland, for the spectacle.

Ms. HAYE: She does science fair at school, and we just thought the mechanics of this would be something awesome to see.

(Soundbite of machinery; crowd)

Mr. GENE CAMPBELL (Participant): That tree line's about 4,500 feet, and I think we hit the tree line on that one.

KEYES: Gene Campbell's air cannon team is called Smokin'. He says amid all the fun, Punkin Chunkin gladiators need serious skills, as well.

Mr. CAMPBELL: X-squared plus three, divided by 2F...

KEYES: You mean there's math?

Mr. CAMPBELL: Yeah, there is. Every hundred feet, there's a wind change and temperature change, too.

KEYES: But everything here isn't high-tech.

(Soundbite of machinery)

KEYES: The centrifuge called United Flingdom, brought here and built completely from scrap by the British team, is powered by a six-cylinder diesel engine from a school bus, with nine drive shafts, a hand-crank engine and hydraulics. The trebuchets, once used as weapons to hurl rocks at castles, are even less complicated, explains Chuck Willard from the Yankee Siege team.

Mr. CHUCK WILLARD (Participant): It's a gravity-driven machine. It uses the counterweight to pull the long end of the arm up and pull the sling up from underneath the machine and make the pumpkins fly.

KEYES: But Willard says the team's first shot at the competition was pie and didn't count. That's what you call it when the pumpkin comes out of the machine in pieces.

Mr. WILLARD: This pumpkin couldn't take the G forces when it left.

KEYES: The forces involved have attracted the attention of a physics class from Southern Virginia University. The instructor, Tim Knudson, says he just wants to know how fast these gourds are moving.

Mr. TIM KNUDSON (Southern Virginia University): People will quote you over 600 miles an hour. Now the speed of sound is 760 miles an hour, so we're talking near sonic speeds for a vegetable, so that's impressive in itself.

Group: (In unison) ...three, two, one!

Unidentified Man #1: Fire!

Unidentified Man #2: Fire in the hole!

(Soundbite of machinery; crowd)

KEYES: It can also be dangerous if you make the mistake of being in the pumpkin's path. But for the spectators who flock here every year for the joy of seeing pumpkins disintegrate, and the world champion, who gets a spiffy 14-carat gold pumpkin-shaped ring with a green diamond in one eye, it's a smashing good time. Allison Keyes, NPR News.

INSKEEP: And you're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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