World Punkin Chunkin Championship moving to Illinois

An air canon fires a pumpkin into the air at Punkin Chunkin in one of the years past. (Submitted photo)

BRIDGEVILLE — It appears as if Punkin Chunkin has reached the end of its gourd in Delaware.

The team captains have voted to change the location of this fall’s World Punkin Chunkin Championship to the Village of Rantoul, Illinois, which will bring an end to the event’s 33-year run in Sussex County.

The annual fall spectacle routinely brought crowds of more than 20,000 spectators to Sussex County in search of flying orange orbs, along with various sides of partying, enjoying tasty state fair-inspired food and family fun.

The move, with 70 percent of the team captains voting yes and 30 percent no (with 75 percent member involvement), will mark Punkin Chunkin’s fourth change of venue since 1986.

“For over 33 years, we have called Sussex County, Delaware our home, but the chunk must go on,” the World Championship Punkin Chunkin Association said in a statement on social media Tuesday. “With many other Punkin Chunkin-related events going on, there needs to be a World Championship.”

The World Punkin Chunkin Championship is now slated to launch operations in Rantoul, Illinois this Nov. 1-3.

“We want to thank everyone for their support over the years,” event organizers said. “Most recently, we want to thank those that came forward in Delaware and Maryland in trying to keep the event on Delmarva.

“Unfortunately, our unique event requires large tracts of land. The Wheatleys’ 600-acre property in Bridgeville has served us well to date. We are very supportive of the landowner’s decision to not continue to host the event.”

Punkin Chunkin has sat in a two-year holding pattern while the nonprofit organization was involved in a lawsuit after Suzanne Dakessian was critically injured during the event in 2016. The trap door from an air cannon exploded off the machine and hit her in the head.

At the time of the incident, Ms. Dakessian was managing a camera crew for Sharp Entertainment, which was producing a television special on Punkin Chunkin for Discovery’s Science Channel. The airing of the scheduled three-hour special was canceled following the accident.

Ms. Dakessian filed a lawsuit on Aug. 16, 2017, against the Punkin Chunkin Association, its leaders, the state Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control and the farm near Bridgeville, where the event was held. A federal judge dismissed the civil suit with prejudice on Jan. 25.

Punkin Chunkin Association (PCA) organizers issued a statement in February regarding the lawsuit.

“We are not able to address any inquiries related to the termination of the litigation except to say that the case was resolved with no admission or finding of liability on the Association’s part,” PCA stated on its Facebook site.

In the release, the PCA said, “the past two years have been the hardest on our nonprofit organization, both mentally and financially, following the unfortunate incident in 2016 and the ensuing litigation. However, the board remains committed, and our membership is still intact. It is this type of commitment and loyalty within our organization that compels us to move forward. We collectively feel that there is something about tradition that is worth fighting for.”

Frank Payton, president of the PCA, said in February the organization was committed to returning.

“Obviously, we would like to still be a Delaware tradition,” Mr. Payton said. “If we can’t be a Delaware tradition, we would like to be a Delmarva tradition.

“We have stayed committed. The board is still intact. The membership is still intact. We were just waiting, biding our time.”

It had appeared as if Ocean City, Maryland, might have been in line to host this year’s Punkin Chunkin Championship after town officials looked to bring the event to the resort town. Their initial plans were to launch pumpkins from the inlet parking lot out into the ocean.

However, after the vote, it turns out the next Punkin Chunkin Championship will take place on the former Chanute Air Force Base in Illinois, which was acquired by Rantoul when it was closed in 1993. Organizers said the property, along with the city’s hospitality, made it an attractive choice.

Punkin Chunkin, as a nonprofit organization, relishes its mission in giving back to the community.

“It has been our nonprofit’s mission to conduct our annual event and give funds back to the community in the form of donations and scholarships for children,” organizers said. “Since our inception, we have contributed over $1 million in donations and scholarships. Our economic impact on the community has been incalculable drawing tens of thousands of spectators and participants from around the world.”

Unfortunately, for many Delaware fans of flying pumpkins, all roads lead to Illinois now.

Delaware State News staff writer Mike Finney can be reached at mfinney@newszap.com.

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