Fall Fling: Gourd-hurlers gear up for Aurora’s Punkin’ Chunkin’

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John Heffelfinger is no stranger to competition.

As a student at Golden High School, the now-44-year-old Heffelfinger was an all-conference field goal kicker and a 14-foot pole-vaulter. As a young adult, he kicked professionally for an arena football team in Colorado Springs in the late 1990s.

But after suffering a dislocated shoulder and some cracked ribs during a flag football game a few years ago, Heffelfinger decided it was time to hang up his cleats and focus on something less physically demanding — albeit just slightly.

“I knew I had to transfer that punishment onto other things besides my body,” he said. “I still get some small cuts and rope burn on my hands, though.”

Heffelfinger’s tender palms are the result of what has taken the place of his participation in organized athletics in recent years. Instead of rocketing footballs through neon uprights, the local contractor and metal worker has spent nearly every weekend for the past four months fine-tuning a 56-foot-tall machine’s ability to launch a pumpkin across the Aurora prairie.

Yes, a pumpkin.

Heffelfinger is one of more than a dozen weekend warriors headed to the blank acres of grassland surrounding the Arapahoe Park racetrack Oct. 10 and 11 to compete in the city’s 18th annual Punkin’ Chunkin’ Colorado gourd-tossing event.

For the uninitiated, Punkin’ Chunkin’ is the practice of using homemade catapults, trebuchets and air cannons to launch 8- to 10-pound pumpkins as far onto the prairie as physics will allow. Hint: It’s really far — the current trebuchet world record stands at 2,835 feet.

Punkin’ Chunkin’ has become a staple of the high plains in recent years, with more than 12,000 people coming out to witness just one day of the festivities last year, according to Sherri-Jo Stowell, marketing specialist for the city’s Parks, Recreation and Open Space Department. The sport was invented by a troupe of engineering-savvy Delaware farmers in 1986.

But for as nonchalant as the practice of pumpkin-lobbing may seem to some, make no mistake — these chunkers are serious. Heffelfinger has poured more than $5,000 and nearly 1,000 hours of labor into perfecting his hulking trebuchet, Pluto. But those numbers are paltry when compared to those of another regular Aurora chunker, Greg Wolfe and his impressive Inertia II machine. Wolfe has invested a whopping $75,000 and some 2,000 hours of time into several incarnations of his award-winning contraption.

“I knew I had to transfer that punishment onto other things besides my body,” he said. “I still get some small cuts and rope burn on my hands, though.”

“I’d say 90 percent of what people come out for is just to watch (Inertia II) throw,” said Bobby Cox, a construction project manager for the parks department who doubles as the Punkin’ Chunkin’ Colorado safety supervisor, better known as the pit boss. “It’s just an awesome machine.”

Cox said that this year the event is welcoming a wider demographic of competitors. Teams from Oklahoma and Pennsylvania will be making the allotted seven sanctioned chunks this weekend, including the current Guinness World Record holder for an air cannon-propelled pumpkin toss, The Big 10 Inch.

“For people who follow the sport at all, or whatever you want to call it, it’s very exciting to have someone form Pennsylvania come out and compete,” Cox said.

Also new this year, Stowell said the city has added a lumberjack competition — which features speed wood spitting and log rolling — to the event lineup in an effort to give Chunk-goers something to watch between launches.

“We’ve noticed that in between chunk sessions people really want some entertainment,” she said. “ “We always have the fall festival type things for kids, but we wanted something that adults would really enjoy, too.”

Despite the 2015 additions, hundreds of Chunk-happy eyes will still be on Heffelfinger and his machine’s attempt to break the current world record for a pumpkin-heaving trebuchet. Heffelfinger said that with the help of a new, two-piece arm he’s aiming to hurl a fruit more than 3,000 feet.

And with a little luck from Mother Nature, Cox thinks he has a shot.

“There’s nobody smarter or more capable of building a machine that can throw over 3,000 (feet) than John,” Cox said. “A lot of it depends on weather and on wind, but it’s looking to be a great weekend, so we’ll see.”