CODE ORANGE: Aurora teams work to squash the competition at annual Punkin Chunkin festival

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In October, the leaves change, and somewhere on eastern Aurora plains, a pumpkin is launched 500 miles-per-hour into stormy skies.

The first day of Punkin Chunkin’ 2018 provided no disappointment.

Each October, teams gather at Arapahoe Park Racetrack with the intent of launching a pumpkin farther than ever before with their pressure cannons and catapults, trebuchets, and centrifugal-force machines.

Some are 50 feet tall, and most are no joke.

On Saturday, a few thousand folks slowly filled bleachers with hands full of beer and foot-long bratwurst hotdogs to watch the pumpkins fly.

Across a partition stood four enormous compression cannons, 16 catapults, and a hundred weirdos in hardhats pouring their hearts and souls into the competition.

One Colorado-based team, The Big Ten Inch, has long held the world record for the farthest distance to fire a pumpkin: 5,545.2 feet, over a mile.

The crowd roared as The Big Ten Inch prepared to launch its second pumpkin of the day. The greenish ordnance was loaded into a pressure chamber and prepared for its final journey from the 100-foot-long barrel.

People rowdily cheered and counted down with the emcee.

Then the barrel roared like a jet engine. The pumpkin is launched at such a velocity it’s barely a blur as it soars 1,500 feet into the air before disappearing into a cloud, still climbing. The barrel smoked, and the crowd cheered.

But The Big 10 Inch team were disappointed with the day’s results. Cold weather (increasing drag) and altitudinal winds (blowing head-on, from the south) were limiting their distance to under 4,000 feet – and they came to beat their old record.

“Go big or go home,” said Ralph Eschborn Jr., the team leader. He’s an engineer originally from Pennsylvania. Eschborn said he originally got into chunkin’ punkins back East, when he and some friends heard that farmers in rural Delaware had started a pumpkin-launching contest.

“We figured they were just farmers,” said Eschborn. “But they opened a can of whoop-ass on us.”

Eschborn and his buddies went back to the drawing board. The next year, they won.

The punkin chunkin’ scene continued to grow in the 90s to the point where contests were expanded across the country to states like Colorado.

This year there are three divisions: compressed cannons like The Big Ten Inch; trebuchets, which are massive catapults launched by counterweights; and centrifugal-force machines, powered by a big spinning wheel. Only one team competed in the last category, but couldn’t launch for safety concerns.

Those concerns aren’t unfounded. According to several chunkers, a trebuchet launched a pumpkin backwards two years ago, traveling clear over a building where it smashed next to a cop car. Some years ago, a pumpkin was rumored to have exploded through a sub-division carport like an artillery shell.

Two years ago in Delaware, where it all began, a giant chunk of metal blew off of a compression cannon and struck a reporter in the head. She was originally reported dead but survived.

The sheer power of the sport is what attracts chunkers like Jeff Hatch, a former explosive ordnance disposal specialist with the US military, who is now embedded with the “Stratocaster” compression cannon team.

He said his vehicle hit an IED in Afghanistan, leaving him discharged and disabled.

“I really like to blow stuff up, but I can’t do that anymore,” Hatch said. “So I do this.”

His team member, Leilani Kirsch, said she first heard about punkin chunkin’ on an early date with a Stratocaster team member.

“I had no idea what it was,” Kirsch said. “I was thinking, ‘Yeah right, there’s no way you launch a thirty-foot cannon. But if you do, I gotta shoot it.’”

Eventually she was caught hook, line and sinker by the sport. She even bought an old fire truck in San Diego and drove it out to transport the Stratocaster, which is painted like the Death Star.

A cold head-wind picked up before the third and final round of the day, blowing over banners and fold-up chairs. Not an ideal day for punkin chunkin’, but nevertheless, the crowd in the bleachers grew.

Back at The Big Ten Inch, Ralph Eschborn Jr. said he wouldn’t mind losing this year.

“We’ll let these guys have it,” he said, grinning and gesturing to the three other compressed-cannon contraptions. “And then we’ll be back.”