WILMINGTON, Del. (AP) — It sounds like someone's homesick.
A year after moving the World Championship Punkin Chunkin from Delaware to Illinois, event organizers have made a plea to their fans here: "Bring us home."
That's their wistful message as they plot for 2020.
"The biggest thing is to create the buzz. It's a great tradition to try to keep continuing," Frank Payton, president of the World Championship Punkin Chunkin Association, told Delaware Online/The News Journal. "It has grown immensely over the years. We can be popular again, but it's going to take everybody's help."
While organizers said Illinois had better state protections against liability — a special focus after a 2016 malfunction left a person critically injured — it drew a much smaller crowd than back home in Delaware.
Payton estimates less than 15,000 people attended last year's event in Rantoul, Illinois, over two days, down from the estimated 30,000 in 2016.
At its height, the nonprofit Punkin Chunkin drew up to 100,000 wide-eyed spectators to Sussex County, raising money for local charities.
In Illinois, the top machines competed and records were broken even though event organizers and teams had limited resources considering the new location was 800 miles away. They also faced a time crunch with the move.
Since 2000, Punkin Chunkin has donated more than $1 million to charity, organizers said.
But due to the smaller scale last year, only $1,500 was donated, going toward scholarships for student volunteers, Payton said.
"It was small in comparison to previous years, but we did have money left over to be able to do that," he added. "Something is better than nothing. It's the only reason we do this event.
"Any event that has been on a hiatus for two years and moving to a new location can expect some losses. I think we did better than expected and if anything is promising, it's the fact that we're looking to have the event again, so it wasn't that much of a loss."
With that in mind, the association has released its appeal for a new home near its old home.
"While we consider the 2019 event a success, we also realize that the distance from our 'home base' here in Sussex County precluded many people from attending," the press release reads. "Before we commit to taking the World Championship on the road in 2020, we want to see if Delmarva can help bring this event closer to home and closer to our dedicated base of volunteers, vendors, teams, and fans that supported us for so many years.
"To do that, we need somewhere willing to hold the event with lots of open space."
They are searching for a property like the event's former longtime Bridgeville home, which had more than 600 acres. But most importantly, the property must be able to contain the pumpkins that can fly more than 5,000 feet thanks to DIY air cannons made by competitors.
"We would like to keep (the event) within a five-hour radius," Payton said.
Here's the catch: They are looking at states surrounding Delaware such as Maryland and Virginia, not necessarily just The First State.
They blame the state's liability protections for having to look outside Delaware.
"Our roots will always be in Delaware, but without needed legislation limiting the liability that nonprofit organizations and landowners leasing their property may be exposed to from frivolous lawsuits, holding the event on private property within the state is not feasible," they wrote. "A partnership with the state of Delaware or one of our counties to hold the event on state/county-owned land would extend such protections to the WCPCA.
“If Delaware is once again not an option for the World Championship Punkin Chunkin we will continue to expand our search outside of the state, looking throughout the Delmarva region for a suitable property.”
While the "door is still open for Illinois," according to Payton, anyone who thinks they have a plot of land that would be a good fit is asked to contact the association at punkinchunkin.com.
Punkin Chunkin is a days-long display of engineering (and tailgating) that was founded in 1986. After a strong 28-year run, the event was canceled in 2014 and 2015 due to logistical and insurance reasons.
Just when fans thought the event was gone for good, Punkin Chunkin came roaring back in 2016, complete with a return of national television coverage thanks to the Science Channel.
But that's when disaster struck. A cannon malfunctioned and a piece of metal struck a member of the television production staff in the head.
They stopped filming and did not air that year's program.
The event wasn't held in 2017 due to lawsuits brought by the woman against the association and the property owner, which were eventually dismissed. The event was not held in 2018 either.
Even so, it's been quite a successful run for an oddball event — one that led to plenty of head scratching when it was first announced.
The Sussex County-based contest hosted its early years at Eagle Crest Aerodrome off Del. 1 between Lewes and Milton as a "kind of redneck folk festival," a spokesman for the event told The News Journal back in 1989.
Now, Payton is looking to bring it back closer to its roots. But the five-year association president admits he needs help.
"A lot of people were saddened by the fact they considered we left our home state. If people want to criticize us or come help us, we'd rather them help us," he says, turning to the odds of there being a Punkin Chunkin 2020. “As far as certainty, I don't think there is any certainty in life, especially when it comes to a nonprofit like this. People either want it to happen or they don't.”