Ellicott City teen takes aim at a Punkin' Chunkin' title

November 03, 2003|By Liz F. Kay

Ricky Nietubicz had a mission this weekend: to shoot his pumpkins farther than he had ever shot them before. The 17-year-old Mount Hebron High School senior has competed in the Punkin' Chunkin' world championship since 1995. First held in the 1980s, the object of the contest is to determine who can shoot a pumpkin the farthest using cannons, catapults or human power.

Nietubicz, who lives in Ellicott City, has attended the competition since he was a preschooler because his family has a summer home in Rehoboth Beach, Del., not far from where the contest is held. His first submission, a catapult, grew out of a Cub Scout activity.

Yesterday Nietubicz and his teammate, 17-year-old Mount Hebron junior Alain DeVernil, shot a pumpkin 3,015 feet -- exactly 3.9 feet short of third place.

"We were fourth by a yard, which is kind of a heartbreaker," Nietubicz said.

For his earlier effort, Nietubicz and his fellow Scouts launched marshmallows across his kitchen using wooden blocks and rubber bands to figure out the best way to propel the pumpkins. Their 5-foot-by-6- foot structure, which relied on surgical tubing and a plastic bowl, won the under-10 division.

He was also impressed by the adult chunkers. "It was fascinating that these guys could actually build these things," he said. Some structures used two telephone poles, for example.

Nietubicz's machines have evolved over time. This year he adjusted an air cannon he designed, which last year shot a pumpkin more than 2,400 feet. It took his team, Spitting Seeds, to fourth place.

For those considering taking up his hobby, chunkin' isn't cheap. Nietubicz spent more than $1,000 -- mostly to hire a professional welder to cut the pipe. He has sponsors, but contestants who live closer to the contest have an easier time, he said. "It's hard to explain to local businesses," Nietubicz said. "You gotta try to explain it to them while they look at you like you have two heads."

And, as always, this was another opportunity to compete against Jake Burton of Delaware, with whom Nietubicz has a friendly rivalry. They're always willing to lend a hand if one or the other has a problem with his machine.

"I always end up being about a year behind him," Nietubicz said.

But Delaware wasn't his only hope for glory. Nietubicz said he won awards at the Howard County and Baltimore science fairs for his research on the effect of air resistance on the trajectory of a pumpkin.

He hopes to compete again, next time in the more intense adult competition. And he may have some help: Mount Hebron physics teacher Tom Fruscello, who attended the competition this year, is considering joining the team. "It's going to be a total rebuild for next year," Nietubicz said. "We're coming after the big boys."

There's no turning back once you've given the sport a try, he said.

"Once you do it, there's a little bit of a rush," he said.

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