MOAB — Before Ralph Eschborn II ceremoniously placed his last and most cherished pumpkin into a 90-foot loading cannon, he christened it with beer.
Once that long-held tradition was complete, the 62-year-old engineer from Chadds Ford, Pa., and his team revved up the engine for a possible record-breaking moment.
On Sunday at 3 p.m. that special moment came.
The team's members — from Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey — held their collective breath as the pumpkin shot out of a 10-inch diameter cannon either to explode into a million pieces and become a pumpkin pie in the sky or to impact intact and break the Guinness World Record.
The La Estrella pumpkin traveled over 700 miles per hour as spotters parked 4,300 feet from the cannon watched it soar over their heads.
A few minutes later, the official surveyor showed the spotters a GPS count of 4,623 feet, beating the former record by 132 feet.
"We got the bad boy with the last bullet," Eschborn proudly said proudly Monday as he and his team began their 40-hour drive to the East Coast to set up for the World Championship Punkin Chunkin occurring this weekend.
"Moab was a great place to tune up for our world championship in Delaware next week. Plus, it has a higher elevation and thus thinner air, which allowed us to shoot farther," Eschborn explained.
Eschborn and pumpkin cannon co-creator Pete Hill, already two-time pumpkin-shooting world champions, had been in town since Wednesday hurtling pumpkins through the air and into the Moab desert.
"We partied a bit last night but a sort of quiet contentment has settled in now. An incredible amount of work has gone into this and it sure is a better 40-hour drive knowing your team has broken a record," Eschborn said.
They built the cannon out of an old grain auger, and because they are both engineers, they were able to develop an advanced cannon using computer modeling. Many parts of their design remain top secret, such as the trigger mechanisms designed to release hundreds of gallons of highly compressed air in 0.2 seconds.
Throughout the week they tried different varieties of vegetables such as the white casper pumpkin and even Green River melons, but the 10-pound tropical pumpkin winner was deemed best for a world record because of its almost perfectly circular shape and smoothness and its similarity to a bowling ball, Eschborn said.
Although partly sponsored by Delaware Kompressed Air, Eschborn said, "we could have bought a car for the money we have put into this, but we love it."
Moab Pumpkin Chuckin' Festival event organizer Jen Sadoff was thrilled by the news of the record. "I hope that the Guinness World Record encourages more teams to head to our higher altitude event to attempt new records in the future," Sadoff said.
Many other Utah teams brought homemade catapults to try their luck. One amateur apparatus threw a pumpkin more than 450 feet, while other teams' pumpkins plopped to the ground. Another team dressed up as Lucha Libre fighters and danced around their machine, creating much applause and hoots from the audience.
"Last year we had over 1,700 people show up. We are excited that this festival has acquired an old-fashioned, fair-like feeling and has brought an awareness to the Youth Garden Project," which hosts the festival, Sadoff said.
Youth Garden Project is a nonprofit organization that helps youths develop community awareness and environment appreciation through organic gardening and community service.
"Some people worry about us wasting food at this festival," Sadoff said, "but these types of pumpkins are actually not edible by humans. Plus, we do gather the pumpkin shards later to feed it to buffalo, so it is all very environmentally friendly."
Members of the Youth Garden project have gathered the seeds from the La Estrella pumpkin and will be planting them in their garden.
"The championships should go pretty well. There may be some sour grapes with people saying 'well, you broke a record at a high elevation, let's see what you can do at sea level' but mostly there is a quite a bit of camaraderie about it all. Punkin chunkers have quite a bit of respect for each other," Eschborn said.