All our holidays have traditions. We do what we’ve done five or 10 or 20 times before. The traditions can be loud. Or they can be quiet and even spiritual. One of ours is the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest.
The site, Coney Island, is perfect. Long ago I was walking Coney Island for the first time and the woman I was with suggested I have my fortune told. Between us, we didn’t have enough cash to pay the woman’s advertised fee. The fortune teller said she’d tell my fortune anyway. She told me that a major development was going to change my life and the way I lived it. The detail was amazing. I was pumped. And then – she stopped.
“That’s all you get unless you pay me the rest of the money,” she said.
Everybody gets their money’s worth at the hot dog eating contest. And, please, don’t say competitive eaters aren’t athletes. They hold qualifiers around the country, one of which was at Concord Mills. They let me enter. I ate three. Hey, I was working. It’s tough to compete with a dog in one hand and a pen in the other.
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The eaters have 10 minutes to devour as many hot dogs as they can. At Concord Mills, a narrow woman who weighed at most 110 pounds destroyed those dogs. But she wasn’t holding a pen.
Competitive eating supersedes hot dogs. Some of the contestants Tuesday also compete in watermelon, pie, candy, chicken wing, spam and sweet corn eating contests.
The best of the hot dog eaters is Joey “Jaws” Chestnut. He made an appearance at Charlotte Motor Speedway 10 years ago, and we spent some time together. Please don’t typecast him. He’s a milk-drinking champion, too.
He’s a nice guy, kind of quiet, and he’s not big – until the Fourth of July.
George Shea introduced the competitors the way “Let’s get ready to rumble!” Michael Buffer introduces boxers. To get a good place to stand, fans, many of whom wore hot dog head gear, began to show up five hours before the competition began.
Miki Sudo won the women’s competition when she downed 41 hot dogs. Then it was Chestnut’s turn.
Chestnut came out like Usain Bolt. Wet the dogs, shove them into the mouth, and move on to the next. He didn’t look at his competitors. His world had been reduced to mouth, dog, bun. Chestnut seized the lead early and never relinquished it. What the contest lacked in drama it made up for in emotion. As time was about to expire, Chestnut crammed dog number 72 in his face, but mostly in his mouth.
He ran up the score the way former football coach Steve Spurrier once did. Wherever hot dog eaters gather, somebody will say “72” and no explanation will be required. The number is a record for the event and for Chestnut. The victory is his 10th.
He is the greatest hot dog eater in the history of the world. What must it feel like to know that you do something better than anybody ever born? If I ever see him again, I promise I’ll ask.