TOP DOG

Ken Hoffman on how Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest will look different this year

Photo by Getty Images.

Dear Coronavirus: I didn't mind when you interrupted the basketball season, or delayed the baseball season and may wreck the football season, but I've got a big problem when you mess with the single greatest sports event in America.

Because of the pandemic, the July 4 Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest will not be held in front of 35,000 screaming, sweaty fans on the corner of Surf and Stillwell in Coney Island. Instead the annual gorging of processed meat will be conducted without fans in an antiseptic, undisclosed location in New York, with full COVID-19 safety protocols in effect.

There will be one more important change for the Independence Day food fight. Instead of 15 competitors, there will be only five superstars at the trough in both the men's and women's event. Twelve-time men's champion Joey "Jaws" Chestnut will be back to defend his Yellow Mustard Belt, while ladies champ Miki Sudo will be shooting for her seventh-consecutive Pepto Bismol Pink Belt.

As usual, Nathan's Famous will blunt criticism for promoting gluttony as sport by donating 100,000 hot dogs to charity. By the way, the announced attendance of 35,000 fans is brought to you by the same accounting firm that used to claim that 400,000 people attended the Thanksgiving Day Parade in downtown Houston. A more accurate figure on Turkey Day: around 25,000, and that's being generous.

Chestnut, while admitting he will miss the fan support this year, says the sterile, climate-controlled conditions may help him break his own record of 74 hot dogs in 10 minutes.

"There's a little bit of a bonus 'cause we're gonna be eating in air conditioning and there are less eaters, so they're making less hot dogs, so they may taste better," he told TMZ. "If I'm in the perfect rhythm, 77 is possible."

Chestnut practically promising a new record ranks up there with Joe Namath guaranteeing a Jets Super Bowl win, Muhammad Ali predicting which round he'd knock out Sonny Liston and Babe Ruth calling his shot. Because of my personal admiration for Chestnut, I will overlook that he should have said "fewer eaters" and "fewer hot dogs." But Jaws isn't here for a grammar lesson, he's here to eat - like no one's ever eaten before.

I have personal history with the July 4 hot dog hijinks. I was a judge for both the men's and women's events for 10 years, making me the longest-running judge in the contest's 104-year history. I also was at the center of the biggest controversy in Coney Island history, but more on that later.

I worked my way up the ranks. My first contest, in 2009, they assigned me to count the hot dogs for a no-name rookie eater at the end of the table. As the years rolled by, I worked my way up the ladder, until 2015, when I opened my assignment envelop and saw the names Matt "Megatoad" Stonie and Miki Sudo. Fans of the gastronomical arts know that was the year Stonie defeated the legendary Chestnut. It's called the greatest upset in sports history.

After the contest, CNN asked to interview me, but I demurred because I had chunks of hot dog and wet buns on my shirt. It wasn't a fashion-forward look. CNN said, how about if you clean up and come to our studios near Columbus Circle in Manhattan? Fine. That afternoon I sat in a small room, wearing makeup, and stared at a robotic camera while anchorman Jonathan Mann interviewed me from CNN International studios in London. Let the record show that I may have made an R-rated joke, which Mann found funny, but was edited out during replays that night.

In 2016, I achieved the height of the hot dog judging profession – I was assigned to count Joey Chestnut's franks. Not only that, I was in front of Miki Sudo, too. They both won. I was back in charge of counting for Chestnut and Sudo in 2017 and 2018. They both won both times again. That made seven champions in a row for me. Hot dog historians call it the record that will never be broken.

During my 10 years judging the Super Bowl of Consumption, I noticed two eaters suffering a "reversal of fortune." That means vomiting. In both cases, the eaters ate their vomit, which almost made me vomit. I was there when vegan protestors threw fake blood on the judges. I was there when former champion Takeru Kobyaski was arrested for crashing the contest Clubber Lang-style.

The year of the great scandal and my personal shame was 2018. As usual, I was assigned Chestnut. Here's some inside baseball: each of the big-time eaters is assigned two judges, one to count the hot dogs, one to flip over the numbers so the crowd and ESPN can tell who's leading. On this day, I was the flipper. As hilarious emcee George Shea counted down 10-9-8, etc., my partner (the counter) yelled to me, "I can't see Joey!" It was true, the judges' platform was lower than in past years, plus ESPN had crowded the platform with its goon helpers. Plus Chestnut brings a coach who was screaming cheers for him next to us. It was a scene, all right.

With my partner unable to see Chestnut clearly, he was only guessing at the number of hot dogs the champ was eating. Whatever my partner yelled in my ear, that's the number I flipped over. When the final bell rang, I had 64 hot dogs on my scoreboard. Chestnut immediately leaned forward and yelled, "You f-'d up!" Emcee Shea let me have it, too. I wanted to holler back, "I was just holding up whatever the other guy told me!"

There was a 10-minute delay before ESPN reviewed the tape and Chestnut was credited with 74 hot dogs, a new world record. I took the heat for the mishap because my miscounting partner high-tailed it out of there. I think he was somewhere on the New Jersey Turnpike by the time they announced Chestnut the winner with his correct total. That night, I was called a "weenie" on newscasts across the U.S. Newspapers were equally corny the next day. Weenie? That's the best you got? It's practically a compliment. I was interviewed on morning radio shows in New York and Washington D.C. John Granato interviewed me on ESPN 97.5 in Houston. He didn't stop at weenie.

The highlight for me, and which almost made the whole incident worthwhile, I was the guest on the Fink Beats the Stomach, the highest-rated podcast dedicated to the sport of competitive eating. It's also the only podcast dedicated to the sport of competitive eating. I'm on Episode 75, it's still online.

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Martin Truex Jr. won his 2nd race of the season last week. Photo via: Wiki Commons.

NASCAR returns to the Commonwealth of Virginia for the Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond Raceway. This is the first of two races here at this track as they will race on Sunday afternoon. This will be different from the normal night race they usually have here as this will definitely affect the racing surface considering how much the sun could make the track slick. It should be a fun race come Sunday.

Last week, Martin Truex Jr. passed Denny Hamlin to capture his second win of the season after rain moved the race to Sunday. He became the first driver to win multiple races after a fierce battle with his teammate Denny Hamlin. The race was filled with tons of wrecks including a fifteen car pileup including Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch. It was one of the better races of the season as there was lots of beating and banging.

The race was not without controversy but not the kind you would expect. Early in the race Rick Ware Racing teammates Cody Ware and James Davison were involved in an altercation. The two were battling towards the back of the pack when Ware decided to drive through his teammate in turn four. The race got much worse for Cody Ware as he was involved in three more cautions all throughout the race. Many people around the sport were quite perturbed by his antics including broadcaster Mike Joy as he was audibly annoyed after Ware spun out later in the race. Many have questioned if the fifth-year driver should even be in the car and overall I can understand why some of those people think that. In his five years of driving, he has finished on the lead lap one time. I hope that he is able to figure it out and find success in the future, but this was not a good look.

The slump continues for two-time champion Kyle Busch

Throughout the race, Busch was running okay for the most part but towards the closing laps of the race he and Chris Buescher got together triggering a fifteen car pileup. Despite all this, he was able to rebound to a respectable tenth place finish. This has been more than likely the toughest stretch of his career since his championship in 2019. Many would say that the omission of Practice and Qualifying has really affected his performance. Whatever the issue is, this team really needs to find some speed, or he could be in danger of missing the playoffs. I look for this team to bounce back considering how talented he is.

Prediction

The driver that I have winning this week is Kyle Larson. This has been an incredible rebound season for Larson as he currently sits fourth in points. He is also second in laps led only to Denny Hamlin. Richmond has been a great track for him as it fits his driving style perfectly as he can run the outside line and find grip where others can't. This track is also rather sentimental to him considering he won his first pole award here during his rookie season in 2014. While he may not have the results he would want he has always been extremely fast here and even won back in 2017. I look for him to capture his second victory of 2021 come Sunday.

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