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