Joey Chestnut, the No. 1 competitive eater in the world, still isn’t exactly sure how he broke his own record last summer — eating 74 hot dogs (and buns) in just 10 minutes at the annual Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest.
“I just found a rhythm,” Chestnut, 35, told The Post. (His previous record, set in 2017, was 72 dogs.) “It’s almost like being a marathon runner. You hit a stride and just go with it.”
An estimated 40,000 people, many of them wearing foam hot-dog hats, will descend on the Coney Island boardwalk this Fourth of July to see if Chestnut can do it again. Crowds could be especially big because of a documentary, “The Good, the Bad, the Hungry,” which makes its television premiere Tuesday on ESPN and focuses on the old rivalry between Chestnut and former Nathan’s speed-eating superstar Takeru Kobayashi.
George Shea, who has run the competition since 1991, is as surprised as anybody that the annual event grew into a national phenomenon.
“I’m a man of zero vision,” he says. “In the beginning, any business person would’ve looked at this and said, ‘You are insane. You’re gonna lose so much money!’ ”
Just the opposite happened. The Nathan’s contest now has sponsorships from brands including Coca-Cola, Netflix, Pepto-Bismol, Old Navy and Heinz. Since 2004, it’s aired exclusively on ESPN — the one-hour telecast starts at noon Eastern time Saturday — with just over 1 million viewers tuning in last year.
Participant Geoffrey Esper, a 44-year-old from Oxford, Mass., who has been a competitive eater since 2014, feels the pressure of the increasingly high-stakes contest.
“I was really disappointed with my results last year,” says the high-school teacher, who’s also the No. 3-ranked competitive eater in the world. “I should have done way better.” He came in fourth last year, consuming just 41 hot dogs. “I think I fasted too long before the contest,” he says. “And I got myself too tired.”
The contest is more grueling than outsiders may realize, Esper tells The Post. “It’s not like Thanksgiving dinner, where you eat till you get full,” he says. “You eat till you’re full and then you keep eating. And eating. And then you eat some more. And some more.”
The origins of the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest vary, depending on who you ask.
According to Shea, the official story is that it began in 1916, the same year that Nathan Handwerker opened his first hot-dog stand in Coney Island. That Fourth of July, four Nathan’s customers, all recent immigrants, argued about who was the most American. They decided to settle it with an eating contest.
“A guy named Jim Mullen was declared a winner after eating 13 hot dogs,” Shea says. “That clearly made him the most American. And a tradition was born.”
It’s a fun tale, but it probably isn’t true.
“The story was made up by Max Rosey and Mortimer Matz, the p.r. guys who created the contest in the 1970s,” says Jason Fagone, author of “Horsemen of the Esophagus: Competitive Eating and the Big Fat American Dream” (Broadway Books).
Shea, who has made it his life’s work to nurture and build on the contest’s mythology, admits that the origin story is “aspirational history.”
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Gersh Kuntzman, who covered the Nathan’s competition for The Post for more than a decade, says that during the 1970s and ’80s, it was a low-attended curiosity, attracting a few hundred tourists and creating “an excuse to get a photo of a guy with his mouth stuffed full of hot dogs . . . into the paper every July 5th.”
“[Shea] brought more of a showman’s approach,” Kuntzman says.
As emcee, Shea has a dramatic stage presence, introducing competitors with wild backstories: “Three days ago, he broke up with his girlfriend and euthanized his dog to leave a void of emptiness inside of him that he can fill today with hot dogs and buns,” he once said of a competitor.
The contest was coed in the beginning, but since 2011 there have been separate divisions for men and women.
Shea says this was to “conform to International Olympic Committee standards.” Miki Sudo from Las Vegas, the five-time winner of the female division, prefers the gender separation. “I would be delusional if I said I could eat like Joey,” Sudo, 34, tells The Post. She took the top prize with just 37 hot dogs. “I don’t want to kill myself trying to eat like him,” she says.
The big cultural shift for Nathan’s happened in 2001, when Takeru Kobayashi from Nagano, Japan, walked onstage and devoured 50 hot dogs — double the previous year’s winner.
“In eating, there are two eras,” says Fagone. “Before Kobayashi and After Kobayashi. Until he showed up, competitive eaters tended to be in on the joke. They were doing it with some degree of irony. But Kobayashi wasn’t, and that was his great innovation.”
Kobayashi tells The Post that his secret was a combination of training — it involves drinking three gallons of water in 90 seconds to expand his stomach — and his “ability to focus more than others.”
He also originated, in 2002, the “Solomon Method,” a speed-eating technique where each hot dog is split in half and both ends forced into the mouth, side by side. (The name, invented by fans, is an allusion to King Solomon, who once threatened to split a baby in half.)
Kobayashi was unbeatable for six years, until Chestnut, a civil engineer from Vallejo, Calif., defeated him in 2007, gulping down 66 hot dogs to Kobayashi’s 63. An ESPN announcer described it as “the greatest moment in the history of American sports.”
Shea contends this isn’t hyperbole.
“Joey is freedom,” he says. “When he brought the Mustard Belt back to America, that was huge. It was inspirational. In that moment, he became America itself. He is Mister Fourth of July.”
Earning the Nathan’s title brings more than a mustard-yellow belt: Cash prize for first place, for both genders, is $10,000.
And this isn’t the only contest with high financial stakes. There are roughly 3,500 eating competitions in the US annually, and the top awards range from $1,000 to $8,500. There’s real money to be made for anyone with enough gastrointestinal endurance.
Chestnut has won nearly $600,000 during his eating career since 2004, according to competitive eating database EatFeats, and that doesn’t include endorsements and business deals such as the line of condiments Chestnut launched last year.
But the money doesn’t come without risks. A 2007 study, published in the American Journal of Roentgenology, found that competitive eating could lead to, among other serious ailments, profound gastroparesis — a disorder in which weakened stomach muscles cannot properly move food through the digestive tract. Chestnut admits he worries about the health consequences but tries to stay ahead of it, getting two separate blood panels during his training months and meeting with his doctor regularly.
“I’m usually 30 pounds heavier after the summer, and [my doctor’s] not too happy about that,” he says. “But she says it’s better than playing a contact sport and getting hit in the head.”
Former competitive eater and Nathan’s champ Tim “Eater X” Janus retired in 2016. Earlier this month, he revealed on Twitter that he’s concerned about how competitive eating has ravaged his health.
“[I] threw up almost 10,000 times in my 12-year career,” he tweeted. “I don’t yet know the effect that had on my stomach, my throat, my teeth and the little capillaries inside my head that strained with each retch.”
After 11 wins — he lost only once, in a 2015 upset to Matt Stonie where he fell just two hot dogs short — Chestnut appears unstoppable. But is he?
Shea has “no idea how anyone could beat Joey. There are great eaters out there, but nothing of his caliber. Certainly nobody since Kobayashi.”
Questions remain as to whether Kobayashi will ever return to the Nathan’s stage. Since his stunning defeat in 2007, he became embroiled in a legal dispute with Major League Eating, the national competitive eating circuit co-founded by Shea and his brother Rich in 1997.
Kobayashi and other competitive eaters were asked to sign exclusive contracts, which restricted their involvement in non-MLE events. Kobayashi calls it “a creepy contract taking ownership of the athletes,” but Shea insists the terms are reasonable.
“This business is like a marriage,” he says. “You have to give up certain things to make that relationship work. We wanted a monogamous relationship, but Kobayashi found that to be outrageous.”
Shea claims Kobayashi has “always been welcome at the Fourth of July competition — we ask him to come back every year.” Kobayashi, who hasn’t competed in the contest since 2009, says it will never happen. (Although he was arrested in 2010 for attempting to crash it.)
This Fourth of July, Kobayashi will be competing at a hot-dog eating contest just 10 miles away, at the Kings County Distillery in Vinegar Hill, as part of a fundraiser for local LGBTQIA foundations.
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It may not appear that Chestnut has a worthy rival this year, but Chestnut isn’t so sure.
“Geoffrey Esper worries me,” Chestnut says. “I’ve lost two contests to him this month.” (The Hooters Wing Eating Championship on June 19 and the Donettes Eating Championship on June 7.) “I really need to break this losing streak with him.”
Esper is flattered but insists he’s no danger to Chestnut.
“Joey has no competition in this field,” he says. “Sometimes he lets down his guard with other eating contests, but not hot dogs. That’s his realm. When he’s in his element, he’s unreachable.”
It’s hard to tell if Chestnut is just building up tension to bring some drama to the Independence Day festivities, or if he’s legitimately concerned. But he talks like an athlete who knows he can’t stay on top forever.
“It doesn’t matter how many years I’ve won, I can’t get complacent,” he says. “I still get nervous, especially when July gets closer. I’m counting down the hours before it starts.”
NATHAN’S FAMOUS FUN FACTS
- Current price of a Nathan’s hot dog at Coney Island: $3.99
- Original 1916 price: A nickel
- Number of hot dogs sold at Nathan’s since 1916 launch: 500 million
- Cost of all 74 hot dogs consumed by Hot Dog Eating Contest champ Joey Chestnut last July (before tax): $295.26
- Calories consumed by Chestnut in 10 minutes: 22,200
- Total number of hot dogs eaten by all Nathan’s competitors last July: 956
- Total cost for all hot dogs consumed by Nathan’s competitors last July: $3,814.44
- Notable Nathan’s customers: Al Capone. Winston Churchill, Barbra Streisand, Joseph Stalin and Cary Grant
- Plus one celeb whose funeral was catered by Nathan’s: Lower East Side native Walter Matthau, who requested it in his will