History of Nathan's

Fourth of July Contest

By George Shea

For nearly 100 years, the United States maintained supremacy in the world of competitive eating.  Peter Washburn, Frank Dellarossa, Mike Devito and Ed Krachie are just a few of the heroes who defended the national pride, taking on challengers from all nations of the world in the annual Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest in Coney Island.  But from December 4, 1996 to July 3, 1999 America endured defeat.   In 1996 Hirofumi Nakajima, a 5-foot, 6-inch noodle-eating champion from Japan, beat Nathan's world champ Ed Krachie, a 6-foot, 7-inch monster weighing in at 360 pounds.

Nakajima then successfully defended his title on July 4, 1997 and July 4, 1998, setting a new world record of 241/2 hot dogs and buns in 12 minutes.  Nakajima returned to Japan and ticker-tape parades with the spoils of victory: the Coveted Mustard Yellow International Belt.  The loss of this belt, considered the World Cup of competitive eating, was a source of embarrassment for all Americans, and for hot dog lovers in particular. 

It was an emotional victory when rookie eater Steve Keiner beat Nakajima on July 4, 1999 to bring home the belt.  And while there may be an asterix next to his record, it was still a great day for our nation.

Each Fourth of July a group of 15 steely-eyed individuals line up behind a 30-foot table in Sweikert Alley beside Nathan's flagship restaurant on Surf Avenue in Coney Island to begin the world hot dog eating |championship.  These competitors, known in the sport of competitive eating as gustatory gladiators, may not appear athletic to the untrained  eye of John Q. Public.  However, they are in peak physical condition -- some peaking at 300 pounds. At 12 Noon, crushed by fans and media begin the grueling 12-minute contest.  They hold several hot dogs and buns in each hand; they dip the dogs in seltzer to cool them; they stuff the hot dogs into their mouths.   It is an unusual spectacle.


      A Piece of New York City History

According to the archives Nathan's Famous, the 1916, the year Nathan's opened on Surf Avenue.  The contest has been held each year since then, except in 1941, when it was canceled as a protest to the war in Europe, and in 1971, when it was canceled as a protest to civil unrest and the reign of free love.  The all-time world record is currently held by Hirofumi Nakajima, a 5-foot, 6-inch noodle-eating champion from Japan, who downed 24 hot dogs and buns in July 1997 to beat U.S. champion Edward Krachie in an international competition.  This unexpected and devastating loss was a wake-up call to all Americans, who are now training furiously to beat Nakajima's impressive record and regain international supremacy in the sport.

Prior to Nakajima's phenomenal win, the world hot dog eating record was held by Krachie, a Maspeth, Queens resident who put away 22 hot dogs and buns on July 4, 1996 to top the previous record Frank "Large" Dellarosa, a fellow Maspeth resident who ate 21 1/2 hot dogs and buns in the 1991 contest.  Peter Washburn, a Brooklyn carnival worker, was the world-record holder prior to this, with 18 1/2 hot dogs and buns.

A very special year for the contest was 1993, which marked the return of the coveted mustard-yellow International Belt to American soil.  In November of 1993, in a special one-on-one contest run by TV Tokyo, Nathan's champ Mike Devito beat Japanese eating phenomena Orio Ito to reunify the world hot dog eating titles (an accomplishment similar to Mike Tyson's reunification of the world's boxing titles in 1987).