Hot dog-eating contest pits U.S. against Japan 130-pound record-holder gobbled 24.5 franks in 12 minutes last year

July 04, 1998|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

NEW YORK -- Forget Holland vs. Argentina or Germany vs. Croatia in the World Cup. Today, the biggest showdown will be America vs. Japan on the boardwalk at Coney Island.

It's a clash of epicurean proportions. Cue the theme from "Rocky" and loosen your belt: When the dust finally settles here, only one man will stagger away with Nathan's Famous International Hot Dog Eating crown.

Will it be Ed "the Animal" Krachie, a 350-pound ex-champ from Queens who lost the title last year? Or will Hirofumi "Magic" Nakajima, a 130-pound furniture mover from Tokyo, confound the experts and repeat his 1997 triumph?

Last year, he set a world record in the contest, gobbling an amazing 24.5 hot dogs in 12 minutes. Nakajima's victory stunned many contestants, who still find it hard to believe that such a small man could eat so much, so fast.

"I have a secret, but I cannot reveal it," Nakajima, 22, said in a phone interview through an interpreter, just before getting on a plane bound for New York.

"Ed Krachie is a great and powerful man. But I, too, am powerful. And I will win."

Nakajima is a hero and celebrity in Japan, where he holds numerous records: sushi (100 pieces in 30 minutes); noodle soup (15 bowls in 60 minutes); soba noodle (five baskets in 30 minutes); curry with rice (five bowls in 30 minutes).

Nuts to that, says Krachie, 35, who lost the coveted Mustard Yellow International Belt last year. He has been training -- drinking gallons of water (to expand the stomach) and eating huge amounts of food.

He has mustered all his powers, concentrating on videotapes of Nakajima's performance, and trying to forget his own.

"People say to me, 'How could you let him [Nakajima] take it?' " says the 6-foot-7 mechanical engineer. "But I didn't do anything! I ate 22 hot dogs and felt like I was about to have a heart attack. This guy keeps going. How do you beat that?"

It was a dark day for America, says promoter George Shea, sounding more like a Coney Island barker than a PR man for Nathan's. "This is national honor," he insists. "And even if America loses the title once again, the show must go on!"

There are 13 other wannabes in the competition, which began in 1916. To enter, individuals must either win one of several regional competitions or receive a special invitation. The winner gets an imitation marble trophy and 480 hot dogs.

Just as in world sports, the level of competition has grown at Nathan's since the 1950s and 1960s, when winners wolfed down a mere 17 or 18 dogs. Nowadays, you have to clear 22 just to be in the running.

"You gotta be alert," says Mike "the Scholar" DeVito, who beat Krachie in 1994. "You need to keep your face close to the plate. You've got to squeeze the rolls with one hand to get the air out of them, while you eat with the other hand."

lTC A Wall Street executive, DeVito is a contrast to blue-collar types who typically enter the contest. But when it comes to stuffing himself in front of strangers, he fits right in.

"I once ate 14 hot dogs at a baseball game, so my friends told me I had a future in this," he says.

Pub Date: 7/04/98

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