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Frank Champ May Have Gut of Steel

July 5, 1999

NEW YORK (AP) _ Most mortals would have serious indigestion after just a tiny fraction of Steve Keiner’s hot dog feast.

But after winning the annual Nathan’s July Fourth hot dog-eating contest by wolfing down 20 1/4 franks and buns, Keiner did something even more mind-boggling: He ate a couple more.

``I feel great,″ said the 317-pound Keiner, of Egg Harbor Township, N.J. ``And one other thing: They were simply delicious.″

Keiner, 50, downed the dogs in 12 minutes on Sunday to beat 134-pound Hirofumi Nakajima of Japan, who’d won the contest the past two years.

``I took the Zen approach,″ Keiner said, acknowledging his competitor’s cultural influence. ``I went down a path that the hot dog was one with me, and I was one with the universe. Could I get some french fries now?″

Keiner, an electrical inspector, wrapped himself in the American flag and posed for pictures after winning.

``There are tears of joy in Coney Island!″ said publicist George Shea, who gave a running commentary throughout the all-you-can-eat dogfight. ``The belt is back in America!″

He was referring to a mustard-yellow weightlifter’s belt that goes to the annual event’s winner.

Two contestants tied for second, coming within a mouthful of winning, at 20 hot dogs apiece. Nakajima placed fourth, downing only 19 franks.

``I feel bad, terrible,″ said Nakajima, 24, via an interpreter. ``I don’t want to look at a hot dog right now.″

Nakajima, a former noodle-eating champion, said he was retiring from eating contests. ``I’m done,″ he said. ``That’s it.″

The contest has been held on Independence Day at the Nathan’s flagship store nearly every year since 1916.

Many contestants dipped their hot dogs in a lubricating water bath before eating them, but Keiner said he comes from the purists’ school.

``I tried that once,″ he said, ``but it ruins the bouquet.″

Like spectators at an air show morbidly poised for disaster to strike, the crowd watched with slightly nauseous fascination as the men competed.

``I was waiting for someone to vomit,″ said Stacey Simcox, as she ate her own hot dog _ just one _ after the winner was announced.

And of course no event in New York is complete without a protest. This one had vegetarians handing out fliers.

``It’s a pretty disgusting spectacle,″ said Alex Press of New York. ``We love animals.″

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