By Jack Schroeder
One of America’s greatest borderline sporting events is almost upon us. On Independence Day, about twenty brave souls will compete in the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest. The event has been held annually since 1978, although one-off events have allegedly taken place since 1916 (including one in 1967 where a man ate 127 hot dogs in an hour). Even though robust data on participants who finished outside the top slots only date back to 2004, Nathan’s has kept record of each winner and their amount of hot dogs and buns eaten (often abbreviated as HDB). The data not only tells a story that is both uniquely American but also owes a great deal to a wave of Japanese competitors. Below are 9 charts that explain the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest.
The official Nathan’s website keeps results of their contest dating back to 1972, which, for our purposes, began the “modern era” of hot dog eating. To study the world of hot dog eating, I started with a dataset of Nathan’s eaters from 2002-2015 from former HSACer Daniel Alpert ‘18 and expanded it using the official results to include all eaters in the modern era. As I found out, the early years were unstable and marred by organizational changes. Jason Schechter’s 1972 feat of 14 HDB in 3.5 minutes stood as the record for seven years, even as the time grew to 6.5 minutes and then 10 minutes. The best example of how loose things were run in the contest’s rise to relevance is the 1981 edition. After a dismal 1980 contest that saw a tie for first place with 9 HDB in 10 minutes, The New York Times recounted how Thomas DeBarry “downed 11 hot dogs in five minutes and then rushed off with his family to attend a barbecue.” That the years 1972-1998 had written records of only the winners goes to show that Nathan’s didn’t take itself too seriously at that point.
The contest continued to find its footing before deciding on sticking to 12 minutes in 1988. From there, the record increased at a fairly linear pace. The relative parity of the 1970s and early 1980s began to fade away, though, signaling the potential for eating powerhouses. Between 1988 and 1998, there were 5 repeat winners. International eaters began to enter the contest. After the first female victory in 1984 (by Birgit Felden, a West German judo practitioner who claimed to have never eaten a hot dog before the contest), there was a 13 year wait before another international winner. Hirofumi Nakajima’s victories in 1997 and 1998 as well as Kazutoyo Arai’s 2000 victory signaled that more was to come. But for now, the record stood at 25.125 HDB, set by Arai in 2000. Unbeknownst to the Coney Island crowds, the competition was about to have a watershed moment.
In the span of 12 minutes, Japanese eater Takeru Kobayashi more than doubled the competition record by eating 50 hot dogs and buns, ushering in a new era of the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest. Arai ate at a rate of 2.09 HDB/min. Kobayashi ate twice as fast at a rate of 4.17 HDB/min. He claims his secret was largely psychological, but he brought new techniques (such as the Solomon Method) to the competition that outlasted him. After 6 straight titles, Kobayashi won a share of the crown in 2008 but never won again. He was infamously arrested after attempting to go on stage in 2010 and had a contract dispute with Major League Eating that continues to this day.
The man who carried on his legacy is fascinating in his own right, but it is also worth questioning whether Kobayashi’s success trickled down to average competitors. Luckily, Nathan’s has increasing amounts of data available for the Kobayashi years and beyond, allowing me to compare middle-of-the-pack eaters with previous champions. I decided to average the results of each year and weigh each point in the graph below on number of eaters in my dataset. There is a clear jump due to Kobayashi breaking out in 2001, and while there seems to be a drop afterwards, this can be attributed to an increase in contest data from Nathan’s.
The graph makes two things clear: Nathan’s data has improved substantially in the last ten years, and the average HDB has followed the trend started in the 1990s. But since the number of recorded competitors has grown, this trend means that even the average eater today would still beat out the champions of the pre-Kobayashi era. Since there is only data on winners until 1999, this difference in ability across eras is even more pronounced. Similar to how medal-winning swimmers in the early Olympics had times that would not even allow them to qualify today, the champions of the 1970s are similarly flat-footed compared to today’s eaters. Some of this is due to training. Competitors take the contest much more seriously today, as the mere existence of Major League Eating demonstrates. Some of this may also be due to the increased prestige of the event, now drawing eaters from all over the world.
That said, I wanted to confirm this trend was evident even under different rule changes. Although the time was actually reduced to 10 minutes in 2008, I made the same plot as above but using HDB/min on the y-axis. The first two contests have abnormally high HDB/min since the contest was 3.5 minutes, but that number began to dip as the contest time increased. That could point to the event being more a spring in its early incarnations before transforming into the endurance test it is today. After timing stabilized in 1988, it appears that the average eaters of today beat out the champions of yesterday.
That slower pre-Kobayashi growth trend is still evident in two areas of today’s competition. Nathan’s introduced a separate women’s competition in 2011. After Sonya Thomas took home the first three titles, Miki Sudo has reigned supreme over the field since 2014, as she gears up to claim her sixth consecutive victory. While Birgit Felden was the first female victor in the modern era in 1984, the women’s competition tends to see a lower HDB count than the men’s. But this count is still high relative to the pre-Kobayashi eaters. Indeed, the women’s champions today seems to be where we would expect the overall competition to have ended up by now had Kobayashi not revolutionized the event in 2001. I chose to analyze champions only since they provide the only reliable data pre-1999, but I would expect the trend to be similar when judging the entire field.
Next, I took the pre-Kobayashi champions and graphed their HDB with the eaters who finished in places 3-5 since 2001. The trend curves upward only a bit sharper than with the average eater, which means that outliers in either direction — good or terrible — skew the results. That the fifth-best eater today is eating around the average in a field of 20 is evidence that the ridiculous surge in eating ability may be concentrated at the very top, while the average eaters are still improving.
Today, nobody is pushing the record more than Joey Chestnut. After beating the record by more than 12 HDB in 2007, he has gone on to win 11 of the last 12 editions of Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest. He has broken his own record 5 times and is the heavy favorite heading into the 2019 contest.
The easiest way to visualize his dominance is to plot the 20 all-time best performances at the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest. Kobayashi has 3 entries on the list. Carmen Cincotti and Matt Stonie (who broke Chestnut’s streak in 2015) each have 2, and Pat Bertoletti has 1. The other 12 belong to Chestnut.
His dominance still stands when measured in HDB/min. In fact, the only difference is that Kobayashi’s 2007 second-place finish (63 HDB) falls off since the competition was still 12 minutes at the time. Tim “Eater X” Janus’ fourth-place finish in 2009 (53 HDB) enters, which points to a spectacular feat.
The top four finishers in 2009 were among the 20 greatest performances of all time at Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest. Even then, the gap from the top was still enormously high. Janus finished 15 HDB away from Chestnut’s record-breaking 68. It was Kobayashi’s last year at the contest, after which he would begin his contract dispute with Major League Eating. It was the highest HDB for Kobayashi, Bertoletti, and Janus. Chestnut, on the other hand, has beaten 68 HDB 4 times since then. 2009 was, for all intents and purposes, the greatest Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest of all time.
That is not to take anything away from this year’s upcoming contest. As the number of hot dogs eaten continues to increase, perhaps Chestnut will find new challengers awaiting him on the Coney Island boardwalk. Or maybe the world will get to witness a true master of the craft on display with another dominant performance. Regardless, Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest is a semi-sporting event with a mostly-storied history that started to tell a great story once someone had the thought to start writing it down. And that story will continue this Independence Day on the Coney Island boardwalk, as a handful of men and women attempt to push their stomachs to the limit in front of cheering crowds.
If you have any questions for Jack about this article, please feel free to reach out to him at firstname.lastname@example.org