On a bandstand near the Del Mar Fairgrounds racetrack-around which a group of spectators clung to an iron fence several yards from center stage front-a row of plastic glasses were lined up across the length of a table draped in red cloth. In a dizzying display of marketing overload, T-shirts and banners emblazoned with the Winchell's logo vied for attention with promotional visuals touting the fair's 2004 "Seussentennial" theme. Also in evidence: a veritable mother lode of honey-glazed donuts.
Such was the setting for the June 12 kick-off of Winchell's World Donut-Eating Championship, one of 70 eating "stomach-centric" competitions sponsored and endorsed this year by the International Federation of Competitive Eating (IFCE).
IFCE describes competitive eating as being "among the most diverse, dynamic and demanding sports in history," dating "to the earliest days of mankind." The organization's annual circuit, a succession of nationwide heats, each featuring a single food, culminates in the Nathan's Famous Fourth of July Hot Dog Eating Contest, "the de facto Olympics of the sport" and "litmus test of patriotism for eaters of all nations." For that event, Japan's Takeru Kobayashi holds the world record: 50 hot dogs and buns in 12 minutes.
The 14 contestants (or "gurgitators") in San Diego's match ranged from neophytes to a few "big dogs" in the world of competitive eating. Among the latter was current world donut-eating champion, New York resident Eric "Badlands" Booker (49 donuts in eight minutes), weighing in at 412 pounds. Working the crowd, Booker regaled the audience with a rap (sample lines: "What you eat in weeks/I eat in mere minutes/The all-you-can-eat buffet is out of business").
In stark contrast to Booker's girth was a diminutive, middle-aged couple from Las Vegas. The fifth-ranked eater in the world, 134-pound Rich "The Locust" LeFevre, holds records including 25 hot dogs and buns in 12 minutes and 10 pounds of chili in 10 minutes.
The personal best for The Locust's wife, ninth-ranked Carlene (a former Richard Simmons aerobic instructor), is 21 hot dogs and buns in 12 minutes. She revealed, however, that during a qualifying competition in Tempe this year, she'd only managed to consume 16 because the dogs hadn't been "cooked to the optimum. They were cold."
Following competitor introductions, hyper-enthusiastic emcee Robert Chandler pumped the crowd up for the upcoming eight minutes of all-you-can-eat frenzy.
Judges filled plastic glasses with hot coffee and water-for optional donut-dipping-and assumed their marks. Visibly agitated contestants-rubbing hands, adjusting belts and bouncing up and down on their heels-took their assigned spots in front of the table, now well-stocked with plates piled high with donuts.
At the stroke of 1 p.m., Chandler finally uttered the words, "On your mark, get set, eat!"
Participants bent over their plates and savagely dug into the sugary fare, dipping pieces of ravaged donuts in coffee or water-the scene rapidly degenerating into a blur of hands, liquid and glaze. Judges frantically scurried to keep contestants supplied with fresh donuts and remove empty plates.
Carlene shifted into a peculiar hopping mode, which Chandler said was "not just a catchy dance"-it also released air from her digestive tract to help "pack down the donuts."
Timothy Janus, a 27-year-old New Yorker, fell to his knees, placing his red-and-white-painted face mere inches from the table as he tore and shoved donuts into his face.
Only a minute and a half into the match, one 30-something female contestant took on a green pallor as she doggedly nibbled on. After several more minutes, the hands of other contestants began to shake.
Mercifully-after an interminably long eight minutes-Chandler shouted out the final 10-second countdown and officially called time. Badlands-shirt front splattered with water, mouth foaming with sugary drool-stood in a daze. Cheek-bloated contestants used napkins to keep partially masticated dough inside bulging, half-open mouths.
In an upset, Jed "Jalapeño King" Donahue of Huntington Beach, having consumed 30.5 donuts, claimed first place. Badlands and The Locust, both crowd favorites, tied for second place with 30 donuts each.
"I don't think anybody wants a runoff," Chandler deadpanned.
Donohue (current world record: 152 jalapeños in 15 minutes) expressed some shock at his victory. "I've got the greatest eaters around me," Donohue said. "I've done well with jalapeños. I haven't done well with any other food group really."
Carlene, who came in third at 20.5, revealed that the only aspect of competitive eating she doesn't enjoy is the final minutes of any competition. "When [the announcer's] counting it down-10, 9, 8-inside you're going nuts," she explained.
The Locust, a tad wistful over his close loss, said he and the wife don't train for competitions, preferring to stick close to a daily health regimen. "Now we're going to go a couple of days eating fruit and having protein shakes," he said, and "just try to make up for the damage we did today."