Canzano: A word on the legend of Joey Chestnut
Is he an athlete? I state my case.
Several years ago I was invited to Portland International Raceway to take a few laps around the track in a modified Champ Car.
The vehicle had two seats. I was told its carbon-fiber body would rocket around the course propelled by a 900-horsepower engine at speeds that pushed toward 230 mph.
I was greeted at the track by the car’s pit crew, who fitted me for a flame-resistant suit and a helmet. The driver, Sébastien Bourdais, shook my hand as I was being shoe-horned into a passenger seat directly behind him.
Bourdais casually asked: “Who’s your favorite driver?”
“You are,” I shot back.
I knew nothing about the guy at the time. But my life was in his hands. I only bring this up because I thought about that high-octane ride as I watched replays of Joey Chestnut eating 62 hot dogs to win the Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest on Tuesday.
I climbed out of the car that day drenched in sweat after watching Bourdais pinball through a series of turns, decelerating from 180 mph to 90 mph at the precise moment I was certain we were dead. I later learned that my favorite driver was one of the most successful open-wheel racing drivers in the history of the sport.
Yeah, I wrote it — sport.
Because it is.
Bourdais is an amazing athlete. He has terrific reflexes, great vision, trains for endurance and strength, and competes at the highest levels of his discipline. If I had any doubt about his athleticism, it was erased over three exhilarating laps. The car is a technological wonder, but like the Kentucky Derby winner, the horse goes nowhere good without the jockey at the controls.
So what about Joey Chestnut?
He trains, too. There’s endurance and skill involved. For sure, he’s the best in the world at what he does. Chestnut has won the annual hot-dog eating contest 16 times in the last 17 years. But does consuming more than 18,000 calories in 10 minutes actually make him an athlete?
I spoke with Chestnut a few years ago in person. He was visiting Oregon on a promotional trip — paid $5,000 by one of the tribal casinos to eat a bunch of ribs really fast. He came into my radio-show studio, arriving with a girlfriend and a bad handshake.
I asked the late Mike Leach once whether he judged people by their handshake. The long-time football coach told me, “I try not to make wholesale judgements, but it definitely goes in their file.”
Chestnut told me that day all about his training and the agonizing post-event cleanse. (It takes four full days for his digestive system to recover from the hot-dog event.) Chestnut talked about how he got his start and spoke all about how he turned eating — something we all do — into a six-figure salary.
Chestnut has also consumed:
141 hard-boiled eggs in eight minutes.
55 donuts in 8 minutes.
121 Twinkies in six minutes.
413 chicken wings in 12 hours.
32 Big Macs in 38 minutes.
25.5 ice cream sandwiches in six minutes.
47 grilled-cheese sandwiches in 10 minutes.
Decide for yourself what his most impressive feat is. While you do, know that Chestnut told USA Today that his earnings last year eclipsed $500,000.
I asked my followers on Twitter and Instagram whether they think Chestnut is an athlete. I was surprised that the question essentially divided the audience. Some think Chestnut absolutely is athletic, just like my favorite race-car driver.
A few others simply said: “Stop.”
Or: “Is this a serious question?”
Another joked: “When I think of the greatest athletes of our time, the Big Four come to mind. Jordan. Brady. Tiger. Chestnut.”
I had an old Italian great uncle. Uncle Henry could eat two pounds of spaghetti in a single sitting. After, he’d plop down on the sofa, bust open the top button of his slacks, throw his head back and nap. It was a hell of a feat, but nobody ever mistook him for Magic Johnson.
After his hot-dog eating win on Tuesday, Chestnut said: “I got leftover room, so I’ll be having beers later.”
I rest my case.
Still, let’s give him credit. The guy puts on a jersey and consumes large amounts of food really fast. He’s worked hard at his craft, but it’s a performance/skill not a sport. There may be a competition involved, it may be televised on ESPN, and he’s clearly the best on the planet, but he’s going to have to settle for being a legend.
Like Leach said, put it in his file.
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