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X: You’ve followed the Nathan’s contest for several years now so I figured you have a sense of how things will go in 08?
HH: I’ve got a better handle on it than you do, that’s for sure. That’s why they sent you to ask me the questions.
X: So there are lots of qualifiers this year, five more than usual. What’s your take?
HH: I know it’s gonna be awfully crowded up there at the final table. It looked pretty tight when there were only 16 competitors.
X: Do you expect new faces?
HH: There’ll be new faces, it’s a nice opportunity for the guys who wouldn’t sneak in otherwise. It’s tough to qualify for this thing. I don’t think everybody realizes how difficult it is.
X: What’s the first contest you watched?
HH: I became a fan late in high school. My family took me to Philadelphia to tour Bryn Mawr and we stopped at Home Depot where there was a Nathan’s contest. That year I think the guy ate like 18 hot dogs to qualify.
X: How has the level of competition changed over the years?
HH: Back then maybe 10 guys could eat 20 or more hot dogs, and they were all locks for Coney Island. But 20 hot dogs does not go as far as it used to. I’d say 25 circuit guys can easily eat the deuce. That’s a lot of capable eaters. Even with the extra five slots at this year’s finals, a couple of guys with a lot of talent will be watching from home or from the sidelines.
X: You use the word “guys,” do you not count Sonya and Juliet among the field?
HH: I adore and respect those ladies. Don’t make me get all Susan B on your ass. You know I was including them. My use of “guys” is general, sort of a colloquialism.
X: It’s not a pure colloquialism, such as “ain’t” or “gonna” but I know “guys” is like “y’all” and I think that’s a colloquialism.
X: Anyway, say someone downs over 20 HDBs and fails to qualify, how do you feel it impacts them as an eater?
HH: That’s just the way it is. That’s the evolution of the sport. Evolution’s cruel. It’s the same with field hockey. With the schooling that goes on early, the knowledge that’s out there. I tell my girls it’s hard to be a star these days so play because you love to play.
X: Will the extra qualifiers have any effect on strategy?
HH: Absolutely! You’ve got a heck of a lot of talented eaters bunched up in the northeast, and enough qualifiers in the region that everybody feels they have some hope. But the problem is you’ve got a heck of a lot of qualifiers elsewhere in the country too. It’s gonna come down to travel. If the guys in the east are willing to travel, they can avoid crowded fields and pick up a win. That will keep the finals honest. If guys try to eat too close to home they’re going to bump into each other and knock each other out.
X: And that’s an issue how?
HH: It’s an issue dear boy because it will result in somebody less deserving picking up a win. It’s entirely possible that an eater in a qualifier away from your beloved eastern corridor could win with 16 hot dogs. They’ll be in Coney while a 22 dog guy like Keeler will be watching from home.
HH: Very interesting. Voids like that occurred in the old days too, Krazy Kev was a master at finding the slot no matter what it took. Maybe the additional qualifiers are good, maybe they’re bad.
X: Realistically, how many spots do you think are up for grabs?
HH: There’s 18 qualifiers. Joey and Conti are in and seven Americans are certain to grab spots soon: Bertoletti, LeFevre, Simpson, Thomas, Hunt, Bob Shoudt and you, Eater X.
X: You live near Philly as does U.S. Male. Do you hang out?
HH: No. Why?
X: Just curious. What are your specific thoughts on the eaters you think are certain to qualify?
HH: The top eaters I named are apex predators; you all fear an encounter with one of your own. I am sure you already compared notes or texted or chatted online so you’re sure to not cross paths. There’s about 20 other guys who have the talent to qualify but don’t live online and aren’t part of your little faction - I call it the Apex Club - so for non-members there’s only 10 or 11 slots up for grabs, those are the slots I find interesting.
X: How do you think Juliet will do this year?
HH: She’ll qualify. She’s stuck in a tough region, however, and there are a couple of guys who could give her fits. Like Wing Kong for one.
X: You’re a fan of Wing Kong’s.
HH: No, I am a fan of Steakbellie’s. We share kilts. But I know Wing Kong to be the better eater. He ate 23 and a half last year in Philly and then didn’t eat again. But I watched him in Vegas, and I think he’s even better. I think he and Dr. Bigtime are the new faces at the table.
X: So no Steakbellie in Coney?
HH: I didn’t say that. He’s a friend. We made a bet. If he qualifies I’ll take him to a Jill Sobule concert, if he doesn’t qualify he owes me dinner. I hope he makes it despite the bet.
X: Any other newcomers to watch?
HH: Scozzy Bone. No joke that guy.
X: The numbers. How high?
HH: In the qualifiers, not as high as you’d think. I think guys are content just to qualify and I think that’s cool. In the finals, pretty high. Anything over 50 is solid. I don’t think one can count on mid 60s, but the 4th is exhilarating either way.
X: One last question. Will Helen Haggerty be in Coney Island on July 4th?
HH: I teach a summer hockey clinic in South Hadley and we’re thinking of renting a van and bringing all the girls down for the day.
X: See ya there.
HH: I hope.