The Krystal Square Off is the biggest hamburger eating contest of the year and one of the two majors of competitive eating (along with the annual Fourth of July Nathan’s Famous hot dog eating contest on Coney Island). For the past two years I have made the 10-hour, 600-mile drive to Chattanooga and the 10-hour, 600 mile drive back to Chicago to witness the 8-minute hamburger eating contest in person.
My plan for getting to the Krystal Square Off for my third year in a row went from non-existent to amazing to not-so amazing all within the span of a few days. I had always planned on going, but, as it was last year, it fell on the Sunday after the one Saturday a year I am required to work. In the week before though, my plan started to come together: My boss graciously gave me Monday off, fellow competititve eating fans Sadie and Jamie offered space for me to sleep in their hotel room, my friend Mat said he’d come along to help me drive. Things were looking perfectly in place.
And then things happened at work and I was asked to come in on Monday. And told I would possibly have to come in on Sunday (Luckily when I asked my boss on Saturday night he said that it would be OK for me to go). And then I got a phone call from a number I didn’t know. And it was Mat. Who had been mugged at gunpoint the night before and now (understandably) wouldn’t be able to come with. Can I repeat that? He got MUGGED at GUNPOINT! (He is fine and alive and that is all that matters! Scary though.)
And my plan pretty much was non-existent again. But, if you know me at all, you know that I am a bit crazy and am not going to sit at home when I can possibly make it somewhere I really want to be. And I really wanted to be at that hamburger eating contest! So, Saturday night, at 8pm, after I was freed from work, I hopped in my Saturn. Since I had about 14 hours to make the ten-hour drive I pulled over twice, once for a two-hour nap at 1:30am in a Kentucky rest stop. Another early in the morning in a Tennessee fast food place for a half-hour power nap and giant coffee when I was having trouble keeping my eyes open. And after a brief run-in with the law (I have to pay Tennessee $150 for going 83mph in a 55…), and with my GPS (that had decided that the Interstate was not the best option for getting there…I need to learn not to just blindly follow its lead), I finally made it to Chattanooga shortly after 9am.
Once there I met up with the HungrySisters, who were going to be bunnettes/Krystal counters for the contest (the girls who stand behind the eaters and hold up the numbers they have eate) for my second double espresso of the morning. I should have been more tired than I was but by that point the adrenline of the day was starting to kick in!
After coffee I went to pick up my Media pass. Thanks to the amazing folks at Krystal and Wicked-PR I was granted press credentials for the contest! Yes, my stalkerdom was officially made official! And I wouldn’t have to worry at all about where to watch the contest: I got prime, splatter-zone, front-row seats!
After picking up my pass, I wandered about shooting, listening to the band, talking with other press, and getting pumped for the event ahead!
Finally it was time to introduce the eaters, who arrived via boat on the riverfront. This is where it started to be weird being press. When you are audience you stand in the audience. When you are press you can go just about anywhere. I had to make choices of where to stand. I usually like planting myself in the stands and watching every drop of the show. But that is also in part because I had to in order to keep a prime spot. And now I could go anywhere. And that is daunting. For their introductions I went behind the gates to watch the eaters come from the boat. It meant missing them talking to George Shea (the greatest announcer in competitive eating) on the podium. But I made the choice to stand where I as primarily because I could get shots that I wouldn’t otherwise get.
And then as the rest of the pre-show went on it was choices. Do I stay back and talk to the eaters or do I go out and watch. Do I shoot from the side of the stage or run back into the audience. I ended up doing some crazy mixture of it all as the Sackful Challenge (the amateur eating contest) went on and as Eric Badlands Booker (competitive eater and rapper extraordinaire) performed.
When they called the eaters to congregate in the back it was time to take my space up in the front. I was right up on stage with only the judges and television crew between me and the eaters. I planted myself in the middle. The eaters were announced one by one, being raised onto the stage amidst smoke and fire and confetti. For some of it I followed the lead of Charles from Wicked who, needing the shots, ran back and forth to capture them all as the ascended. I still had somewhat of the hesitation of not wanting to get into other people’s ways, but I made sure to be right there is front of my favorites. Number 9-ranked Tim “Gravy” Brown and number 2 ranked Pat “Deep Dish” Bertoletti are both Chicagoans and therefore, by default, both my favorites. Not to mention the fact that Pat has a mohawk. And it one of the greatest eaters ever. Then there were the two front-runners. Takeru Kobayashi was formerly the number-one ranked, undefeated, god of competititve eating. For years and years he was a force no one could reckon with. But then two and a half years ago he suffered a jaw injury, fell int he rankings, and hasn’t won a major contest since. And then came Joey Chestnut, the current number-one ranked competititve eater. The current two-time Krystal eating defending champion.
As the event started I determined three things.
- I need to take up running. Because running back and forth like that was pretty exhausting (especially on all of zero sleep).
- I need to invest in some knee pads. Because kneeling on that stage kind of sort of hurt.
- I need a second camera. I like to shoot with my telephoto for competitive eating events, no matter how close to the action I am. I like getting in there as close as I possibly can. Getting the food particles, focusing on the mouth and hands. But I also have to make sacrifices and really with the telephoto from that close I only get isolated shots of the eaters. Which I like. But it would be nice to get more than one person in a shot now and again.
The contest began with a bang. The Krystal Square Off World Hamburger Eating Championship is an eight-minute contest to see which of the best eaters can eat the most Krystal hamburgers in eight minutes. This year not only were there regular Krystal sliders but each competitor could eat five Big Angus Burgers as well. Each slider counted as one point. Each Big Angus counted as five. So as the event began hamburgers flew from boxes and bigger hamburgers were unwrapped from paper and meat was shoved into mouths.
But the burgers weren’t dunked into water. In years past they could take the buns and dip them in water to soften them up and make them easier to go down. It was a disgustingly beautiful habit that was semi-controversial as food debris could get left in cups or on shirts ofr on the ground. Non-dunking contests make for cleaner contests. This year, as a new rule, they couldn’t dunk. It was cool in that they had to modify their strategies and that it was a different way of eating and that some might see the contest as more legit that way. And I appreciate it and will root for it in any way possible. But honestly I love the dunking because I love photographing the food particles flying through the air and water spilling everywhere and Pat’s wonderful bright red hands. Sure there were some water spillage and some falling crumbs, but it wasn’t the same disgustingly awesome captures. (But don’t get me wrong, it was still mighty awesome.)
Soon into it the numbers were flying up. Would Pat Bertoletti overtake? Would Joey Chestnut reign? Would Takeru Kobayashi come back?
Soon it became clear. Kobayashi’s numbers started to rise and rise just enough to put him in what seemed to be a clear lead. I don’t think I have smiled so much or come that close to joyous tears in all the contests I’ve been to before. You see, I always have the attitude with these contests that I don’t really care who wins. By now I have met all of the eaters. And yes, I will always want Pat to win. But I like Joey and I like Sonya “The Black Widow” Thomas and Erik “The Red” Denmark and Eric “Badlands” Booker and Tim “Gravy” Brown and Tim “Eater X” Janus and “Humble” Bob Shoudt and everyone. But I had never before seen Kobayashi win in person. And I so wanted to see that happen.
Three Krystals ago Koby dropped out due to his jaw injury. Two Nathan’s ago Joey won in an overtime eat-off. One Krystal ago Joey won. One Nathan’s ago Joey won. I was there for them all. Kobayashi was zero for four in major contests I had attended (which was, every major contest for the last two years). And what competitive eating fan doesn’t hold Takeru Kobayashi up on a pedestal of ultimate competitive eating greatness?
So when it became apparent that he was not only winning, he was sweeping the floor of the rest of the table, it was the most thrilling, amazing, thrill of my competitive eating fandom career. I had to just put my camera down for a second and catch my breath. It was going to happen. Kobayashi was about to win.
And when they counted down the final seconds to the end, it was official. Kobayashi had won. By a mile (or at least enough burgers to put him well on top.)
I was taking a photo of Pat, I believe, when I all of a sudden was drenched in warm water. I turned my head to see Kobayshi pounding his fists on the table in victory. That’s what you get when you want to be in the splash zone. A wet T-shirt contest, apparently.
They announced the numbers to the crowd: Pat Bertoletti in third with 76 points (51 Krystals, 5 Big Angus Burgers).
Joey Chestnut in second with 81 points (56 Krystals, 5 Big Angus Burgers).
Takeru Kobayashi in first with 93 points (68 Krystals, 5 Big Angus Burgers.)
I stuck around for a bit after the contest. I was going stay and hang out for a bit longer but as I kept doing the math in my head of when I would get home and as I actually didn’t feel too tired I decided I should hit the road instead. So I hopped into my Saturn and again blindly followed my stupid GPS as I drive another ten plus hours back home. I pulled into a gas station to rest at one point and some farm supply store parking lot at another. And I almost fell asleep too many times. And I finally rolled into Chicago at 4am in an amazing wind storm ever and almost thought that maybe I had fallen asleep on the road and that this was what dying was. But I am pretty sure I am alive.
So yeah. I drove over 20 hours in 32 hours on no sleep and got my first speeding ticket ever and am mad sun burnt (I put on sunscreen but my camera strap wore it off) and still got no sleep when I returned home. And yes, I am crazy. You already knew that about me. It seems that every time I take a trip anywhere I begin by saying “This is the stupidest plan I have ever had.” But I think if every trip I take for the rest of my life can begin that way, I will have led a pretty amazing life. And if I hadn’t, I would have missed out on seeing the amazing return of Takeru Kobayashi. And really, that is all that matters.