NEW YORK – The biggest challenge of his life awaits Joey Chestnut on the Fourth of July — and he doesn't want to choke.
It's a legitimate worry. Chestnut aims to inhale more than four dozen frankfurters in 12 minutes at the annual Coney Island hot dog eating competition. And there's the pressure of going jaw-to-jaw with the world's foremost competitive eater, five-time defending champion Takeru Kobayashi of Japan.
The 6-foot-1, 230-pound Chestnut is warming up for his East Coast showdown by downing 40 hot dogs or more in a single sitting, twice a week.
"If I'm not eating hot dogs, I'm not eating much," said Chestnut, whose U.S. record of 50 hot dogs in 12 minutes earned him a mention in May in Sports Illustrated. "Everything is going pretty good."
Chestnut, of San Jose, Calif., is the great American hope at reclaiming the mustard yellow belt symbolic of gastronomic greatness (or sheer gluttony). Since July 4, 2001, the belt — presented annually at the original Nathan's hot dog stand — has remained wrapped around Kobayashi's incredibly thin waist.
Kobayashi is undefeated in eating competitions on American soil. But the possibility of a Chestnut upset is piquing interest in this year's event, said Rich Shea, one of the founders of the International Federation of Competitive Eating.
"People believe Joey can win this contest," Shea said. "How much can a human being eat? What is the capacity? I think we'll find out."
At 5 feet 7 and 144 pounds, Kobayashi doesn't look like a master gulper. But he's devoured the competition: Sonya "The Black Widow" Thomas, the world's premier female competitive eater; Eric "Badlands" Booker, the 6-foot-4, 400-pound subway conductor; even William "The Refrigerator" Perry, the ex-NFL star who managed to suck down an embarrassing four hot dogs in his Nathan's debut.
The history leaves a bad taste in Chestnut's mouth.
"Everybody knows that the Americans get beat by this little Japanese man," Chestnut said. "And not just beat, but slaughtered. A victory for me would be to even get close. He never lets an American get close."
Frankly, there's no questioning Kobayashi's credentials. He remains the Nathan's hot dog record holder, with 53 1/2 franks on July 4, 2004 — one frank every 13.45 seconds.
But there's no reason for Chestnut to feel cowed when he steps in front of the all-beef dogs. The one-man table for 10 has eaten 32 grilled cheese sandwiches in 10 minutes, 5 1/2 pounds of pork ribs in 12 minutes, 173 chicken wings in 30 minutes — all world records.
Last year, in his Coney Island debut, an admittedly unfocused Chestnut finished in third place with 32 hot dogs. It was a good experience for several reasons, but particularly because it offered him a close-up look at Kobayashi.
"He's a real humble guy," Chestnut said. "He's a sportsman, and he treats it like sport. He's a good guy, and I love competing against him."