The Taco contest is an annual event on the Pier

Hungry to prove they’re the best in the world, the top-ranked Major League Eaters gathered Friday on National Taco Day for the 2nd annual Pacific Park World Taco-Eating Championship.

No. 1 ranked competitive eater Joey Chestnut was the favorite heading into the competition Friday after he consumed a world-record 62 carnitas tacos in 8 minutes during last year’s championship. But the longtime veteran of competitive eating said there was a field of stiff competition in Santa Monica this year.

Jeff Klocke, Vice President and General Manager of Pacific Park on the Santa Monica Pier, agreed, adding Pacific Park’s World Taco-Eating Championship has become a premier competition on the West Coast, “and continues to draw the top talent in the field.”

Chestnut remembers when he first got involved in the sport — a time before he ever imagined he’d be featured on ESPN and sponsored by national corporations.

The San Jose resident got his start in competitive eating while in college studying to obtain his engineering degree. Chestnut said he’d come home during the weekend and eat all of his mother’s leftovers from the week before taking his brother out for dinner.

“I was eating like a madman but my little brother was a fan of competitive eating so he signed me up for my first contest,” Chestnut said. “I didn’t want to go, but I did it and it was so awkward eating on stage in front of people.”

Chestnut tied for third during the competition but was hooked. “Some people love to run, some people love to fish, and I’ve always loved to eat,” he said, mentioning how the sport has slowly gained more publicity in the years since. “There used to be a belief that it was for heavier guys but if you look at who’s doing it now, you’ll see a lot of fit people.

“People don’t know this but we’re pushing our bodies really hard during the contest,” Chestnut added. “You’ll see everybody is sweating and if you get winded during the contest, you can’t eat; so I’ve learned to run more and diet more in between contests so I can push harder during those 10 or so minutes.”

With a picturesque view of the pier in the background and hundreds of spectators in attendance to cheer him on, the top-ranked professional eater lined up on-stage at Pacific Park Friday to defend his title. Chestnut said prior to the event that he was aiming for 70 tacos, which seemed ludicrous to more than a few spectators in the crowd.

“But Joey Chestnut doesn’t eat alone,” announcer Barclay said prior to the introduction of the other nine contestants. Gideon Oji, the no. 5 ranked eater in the sport, and Miki Sudo, who is ranked sixth internationally and known as the best female eater in the world, were but a few of the familiar names in the competition.

Each tray laid in front of the competitors contained 20 2-ounce street-style tacos that were filled with carnitas, and it took less than two minutes for Oji to devour an entire tray and jump out to an early lead.

Contestants heaved and gasped for air as they grabbed mashed up bits of meat, tortilla and cilantro and stuffed the food into their mouths handful by handful, struggling to complete a bite. Food, saliva and other fluids flew every direction while some contestants covered their mouth in an attempt to keep their giant bites from spilling back onto the trays.

Chestnut remained calm despite Oji’s lead and soon the two were tied at 32 and well on pace to set a world record.

With nearly 2 minutes left, Oji began to slow, while Sudo and Chestnut continued knocking back carnitas and cilantro. Chestnut would take a lead and break his previous record with more than a minute remaining in the contest, which prompted the crowd to cheer the champ on for the final 30 seconds.

When time was up, contestants struggled to finish the mouthfuls of food they had stored in their cheeks and officials began the official count to determine the winner.

Bodybuilder Nick Wehry and Oji tied for 3rd place with 69 tacos each, while Sudo edged the pair of giant men for second place after devouring 69-and-a-half tacos in eight minutes.

Wehry, Oji and Sudo each would’ve beaten the previous world record for tacos eaten if it weren’t for Chestnut’s efforts on Friday when he completed more than four trays for a total of 82 tacos eaten.

Prior to taking home the event’s $2,500 prize and the new world-record, Chestnut said he was happy he got the win.

“I’ll still be uncomfortable for a while but I feel like I earned the feeling because I got the win,” Chestnut said. “I’m drunk on food and all I want to do is go to sleep and drink liquids, because like anybody who pushes their body to the limit — you feel like garbage.”

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