Funnel cakes, beer, face painting mark July Fourth festival in Raleigh

Watermelon spitting, hot dog eating and more games ensue downtown

jmurawski@newsobserver.comJuly 2, 2012 

Editor's note: The original crowd estimate in this report has been revised.

Wherever you looked on Wednesday, Raleigh staged its own version of the hunger games, but with an emphasis on eating over killing.

Kids spat watermelon seeds. Adults gorged themselves on hot dogs. Contestants shoveled down the ice cream.

Winners waddled away with distended stomachs and gift vouchers – entitling them to eat for free again, this time at local restaurants.

About 50,000 people swarmed Raleigh’s main drag Wednesday along Fayetteville Street and side streets, which were blocked off for an Independence Day celebration.

The event featured attractions found at any state fair or county festival: face painting, funnel cakes, bounce houses, band stand, beer wagon, magician, sunburn, indigestion and sore feet.

Some visitors went all-out, like the Pearson family, who came in from nearby Apex and rented a room at the downtown Marriott so they could spend the entire day and evening taking in Raleigh’s sights and entertainment.

“Even though it’s Wednesday,” said Lisa Pearson, who was joined by her husband, Steve, and 10-year-old daughter, Bridget.

Little Bridget, it should be noted, trounced the competition in the watermelon seed-spitting contest. It was later rumored she got help from a lucky bounce and a chance breeze.

“That shocked the heck out of me,” said Lisa, her proud mom. “I didn’t know she had that talent. Maybe she’ll get a scholarship.”

The hot dog-eating contest was open to first-timers and decidedly a minor-league affair when compared to the national championship in New York where the winner sucked down 68 wieners and buns.

Raleigh’s champion, Jeremy Sims, dined rapidly on a modest seven hot dogs, but still, it was not a pretty sight. The game rules were: Whoever eats seven dogs first wins.

Hot dog vendor Ricardo Zambenedetti supplied 200 hot dogs for the event in case the sponsors were surprised with a turnout of seasoned competitors.

And in a way, they were. Several of those who competed were no greenhorns – they’ve done this before, not only with hog dogs, but also with doughnuts and chicken wings.

Brian Szantagh and Sims, both from Raleigh, had faced off only two months ago at the Smithfield Ham & Yam Festival.

“Me and this guy went head-to-head before,” said Szantagh, a 34-year-old accountant and former vegetarian. “Call it a grudge match.”

Sims is a 33-year-old unemployed automotive service advisor, who likes to enter these eating contests for the prizes. His personal best is 13 hot dogs in 5 minutes.

Sims walked away with a $50 gift card Wednesday, while Szantagh pocketed a $20 voucher.

“I was in it for the free lunch,” Szantagh said later.

He said the trick to suppressing the gag reflex is simple: “You gotta turn your brain off.”

Sims uses the same techniques as the pros, soaking his buns in water to turn them into paste.

As he crammed the rolls into his mouth on Wednesday, water streamed down his forearms, dripping at the elbows like two leaky faucets.

He was unstoppable, wowing a crowd of several dozen with his gustatory prowess.

The crowd cheered, roared, laughed and snapped photographs as Sims force-fed himself to the delight and revulsion of onlookers.

Few would know, but Sims is strictly disciplined at the art of over-eating.

“In my practice runs at the house, I have to mop up the water because it’s running everywhere,” Sims said. “It’s a messy affair.”

Afterward, the champ treated himself to a slice of watermelon.

Murawski: 919-829-8932

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