WICHITA — Dozens of people attending the Wagonmasters Downtown Chili Cookoff gathered near the Douglas Street Bridge on Saturday holding metal wands they planned to set on fire and plunge into their mouths.
Dr. Dillinger, a Cowtown interpreter who said he wanted to be known only by his stage name, had assembled the crowd in the hopes of setting a world record.
The record he hoped to break — the most people simultaneously eating fire in a public place — was set in Australia on Sept. 15, 2000, by the Chili Club International on the opening day of the Sydney Olympics.
Dillinger was confident Wichitans could top the record of 171.
"Remember the steps," he told the group. "Deep breath. Lots of spit. Extinguish the flame."
Dillinger said he began eating fire when he was 13 and came up with the idea of a fire-eating record attempt while looking for records that Wichitans might be able to break.
He contacted Guinness World Records officials in June to find out how the event needed to be documented.
Cameras were rolling as announcer Don Grant reminded participants that they had to sign a registry after the event confirming that they had taken part.
Grant offered some last-minute tips to participants.
"If you've got a hat on, turn it around," he said. "And ladies and gentlemen who are eating fire, if something major goes wrong, yelling 'Fire!' won't help. People are just going to say, 'Yeah?'"
At 1:45 p.m., the fuel pot made a final pass through the crowd, and the countdown began at 1:48.
Dozens of miniature burning torches were simultaneously extinguished in the mouths of dozens of people hoping to stake a claim in the Guinness World Records book.
Among the participants was Robert Beard of Rose Hill, who said he's a regular fire eater at a Halloween haunted house in Udall.
"When this opportunity arose, I jumped at it," he said.
Beard said fire eating isn't hard.
"The pain isn't nearly as significant as a lot of people think it would be," he said.
After the event was over, announcer Grant moved on to the Mr. Hot Stuff, Miss Hot Stuff and pepper eating contests. Dillinger reviewed the signatures of the fire eaters. The final tally was 79 — far short of the world record.
Dillinger said he was disappointed but planned to try again next year.
"This for me was never really about setting the record," he said.
"We had attorneys out there and doctors out there and kids with mohawks out there. You don't often get that.
"People were empowered by trying, and people were entertained by watching."