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Kansas City BBQ contest is world's largest

KANSAS CITY, Mo. —In 1980, the first American Royal Barbecue drew a dozen cookers to a West Bottoms parking lot, most with modest smokers.

Now the event, which kicked off Friday, has become the hands-down biggest barbecue competition on the planet with more than 500 teams.

What happened?

Bar-B-Karma.

That's what Carolyn Wells, Kansas City Barbeque Society executive director, calls it.

"It was meant to be," she said. "This is just where it all comes together."

Wells and others say Kansas City's regional blessings, barbecue heritage and late-season timing all fell into place since the first barbecue in 1980.

"It was the beginning of the evolution — and the evolution has kind of been on steroids," Wells said. "I mean, we never dreamed."

This weekend teams from as far as Germany, Australia and Jamaica are competing to win top-of-the-line smokers and cash prizes up to $12,500.

The country's next-biggest competitions, including the Memphis in May International Festival, attract fewer than 400 teams.

"The American Royal is certainly considered to be one of the best of the best," said Diane Hampton of Memphis in May.

Mark Sanders of Kansas City, Kan., won the amateur division of the first American Royal Barbecue for his sausage.

Sanders, now 85, heard about the contest on TV. He'd never been in a barbecue competition before, but he knew his homemade sausage was good.

So he borrowed a smoker and joined about a dozen other cooks in a parking lot by the Governor's Exposition Building. According to an article in the Kansas City Star, the judges were local media personalities, and one of the now-defunct meat categories was lamb.

After a trip to Disney World — his grand prize — Sanders built his own smoker and took it on the road, competing for years in states as far away as Minnesota. He went on to sell his Uncle Joon's sausage and sauce for some years in the Riverside Red X deli.

Sanders credits Kansas City's love of barbecue for the Royal's growth since his first year.

"And the cooks like competition," he said.

Paul Kirk of Roeland Park was there for the second American Royal barbecue. The self-proclaimed "Baron of Barbecue" has since written multiple books and teaches barbecue classes all over the country.

In early years — until the Royal moved the barbecue from early November to the first weekend of October — it wasn't unheard of for contestants to cook in the snow, he said.

Contestants still bring family, drink beer and make the event an "extravaganza" with barbecue at the forefront, he said.

But there weren't the mobile homes and super-size cookers that you see now, he said. Kirk started cooking on backyard-size grills. Some others used homemade cookers fashioned from things such as old water barrels.

Dan Grosko of Kansas City, Kan., will cook at the Royal for the 26th time this weekend.

Grosko, who cooked on a bomb-style smoker from a discount store his first year at the Royal, said as prize money increased, so did contestants' quality of equipment and level of seriousness.

Early on, Grosko recalled, people seemed more curious than anything else.

"It was new for everybody," he said. "Nobody could say they'd been doing it for 20 years back in 1984."

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