After competing in his first barbecue contest 10 years ago, Mike Richter decided it was too much work. Then, after entering the next several years anyway, he "tended to over-participate in the enjoyment of adult beverages" while cooking and didn't produce anything remotely resembling a competitive entry, he says, chuckling at the memory.
Camaraderie was then, and still is now, one of his top reasons for competing.
But by 2008, after deciding to "get serious," a different story line began developing for the Jessup resident.
Wanting to win so much he could taste it, literally and figuratively, ignited a fire that led last year to his entering 34 competitions and taking home six grand champion trophies, an all-time record for the frequent winner.
Richter will bring his winning ways this weekend (April 20-22) to Pork in the Park, Salisbury's wildly popular three-day event on the Kansas City Barbeque Society circuit and one that he won two years ago.
The festival is "arguably one of the best in the country in a sport that has grown leaps and bounds just in Maryland alone," said Richter, who heads a team named Chix, Swine & Bovine, Bbq. in imitation of the many law firms ending in esquire that he dealt with in his work as an audit supervisor for the federal prison bureau.
"Keep in mind I'm addicted, so I ought to know," added Richter, 51, who retired in October 2010 with nearly 29 years of service.
He's so addicted that even filling the tank of a 42-foot motor home that gets 6 mpg when it tows his 13-foot smoker hasn't derailed him from pursuing his hobby, he said. In fact, he recently returned from a solo 2,400-mile trip that took him to competitions and teaching opportunities in Alabama, Florida and Louisiana over four weeks.
Nor has the rising price of beef, chicken and pork that all contestants must prepare deterred him from competing in what he acknowledges is an expensive sport.
On Sunday he even made a 200-mile trip to Virginia to pick up a load of hickory, his wood of choice as a "stick burner" for the upcoming competition.
Some competitors use charcoal or pellets, but Richter considers himself a purist and uses hickory to build a hot fire that he "babies through the night," from midnight to noon, when submission of entries begins.
"It's the romance of it," he said. "I mean, it's fire and meat. How cool is that?"
The team's business card features a drawing of a chicken, pig and cow in snazzy suits and ties and beneath that appears the slogan, "Because bad BBQ is downright criminal."
Backing up that belief, Richter says he's controlling during the contest, especially about maintaining his fire, and feels he has earned the title of pit master.
"It's a weird sport in that you want to win but 99 percent of the competitors still cheer when they hear a friend's name announced instead of theirs," he said. "It's really unique in that it's not cutthroat, and that's led to us making friends all over the country."
The "us" he refers to is an all-Howard County team that includes wife Barbara Driscoll, daughters Michelle and Jenn Anderson, Paul Sobwick of Columbia, and neighbor Chris Owen. Richter heads the team, whose members vary by event based on availability, and is its only full-time competitor.
Including the eight contests in the state, there are 20 within a four-hour drive, he said. Nationwide, approximately 400 contests are sanctioned by the KCBS, based in Kansas City, Mo., according to the nonprofit organization's website.
Sandy Fulton, who founded Pork in the Park in 2003 as manager for the Wicomico County Tourism Bureau, is "one of the best out there because she goes out of her way to make everyone comfortable," Richter said.
Fulton calls the Salisbury event, which is the third largest KCBS contest in the country, a "really wonderful festival" with its 100 food and craft vendors. The competitors are cooking solely for the judges, though, so festival-goers shouldn't expect to be able to partake of competition barbecue, she pointed out.
"People refer to it like it's a national event," she said, and they view the festival as a point of civic pride for the Eastern Shore town, whose population is 80,000. About 25,000 people are expected to turn out April 20-22 to observe 120 contestants.
"BBQ Pitmasters," a cable TV reality show, will be filming at the festival this year and Smithfield has chosen the site to unveil a new product, she said.
"I can't even put into words how proud I am of the way it's turned out," Fulton said, adding the event has nearly "maxed out" at Winterplace Park, though it can still expand into the parking lot if need be.
Sobwick, Richter's sometime-teammate who's a real estate auctioneer and caterer, calls Richter "a great role model for the barbecue industry because he's so humble," rarely mentioning his bedroom overflowing with trophies.
"He doesn't like showing off and he'll help anyone to a certain extent, even competitors," said Sobwick, 56, who owns Paulie's Cookin' and takes part in the Second Sunday markets held in Ellicott City during spring and summer. He competes in 10 events a year with Richter, but won't be going to Salisbury this time. And Richter helps him out when he's double-booked with catering jobs.
"The key is consistency," Sobwick said, describing the importance of holding the fire at the right temperature. When Richter became top chef, the team "instantly became better."
Richter, who admits when pressed that he's won several hundred trophies, cops to being a perfectionist. He uses organic parsley to display his cooked meats and a fine painter's brush to finesse the appearance of the finished product.
"You get one bite to make the judges want more," he said of crafting the perfect mouthful of barbecue. "You can't afford to offend with too much heat or too much sweet. You've got to have a happy marriage of flavor."
And yes, he does barbecue at home upon demand.
"I enjoy it and it's a good opportunity to practice," he said. "Neighbors and friends make the best guinea pigs."
The Pork in the Park BBQ Festival will be held April 20 (4-10 p.m.), April 21 (10 a.m.-10 p.m.) and April 22 (11 a.m.-5 p.m.) at Winterplace Park, in Salisbury. Cost is $2 daily for adults; kids younger than 12 are free. Parking is available at the park and there is a shuttle from the Delmarva Shorebirds stadium parking lot. For more information, go to http://www.porkinthepark.org.