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What a Trip: The Complete Oral History of The Amazing Race

The world is waiting for you. Travel safe. Now, go read every last thing The Amazing Race's creators, host and fan favorite contestants had to tell E! News about the Emmy-amassing series.

By Sarah Grossbart Sep 05, 2021 10:00 AMTags
Watch: "The Amazing Race" History & Behind The Scenes Moments

Six continents, 92 countries, more than 1 million miles. And none of it would have been possible if then-advertising exec Elise Doganieri didn't have what we're going to call her Legally Blonde moment while chatting with TV producer husband Bertram van Munster

He was bemoaning the lack of original ideas in the industry. Her response: "What? Like it's hard?"

Okay, we might be paraphrasing.

"I said, you know, 'What's going on with you people in television? Can't anybody come up with a good idea?'" recalls Doganieri, who sat down with E! News for an exclusive Zoom chat alongside van Munster, her fellow co-creator and executive producer of The Amazing Race, and the show's longtime host Phil Keoghan. "And he's like, 'Oh, really? You think it's that easy? Why don't you come up with something? I'll give you five minutes.'"

Challenge accepted, she almost immediately thought of the trip she and her roommate had taken after college graduation. 

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"We backpacked through Europe on the train, stayed in hostels and, midway through our trip, we just, like, had a little bit of an argument," she describes. "I was the one getting up early every day, had everything organized, and she just wanted to kind of take it day-by-day and do whatever, you know. So we had a little blowout and then came back together at the end of the night and we continued on and had a great trip."

Doganieri figured it was the sort of thing that just might make for compelling television

"I said, 'What if we took two people who knew each other and we sent them on a trip around the world with very little money? They won't speak the language and they have to do the things the locals do,'" she continues. "And he said, 'Oh, I like that idea. Why don't you write it up and we'll try to pitch it.'"

Network interest was immediate and two months after they sold the concept to CBS—11 teams, racing around the world for the ultimate $1 million prize—they were out scouting locations. Says Doganieri, "It was that fast." 

Alex Alonzo/E! Illustration

Yet the series started off near the back of the pack—in part because The Amazing Race premiered on Sept. 5, 2001, six days before the world turned its attention to more pressing matters. After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, "We didn't know if people were going to feel safe traveling the world," admits Doganieri. "So it did set things back. I was supposed to go scouting to New Zealand with another producer and getting on that plane, maybe a month later, I was really scared. And I thought if we're all going to live our lives fearful, they've won. So we've got to get back on the plane." 

And somewhere around the third in a series of 10 Emmy wins for Outstanding Reality Competition Program, things really took off, some 10 to 16 million obsessed fans tuning in each week to see who would get Phileminated. "We won Emmy No. 1, Emmy No. 2 and then people said, 'Well, that was luck,'" recalls van Munster. "And then Emmy No. 3, 'Oh, these guys might be for real.' And then it kept going."  

Though the coronavirus pandemic ground production to a halt in the middle of the 33rd season last year ("We'll be back," vows Doganieri), it's introduced a whole new audience to the world of pit stops, detours, roadblocks and U-turns. The television version of comfort food, "It's a good one for quarantine," Doganieri notes. "You get to travel virtually."

To honor the show's 20th anniversary, van Munster, Doganieri, Keoghan and some of the franchise's most popular competitors sat down with E! News to recount the journey from that first starting line in New York City's Central Park to the world that still awaits. 

With van Munster's endorsement, Doganieri got to work on her brainchild and they immediately shopped it around to the networks. While you can find countless tales of TV pitches that languished in pre-production purgatory, this isn't one of them. 

Elise Doganieri (co-creator and co-executive producer): Bertram had already done a lot of shows around the world. He's from Amsterdam, he speaks five languages and he had been a cameraman filming documentaries. He'd already made a lot of connections with facilitators and knew the ins and outs of getting out of countries, so it just really came together. It was serendipity.

Bertram van Munster (co-creator and co-executive producer): We went to all the networks and they all liked it very, very much. CBS basically bought it in the room. When I sat down with them, I don't think I've ever been that nervous. I thought I was going to pass out. There are, like, seven, eight powerhouses looking at you and you're trying to explain it. But I guess I did.

Mark Davis/CBS

Creating the ultimate trip-around-the-world fantasy required nailing a few key elements: Transporting viewers from their couch to "places where they would never go themselves," as van Munster put it, and picking the sort of people you'd want to live vicariously through. "We wanted to go the gamut," says Doganieri of casting all ages, relationships and personalities. As she sees it, what grabs viewers "is there's always somebody that is just like someone you know or just like you." Plus, "we can all relate to the highs and lows of what it takes to get along and have a great vacation. There's always drama."

The last piece of the puzzle: finding Phil. Initially looking for both a female and a male host that could trade off pit stop duties and be able to beat the racers to the next location because, Doganieri says, "sometimes that's two, three, four, five flights, and there can be delays," she was poring through VHS tapes (hey, it was the early '00s!) of reporters and journalists when a producer slipped her Keoghan's tape. 

Tony Esparza/CBS

Doganieri: I just felt instantly that this was the right person. 

Phil Keoghan (host): Jeff [Probst] and I were the last two to be thought of for hosting Survivor. He thought I was going to get it because of my outdoor experience. I thought he was going to get it because he was more of a typical American host. But it introduced me to CBS and I'd done some specials for them. I heard about Amazing Race and I'd heard a lot of stories about Bertram and I knew that he knew the world. I thought, "Wow, this would be pretty extraordinary."

I got shortlisted again. Bertram and I had a meeting and he said, "So what do you think about this idea?" And I said, "I think it's really interesting." And Bertram went, "Interesting?! You think it's interesting?!" And I thought, "Oh no! I didn't say it was amazing." I thought I'd blown the whole interview: "Why are they going to give some New Zealand guy the opportunity to do this?" Thankfully, Bertram called me and he said, "So, uh, time for you to pack your bags. We're going to do this race around the world show."

For most of the 653 contestants who have rushed from continent to continent, completing some of the most bonkers tasks the production crew could dream up ("There are tasks we come up with and realize they're impossible to do," says Doganieri of the many scraped challenges), their casting was every bit as stressful. 

Tammy Jih (winner, season 14): My brother Victor and I were both lawyers and we'd taken a pretty straight and narrow path through life and I was looking for an adventure. A friend of mine from law school was working in casting. She recommended that we apply. Her first suggestion was Survivor, but I know myself well enough to know that I couldn't cut it on that show. On Amazing Race, if you lose, the worst thing that's happened is you've traveled around the world. Survivor, like, you're eating bugs. 

Nat Strand (winner, season 17): [Fellow doctor] Kat and I were together at a wedding in Mexico and we were talking about Amazing Race and I said to Kat, "We should do this." And Kat said, "Well, actually, someone approached me a couple of years ago." I contacted that person who gave me someone else's number and they said, "Why don't you send in your application?" And Kat and I were actually rejected. They said, "We think you could win, but you might not be that fun to watch." 

It really felt like Kat and I were meant to be on The Amazing Race so I called the person back and she said, "If you guys show up on your own dime, I'll try to get you in front of Phil and Bertram." Our first challenge was actually getting out of the reject pile. 

Sonja Flemming/CBS via Getty Images

Maya Warren (winner, season 25): We did an open casting call in Chicago—we were in Madison at the time as grad students. I was like, "Amy, they've never had two food scientists, especially female food scientists researching candy and ice cream." For one minute, we babbled about ourselves. And then we laughed and we left.

Amy DeJong (winner, season 25): I think a lot of people have those conversations with their friends or family members about how this would be so fun to do and that's how our story started. Then all of a sudden we were on the starting line in New York City for an insane adventure.

Cliff Lipson/CBS via Getty Images

Meanwhile, spouses Josh Kilmer-Purcell and Brent Ridge—stars of their own Discovery network, The Fabulous Beekman Boys, about leaving New York City behind for life on the farm—inadvertently got a fast forward through the first round of casting. 

Brent Ridge (winner, season 21): We were at a book signing for one of our cookbooks and at the end of the line was this woman. She said, "Oh, I love your TV show. Every day my neighbor comes over and we watch your show together—she works at CBS." So, just very unassumingly, I said, "Well, if she's such a big fan, why can't we get on The Amazing Race?" A few weeks later, the phone rang and someone said, "Hi, we're calling from CBS. We heard you wanted to run The Amazing Race." That's how we got into the process. 

Herb "Flight Time" Lang (season 15): We were on tour at Sanford University in Birmingham, Alabama, when we made our first audition tape. And that's what got us out to L.A. and through that other tough process. People think just because we played with the Harlem Globetrotters, that's why we're on the show, when there was other famous teams trying to get the same spots. 

Watching the first season of the race, which kicked off from the Bethesda Fountain in New York City's Central Park in 2001, feels like peering into a time capsule—one complete with early aughts fashions and plenty of kinks to be worked out. 

Doganieri: I remember these contestants showed up in jeans. One team brought a pair of rollerblades and I was thinking, You know, you've got a cameraman that's got to keep up with you.

Keoghan: We realized that we were going into the unknown—there was nothing to compare it to in the world of television. I was looking for this line to start everybody off and I said, "The world is waiting for you." Everyone raced off and we were all standing there and after about a minute, we were like, "We have to go! We've got a plane to catch!"

Doganieri: We really were racing against the contestants just to stay ahead. We were in Tunisia and we had set up this camp in the desert. We had camels and belly dancers and everybody except one team had checked in. Back then, we only had satellite phones and we couldn't even get a signal, so Bertram and I got in a car and decided to go searching in the desert. Luckily they passed us. Then there was a sandstorm and we had to evacuate and we were caravanning back to civilization. That was, like, episode two.

CBS via Getty Images

Among the changes that came out of that first season: A larger mat at check-in after a team bit it on what van Munster recalls was a "very slippery" doormat-sized pitstop in front of the Arc de Triomphe, extended breaks between legs ("We realized we just couldn't get ahead of the teams quick enough," explains Doganieri) and more Phil. 

Doganieri: Originally the network wanted Phil to come in when the last team came in. So the first group of teams, it would be a local checking the teams in and then Phil would come in like the grim reaper and say goodbye to the last team. And it just didn't feel right. It got better and better the more Phil got involved.

We also had that one season with the hay bales. [Season 6's Lena and Kristy Jensen] were out there nine hours and we had to get a flight, so we literally brought Phil out to the field to eliminate the girls. And that was one of those moments where we thought, "Wow, we never imagined this challenge." The clues were in so many of the hay bales they were pushing, they just never pushed them all the way open.

Keoghan: One very late night on season 10, we were coming into Ukraine and they didn't like my New Zealand passport, so they decided I needed to go away to a little room. We found out that someone from the embassy was a big fan of Amazing Race and helped us process a visa and get me out of there. I literally ran out of the airport and went straight to the mat. I walked up and I could see the teams coming from the other side of this field. 

Doganieri: There have been many close calls. 

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Thirty-two seasons in, they've long since refined their process, filming cut from 39 days down to an efficient 21. Roughly six months from scouting to delivering the edited season, "we have a very rock solid system in place," notes van Munster. Still, each season is a whole new world for the contestants.

Ridge: You get out to this kind of non-disclosed hotel and you're sequestered in your room. Basically they tell you, "Okay, anytime now the race can start—any hour of the day."

Josh Kilmer-Purcell (winner, season 21): That was almost the most torturous part. Any time of day, night, the phone's going to ring, and you've got to go. It felt like two or three years. 

Jet McCoy (season 16): [My brother] Cord and I are two small town guys from Cole County, Oklahoma, and we show up in L.A. and they just hand us an envelope and say, "Go." So it was a little nerve-wracking the first few days. 

Monty Brinton/CBS via Getty Images

Cord McCoy (season 16): It almost seemed like it was a prank, you're running around with a backpack to get on a plane to South America. Like, "Who's going to jump out of the bushes right now?" The next thing we know we're at the back of the pack running with a 70-year-old lady about to lose. I think it was the first leg of the race when we kind of pulled our hats down and got down to the grind. We sure didn't want to sit in a foreign country for 35, 40 days and our family to find out that we were eliminated in day one. I think that's most racers very worst fear—to only get one leg of the race.

Kat Chang (winner, season 17): It takes a little time to actually learn how to play the game. And Nat and I are such rule followers, that we were following every little thing to the T. I remember parking and then we would close the doors and roll up the windows and lock the doors. It took us a couple of legs before we started to see the other teams: The car was running and they just ran right out and ran to the pitstop.

Heather Wines/CBS

For some competitors, the challenges went far beyond a missed exit or—god forbid—a misplaced passport. 

DeJong: Maya and I had been running with a lot of stuff in our backpacks to prepare and I think we didn't realize it wasn't necessarily good for your bones. I saw a doctor a few days before we left. He thought I'd be probably fine, but said if I felt pain the following week to come in for an MRI because I might have some stress fractures. Well, we were already racing a week from then. Leg one, when we ran to the first clue, I knew it was going to be a long road. That's why we tried to avoid challenges with running. I didn't realize I had a fractured pelvis until we got home. The doctor was not happy with me. 

Flight Time: At the start of that race, when we took off, all of our money started flying everywhere. So once we got onto the plane heading to Japan, we were about $200 short. The begging had to begin immediately. But we were able to get some donations thanks to that red, white and blue basketball, our great smiles and Big Easy's handsome face.

Nate "Big Easy" Lofton (season 15): We gotta have our ball, have our jerseys. Especially if we were in a country somewhere and they didn't speak English, they understood that ball spinning on our finger and those tricks we could do. So they knew, "Oh, Harlem Globetrotters." Or, "Trotamundos." It goes beyond language.

CBS

Every little advantage helps in a race around the world where simply navigating from point A (say, the coast of Ghana) to point B (the edge of the Arctic circle) can be harder than anything you have to lift (van Munster still laughs remembering the chaos of teams trying to roll 40-pound cheese wheels down a hill in Switzerland: "It's the best piece of television I've ever done") or eat. Though vegetarian Chang can still remember the crunch of the cartilage in the sheep's head they consumed at a fast forward in Norway. "I love how people will ask about that, 'Oh, is she still a vegetarian?'" jokes Strand. "Like, you think that would turn her? I mean, 'Mmm, it's been a while since I had an ear or lip.'"

Chang: Nat and I being really super prepared people, we watched pretty much every episode and took notes. We even talked to each other like, "Okay, if one of us had to get a tattoo, who would it be?" "If one of us had to shave our heads, who would it be?" We had it in our minds that we were pretty much going to do anything.

Kilmer-Purcell: I always felt the more grueling part of the race was not the challenges, it was the travel: The days of sleeping on airport floors, of not having money for food, jumping time zones. You were actually happy when the leg started. The things that look really scary, I'm like, "This is simple. It's sleeping on the airport floor that was tough."

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DeJong: The thing that I don't know gets as much airtime as it used to is all of the stress of airports. The small differences in airport success or failure really do impact the race—or just getting caught up in customs. Plus we got lost on the way to nearly every task.

Warren: You wouldn't believe how lost we were. In Morocco on the first leg, we were so lost that we basically used a full tank of gas. I was driving the car and it was literally on E. 

Victor Jih (winner, season 14): I think Bertram likes to teach people that sometimes you're too smart for your own good. Our worst leg in Romania, we saw production on the hill and that's part of the reason I was convinced we were going in the right direction. When you want things to be a certain way, you can delude yourself. 

Larry D. Horricks/CBS via Getty Images

Though time for socializing was in short supply with conversations with competitors off-camera forbidden ("They're still doing a show," Big Easy notes. "So it'd be hard to explain why this team doesn't like this team"), competitors still found moments to bond. 

Flight Time: I'd say that we made way more friends along the race than we did enemies. Zev [Glassenberg] and Justin [Kanew] were really good friends of ours. Mallory [Ervin] and her dad [Gary Ervin] from the second season that we did. Kisha [Hoffman] and Jen [Hoffman], I mean everybody. Even Brian [Kleinschmidt] and Ericka [Dunlap], we're still friends with Brian to this day. (Kleinschmidt and Dunlap divorced in 2011.)

Kilmer-Purcell: Everyone is really nice. The Twinnies [sisters Natalie and Nadiya Anderson] are some of the most competitive, strongest young women we have ever met to this day. And, you know, they proved it, going on to Survivor. They came to our wedding!

Victor Jih: It's like we made this friendship in the middle of a traumatic situation that every time I see them, it's almost as if I've never been apart from them. I've been to two of their weddings, [The White Lotus creator] Mike White put me in his HBO show, Enlightened. I haven't talked to some of them for months or even years, but when you do, there's such a common bond.

Tammy Jih: I realized that I currently work with another Amazing Race winner and a Survivor winner and we are all Asian American. Pre-pandemic we had planned to speak to the Asian-American affinity group at our company about our experience in it. Because, historically, Asians have not been represented a lot in television or even on reality television.

DeJong: We saw Bertram and Elise out on the course too. It was fun to have the creative team right there with us filming us, making fun of none of us being able to see these hunting boats. So it just felt like you're part of a family from the get-go.  

Tony Esparza/CBS

A lifelong, unshakeable bond is just one of the souvenirs participants take home from The Amazing Race (well, that and the final race clue Kilmer-Purcell and Ridge found shoved into the bottom of their suitcase once they got home). 

Keoghan: We end up in these crazy surreal moments. I remember we were working with the Egyptian crew, it was the middle of the night and they said, "Hey, who wants pizza?" And they ordered pizza from Pizza Hut. I remember us eating pizza under the Sphinx and I thought, "This is so crazy."

Doganieri: Earlier in the day—because we were out there from sun up to sun down—our pizza from Pizza Hut got delivered on horseback, out in the middle of the desert, right next to the pyramids. 

Strand: There's obviously location highlights, which, for me, was Sweden when we went to Riksgränsen and the Arctic Circle, it was beautiful. We had just been in Ghana where we were so hot and so dusty. So to then get this super beautiful train ride—it was just phenomenal.

Chang: That was absolutely one of my favorite places. In fact, a couple years ago, I brought my family back and we stayed at the ice hotel.

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Warren: On our very first leg, we knew that we weren't last in St. Thomas, and I remember asking the taxi driver to please pause, so that we could see the view. And I still have that view in my head to this day. That for me is the special moments on the race when we're actually able to take it in and not just always be in the race mindset.

Cord McCoy: It's really hard to just do one exact memory of that whole race. We laugh about how we almost drowned trying to find a map on a boat. We were so happy we knew 20, 30 feet away, there was a cameraman videoing it. Like, if one of us drowned, somebody can pull us out of the water and resuscitate us. Even some of the worst days were kind of the funniest—when you sit around with 40 of your family and laugh at Jet and I running across China in diapers. But at the time you were like, "We've got to wear sumo wrestling outfits?!" 

Robert Voets/CBS via Getty Images

So, not surprisingly, producers never struggle when it comes to casting return racers, with most every competitor we spoke to saying they would absolutely do it all again. The McCoy brothers (known to fans as "The Cowboys") and Flight Time and Big Easy ("The Globetrotters") did just that, each returning for season 18's Unfinished Business in early 2011, after placing top four in their respective seasons, and season 24's All-Stars three years after that. Big Easy, in particular, was eager to "redeem himself" after taking a race-killing penalty in the Czech Republic when he couldn't properly unscramble Franz Kafka's name. 

Big Easy: I felt like I let Herb down. We were having a good time and to lose like that made it tough. And when they gave us a chance to come back, we was like of course.

Cord McCoy: They called us and said that they were doing Unfinished Business and we felt like that race was ours. We had some unfinished business. We're in, already got the backpack. And then they called and told us when the race was leaving. I got engaged before I left the first time. My wife Sara, had been preparing this wedding forever. I said, "We're getting married November 13. We just can't." Well, they call back and said, "If we left November 14, would you go?" I said, "Let me make one phone call really quick." I literally got married on the 13th and honeymooned with my brother Jet around the world. Thankfully Jet gave me and my wife the Maui trip we won for our honeymoon. 

Big Easy: I would love to do it again. I think we would kill it. Being older, being wiser, I think it might help us focus a little bit more. Physically, I still think there's no team—I don't care, NFL players, whatever—that can outrun us from point A to point B once we see Phil. I think that's why we keep losing, so we can have the opportunity to come back.

Flight Time: I would brag to people: "During my 17 years of Globetrotting, I was pretty much undefeated in my uniform. The only three losses that I ever took in front of the world was on The Amazing Race three times."

Cord McCoy: In a drop of a hat, I would do it again. You sign up for the race to win the million dollars, but I think you get so much more from the race.

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Because while no one's scoffing at the million-dollar prize, the experience of inspiring others like them (becoming the first all-female team to win, "breaking through a glass ceiling, watching that glass shatter all around you and then watching everybody follow in that manner, it's empowering," raves Strand) is what sticks with competitors all these years later. 

Flight Time: We were at Staples Center and people would stand up behind the basket with their Franz signs and take pictures with us after the game. We got a real good kick out of it. One of the coolest things, when we would join back with the team on tour, was the feedback that we would get from families about how we carried ourselves on television, how each and every week, they would sit down and watch because of the way that we were.

Big Easy: Every time I meet somebody, they say, "Hey, you guys were our favorite team and then The Cowboys." But I'm sure, they're telling The Cowboys that they're their favorite and then The Globetrotters. We're okay with it. We'd rather be loved than hated.

DeJong: What's been really cool for us is all of the questions we've gotten from fellow scientists. There's rarely a week that goes by that someone isn't contacting us that they were inspired to get into food science because of the race. Or we're being talked about in college classes as an example for food science. 

Robert Voets/CBS

Strand: They say having Type 1 diabetes, you have 150 extra decisions a day. So when you add in multiple time zones, different temperatures, all of a sudden you're going to run four miles, but then you're going to be on a 12-hour flight, it was really every single challenge I have within living Type 1 all rolled into one. For me it was a really empowering experience. Other people who have Type 1 or have kids with Type 1 still reach out to me and say, "Oh my gosh, my son was just hospitalized. I made him watch season 17 because I knew if we could see you do this, that he knows he can still play club level soccer."

Chang: Nat and I both have kids now. We both have a son and a daughter and during the pandemic, my kids just started watching The Amazing Race. They have no idea that I was on it, and they have no idea that I was on it with Auntie Nat-Nat. So my daughter's just watching and she can't believe that no female team has won. And so I can't wait to show them season 17 and see her reaction.