Monday, September 29, 2008

Behind the Scenes at... The Amazing Race

Season 13

Now it can be told.

I went along, as a journalist, on the first leg of this season's Amazing Race. This is the show's 13th season -- and I admit, I'm a latecomer to Race fever. But having watched a few iterations before pitching the editor-in-chief of CBS' Watch! magazine on covering the behind-the-scenes of the show, I became an instant fan.

As you probably know from watching last night's season 13 opener, the 11 teams opened their envelopes at LA's Olympic Stadium, and headed off to Salvador, Brazil -- with me close behind. I'd never been to South America before, but had always dreamed of it. And Salvador did not disappoint -- it's gorgeous, a little bit Boston, with its version of colonial architecture, and a lot Miami, with spicy Latin food and glorious beaches.

My first-person diary piece about traveling with the show will hit newsstands in early November -- please do check it out. Meanwhile, here on my blog, I thought I'd do something different and post some of the photos I took (and a few courtesy of CBS' photography dept.) along the way. I'm sure this will be fun stuff for those of you always looking for tidbits on how this huge organization comes together so efficiently. Believe me -- this show truly is "Amazing!"

4/23/08, late AM: Waiting for our connecting flight to Salvador -- which was late -- in Rio de Janeiro's airport. When things like this happen, producers whip out their cell phones and alert those already waiting for us on the ground to push things back.

The teams' first task in Salvador: to steer these rickety pushcarts, loaded with a gum brand called Blong!, into the elevator which links the commercial district to the old-city section of Pelourinho, atop the cliff. Once there, they have to look for the show's trademark red-and-yellow flag on a candy vendor's cart to receive their next envelope. (Luckily, the envelope says they're done for the day.)

The teams may have been done for the day, but I wasn't. Instead, I was invited to "test" the two stunts they'd have to choose from the next day at the Detour box. I refused to do the cargo net climb (see photos below), but crawling up the church stairs was a piece of cake -- despite how everyone else seemed to think it was the tougher challenge.

The plaque says that this church, O Pagador do Promessas (Payer of Promises) was the setting of a 1962 film which won the Palme D'Or at Cannes.

That night, I got to stay at the posh Pestana Bahia hotel. The teams were not so lucky -- they stayed pressed up against each other in these two-man mosquito nets in the incredibly humid jungle. It had just rained, so the ground was covered in several inches of mud, and there were bugs the size of Volkswagens. Still want to audition?

4/24/08, 8 AM: The first stop is the Detour box, located in the forecourt of the Third Church of Sao Francisco. Which of course is located next to the First and Second Churches of Sao Francisco, just to be confusing. At about 10:30, we get word from roving scouts that contestants are on their way, so we duck into the doorway of the post office across the street. When they do come, they're so focused on finding the box that they blow right past and don't notice us. Most of them blow right past the box, too, and enter the church before realizing their mistake.

My incredible simulation of opening the envelope at the Detour Box. Photo by Robert Voets.

The Detour box offered two options: "The Hard Way Up," which is crawling up the church stairs, or "The Soft Way Down," which involves climbing down a cargo net strung over the tower of the Elevador Lacerda which climbs up the cliff. That's 240 feet high, people -- are you insane? But 10 of the 11 teams choose the net, partly due to the deliberately misleading name "Soft Way Down."

Terence and Sarah finish and disconnect from the net. The next step is to grab the envelope which has the Pit Stop location (the finishing line for this leg.) Nick and Starr have already beaten them to it.

Kelli and Christy finish on the net.

From the base of the net (the Elevador Lacerda tower is the skinny white structure in the center of the photo, behind the white boat), it's just a run down this dock to catch a boat to the Pit Stop: a fortress several hundred yards out in the Bay of All Saints.

A short but scenic boat ride. We tried to duck out of sight while waiting for the boat in case teams came, because we didn't want to clue them in that they were in the right place. And we also couldn't hog either of the two boats going back and forth, for fear of delaying a team. But it turns out, we'd picked a lull between teams and shot right out to the fort.

Walking up the entry gangplank to the stone fortress.

This is the view facing right once you walk in the front gate of the fort. In the back is a ramp, which leads up to the cannons on the roof. That right side ramp was the one Production used; there's a symmetrical one on the left side which the teams used. They couldn't see us to the right because of a barrier the show constructed.

The ramp up to the top...

...Where it's nearly 100 degrees, in blazing sunshine. (Remember, this is the tropics in early autumn.) When host Phil Keoghan is not interviewing finishing teams on the mat, he's often filming "stand-ups" where he explains the rules and challenges to the camera. This is a rare break, hiding from the oppressive sun with the show's publicist Mitch Graham.

The famous Amazing Race mat.

4/25/08: The teams left this morning for city #2.

Me, I half wish I could go with them and observe, but I'm quite happy here on the beach at Barra...

...As are my tired feet in their new Havaiianas, made right here in Brazil. From this beachside bar, I walked back all along the peninsula that makes up the city to the Pestana Bahia hotel -- all the while hoping I'll get to come back here someday. With or without 22 crazed adrenaline junkies racing each other for a shot at the cash.

Click HERE to check out the full episode on

The Amazing Race
Season 13
Sundays at 8 PM Eastern, starting September 28


  1. As a big fan of The Amazing Race, it was great to see these behind-the-scenes shots from the first leg! I cannot believe you didn't take the chance to climb down the cargo net? It was a once in a lifetime opportunity!

  2. Awesome post! Thanks, Jim. P.S. I wouldn't have climbed down the cargo net either....

  3. It's about time you discovered the Best Reality Show on TV!!!

  4. I know this was a long time ago - but I am a die-hard fan and only just thought to myself the other day - what happens behind the scenes so thanks for the insight. As for the "Hard Way Up" stair climb - I think they had to count the number of steps and if they got it wrong they had to start again. That's why it was a harder task. I could be wrong.