“The Amazing Race” had completed filming three episodes of a new season when the world came to a halt over coronavirus concerns in March 2020.
It took more than a year and a half for the show’s producers and the network, CBS, to make safety protocols and arrangements to finish what they started in the face of unprecedented circumstances.
But like the contestants who race around the world for a chance to win $ 1 million, “The Amazing Race” producers were up for the challenge.
Below, host Phil Keoghan opens up below about how they did it and what it means to race around the world after a world-changing event.
This interview has been edited for clarity and condensed.
CNN: After a very long break for both fans and the contestants, how much of a relief was it to be able to bring ‘The Amazing Race’ back?
PHIL KEOGHAN: “It was quite emotional coming back. It was emotional suspending the race because of the disappointment that I could see in the eyes of the cast, knowing the sacrifices that they had all made to be there. And so to have to tell them, ‘Look, I’m really sorry. We’ve heard about this virus called Covid-19 and because of your safety and because it’s our number one priority, we’re going to be suspending the race.’ It was heartbreaking. And then I never predicted that it would take as long as it did to restart. No one really knew what was going to happen, of course. It’s easy, in hindsight, to say, ‘Well, yeah, of course, we had to stop the race.’ At the time, you could understand that there were some doubt with some cast members wondering, ‘Was this, is this absolutely necessary?’ So there were a lot of emotions, and we felt that we were doing the right thing.
So coming back and seeing everybody’s faces again, it felt like it was yesterday, but then it also felt surreal. I, for one, was also feeling a little anxious because [I wanted to] get through this and get everybody through the race and get everybody home. The idea that we would have to suspend the race a second time was certainly on my mind. I felt very confident that we could do it successfully, but it was definitely in the back of my mind, like, ‘Oh my God, please, let’s get this done right.’ It was also quite heartfelt just hearing everybody’s stories — hearing about relatives that had been lost and jobs that had been lost and how their lives had changed. Nobody’s life is the same again. It was mixed emotions, for sure.”
Was there ever a point during that extended break that you thought the show wouldn’t be able to come back period?
“No, I never felt like we wouldn’t be able to come back. Having produced ‘Tough As Nails,’ one of the first shows to go back into production after the pandemic shut everything down, six months after the pandemic hit, we went through all of the challenges of bringing a production back and putting a return to work policy back together. We were able to do it successfully. So I knew we’d be able to do it with ‘Race,’ but of course, with ‘Race,’ there’s the added challenge of not just doing it in one location, it’s the transition from one location to the other. That’s where the risk factor is.
A lot of fans have said, during that time, ‘Well, why didn’t you just do ‘The Amazing Race’ in America? Do it without going overseas.’ But, again, it doesn’t matter whether you’re traveling 500 miles or 5,000 miles, it’s the transportation of moving from one safe environment to another safe environment. And, quite frankly, the risk in America and a lot of states was higher than the risk in a lot of countries around the world. In putting a new course together, part of the consideration was what countries have a lower risk and where can we take people where there is a lower risk. Those are all key factors. I felt very confident standing there that we were gonna be able to pull it off.”
I’m surprised there were calls to do it in America only since ‘The Amazing Race’ is so much about the appreciation of other cultures and other places. Because of this pandemic and the ability to move freely being taken away so suddenly, do you feel a greater appreciation for what this show was doing from the start? How did it feel sort of getting back into that world and knowing, ‘We’re going to get a chance to show people things again that they haven’t seen in two years?’
“Well, I think your question is very perceptive because I think we’ve become more aware of what it means to be global through this pandemic. Because what we realize is that we are all living on this rock that’s floating through space and something like Covid can affect all corners of the Earth. And we are all breathing the same air. We’re all living in the same atmosphere. Everything that we do affects everybody else everywhere on the planet. And certainly Covid did. So I feel like in a way, our show is more relevant now in 2021/22 than it was even when we started the race.”
I know one of the post-Covid changes involved chartering a plane for production. But in terms of interaction with the locals, were there protocols that enabled the racers to do that safely or were y’all not allowed to interact with the locals as much?
“Yeah, we still were able to. I think there’s no mystery to the way that we followed protocol. It’s a little bit like the way that we interact in the world. Now, you don’t necessarily shake the hand of a stranger or hug strangers. I mean, that’s why it’s so sort of jarring to see the first few episodes, because it’s the Covid-free world, and then you juxtapose that with this other world. I think people are going to see that you can still be in public places and have safe distancing. But we’re also used to now — adjustments that we’ve all had to make.
We still gather, but we know that it’s safer to gather outside than it is to gather inside. What you won’t see is you’re not gonna see ‘Amazing Race’-ers crowded together with thousands of people in a confined space. We’ve had that before where people have been running in the streets of, say, India, and there’s been an elephant procession. I remember that one particular situation on ‘Race.’ You’re not gonna see that because, again, it is in an uncontrolled environment. But I think for the most part, people will realize it’s the ‘Race’ that they’ve come to love with a few adjustments that we’ve all been making.”
Well, since you got to live that private jet life with the cast, I’ve been thinking: Do you think some like race loyalists are gonna say these contestants had it too easy? They didn’t have to deal with the plane tickets and the stress of taxis and that kind of thing. At the end of it all, are these going to be legit winners or are fans going to put an asterisk on them?
“Oh, no, no it’ll be legit. But also, you have to realize, um, there’s pros and cons to both, right? In a regular race, you’ve got more access to go into places and to interact with people to get more information. But the playing field is even. Driving a stick shift, if you don’t know how to drive a stick shift, it is still challenging for people. We did have some public transportation. We just knew that the drivers were Covid-free. There’s still hustling for vehicles. You can’t get rid of the stress of learning how to read a map and getting lost. There’s plenty of that. So, no, there won’t be any asterisks. It’s the race as we know it and we love it. You’re gonna see that it’s a different world, the world that we all know, so it’s not a surprise. It’s just a different world.”
“The Amazing Race” premieres Jan. 5 on CBS.