Commentary

Racer Mechanics

"Who will come up with the right strategy, the right combination of brains, brawn, and teamwork to win the $1 million?"
-- Phil Keoghan
At the beginning of each cycle of The Amazing Race, the viewer is reminded that it is this combination of skills that determines the two-person team that emerges as the winners of the Race. These skills, however, are not something that either exist full-blown in each Racer team before they begin or solely develop in the course of the Race. Rather, it is a combination of the experiences, knowledge, abilities, skills, and internal relationship of each team coupled with an ability to adapt and learn from their successes and failures that helps bring about that "right combination" of Racer Mechanics. Thus, the purpose of this fortnightly commentary is to analyze what skills are used by Racer teams to their best advantage and their worst disadvantage over the course of a Race.

In addition, with the rule changes that took effect with the fifth season, the exact nature of that balance has changed; what would have been the most successful combination under the rules in the first four seasons isn't necessarily the case anymore. I think, for instance, that Rob and Brennan, the team of lawyers and best friends who won the original Race, have remained the one team (out of the 57 teams that competed in the first five seasons) that has the best combination of Racer Mechanics. It is speculation as to whether they could have been as successful under the rules in season five, and it is just as much speculation as to how the fifth Race would have turned out had the original rules been in place.
Further, not even a team that is the most blessed in Racer Mechanics is assured of victory; luck always plays a factor in the outcome of a Race.
Further, not even a team that is the most blessed in Racer Mechanics is assured of victory; luck always plays a factor in the outcome of a Race. Frank and Margarita from season one, Derek and Drew from season three, David and Jeff from season four, and Colin and Christie from season five, are all evidence of the role luck plays.

In trying to focus on Racer Mechanics, there are significant distinctions and caveats that should be kept in mind. First, the on-air edited "personality" of a team, per se, is not an attribute of that team's Racer Mechanics. While much of the source information that one has to rely on is, in fact, what is aired, the editorial work of TAR's editors often has to be "deconstructed" in order to have a better understanding of a team's Racing Mechanics. This is one reason why I have been interested in the re-construction of the timeline of the actual Race each cycle; the process of understanding the actual course of the Race, how teams traveled from point to point, and the actual sequence of events in each Race are all factors that come into play in understanding the relative skills each Racer team possesses. This point takes on even more significance as the editing style of TAR's production continues to evolve from season to season.

Second, teams possess attributes that are not necessarily apparent from the pre-season media publicity materials and that help explain the differences between successful teams and less successful teams. For example, it made a significant difference at an early point in the second Race that one member of the lifelong friends team of Chris and Alex, who won season two, had lived in Brazil for a year to play soccer, when the Race spent its first two legs in Brazil. This experience wasn't indicated at the CBS website; even though it is now clear that teams do benefit when they have a real fluency in a local language or have had experience living in a particular country that is the locale of a leg of the Race.
With that in mind, what are some of the things that make up Racer Mechanics?
With that in mind, what are some of the things that make up Racer Mechanics? What are some of the factors that continue to be important skills for Racers even with the rule changes that took place in season five? There are the obvious ones (being physically fit and being capable of handling fatigue and lack of sleep among them), but there are others as well.

Attention to details. This usually is most apparently in booking transportation, but it does come up in other ways as well. There are two often cited aspects of this attribute. First, one must recognize that it is not whether scheduled transportation departs the earliest, but whether it arrives at the destination the earliest that is the most important detail. This was apparent even as the fifth Race began, when the producer-arranged flights out of Los Angeles to Montevideo included a first departing flight that arrived after the second departing flight. Failure to pay attention to this factor generally influenced which group of teams completed the leg. Second is to check and double check all available options to assure that an earlier-arriving option doesn't exist and isn't available. There were a number of instances where this played a factor, particularly for Colin and Christie in the string of legs where they repeatedly finished in first or second place. The best example was in the leg where teams traveled from St. Petersburg, Russia to Egypt; Colin and Christie took the opportunity at their connecting city to find and switch to a flight that arrived in Cairo almost 12 hours earlier than the connecting flight they had originally booked.

Attention to details comes up in other ways as well. Teams frequently seem to have a problem following the instructions given to them in the route markers, in reading maps, or in getting directions. For instance, two teams in season five (Chip and Kim and Kami and Karli) failed to go to a route marker at a hotel in Punta del Este, Uruguay, and stumbled onto one of the two detour tasks inside the hotel. They were forced to go back from the pit stop and retrieve that route marker even though they had completed the task. In the leg in Egypt that ended at the Sphinx, Karli and Kami failed to complete a puzzle that provided information that directed them to the next route marker and were helped by another team to locate the clue box. In New Zealand, a couple of teams had problems finding a major highway they had to use to drive themselves out of Auckland.

Communicating with the locals. Although English speakers (of some level) are quite frequent in the countries visited in each of the five Races to date (whether English is an official language of the country involved or not), the skill to communicate with locals is often a factor is how well teams perform in particular legs. It does seem that having fluency in a locally spoken language has frequently helped a team, although at least one winning team (Rob and Brennan in season one) seems to have successfully managed to circumnavigate the globe only speaking English. But on the other hand, having knowledge of French aided Joe and Bill in the French legs of the first Race, Chris' knowledge of Portuguese aided his team in Brazil in Race two, the Riker Twins were aided with fluency in German in the third Race, and Colin used Spanish to great effectiveness in the first few legs of the fifth Race.
As each Race has been filmed, money management becomes more and more of a factor for the teams during the course of each leg and the Race as a whole.
Money management. As each Race has been filmed, money management becomes more and more of a factor for the teams during the course of each leg and the Race as a whole. Each season, the producers appear to have reduced the amounts of cash that they compute a team might need to complete a leg, and with the introduction of the forfeiture penalty in non-elimination legs in the fifth Race, the skills of managing and using money effectively has taken on increased importance. In the final leg of season one, Rob and Brennan (in a famous tidbit that was more fully explained after the season aired) accumulated enough cash over the course of the first 12 legs to pay a driver at a gas station in Alaska $300 to borrow the driver's cell phone and take it with them on the road to the Anchorage airport so the team could make flight reservations as quickly as possible out of Alaska to New York City. Other teams have fought over cash management problems or put their frugality to use in other circumstances, including Bill and Joe (Team Guido), when they were forced to use slower, cheaper bus transportation instead of a taxi in one of the India legs of the first Race, and more recently, when Chip and Kim did not have enough money to pay all of the taxi fare out of Dubai to a route marker in the desert in the fifth Race.

Ingenuity. Being ingenious is a valuable skill in the Race. There haven't been a lot of instances of this, but the ones that have been seen over these first five seasons have been memorable. Besides the cell phone loan by Rob and Brennan in season one (mentioned earlier), there have been others. In season two, Oswald and Danny used a concierge and a five-star hotel's travel agency in Hong Kong to arrange for the earliest arriving flight to Sydney, which resulted in a first place finish in that leg. In season two and three, teams were shown using Internet cafes to locate and make flight reservations on the Internet overnight while airline ticket offices and international airports were closed. In the final leg of season five, Colin and Christie made arrangements for a hired driver and vehicle so they did not have to wait for a taxi upon their arrival in the final city of Dallas. In a couple of the seasons, teams went back and used locals who had provided services at an earlier point to help a team later in that leg or a subsequent leg. Most recently, Brandon and Nicole used a travel agency several teams visited in Patagonia before a bus trip back to Buenos Aires to change to a more favorable flight to St. Petersburg, Russia.

These characterizations and examples are not all inclusive, and they certainly don't take into full account characterizations of a team's life experiences that contribute to their level of Racer Mechanics. However, in the next entry of "Racer Mechanics," we will take a look at the available information concerning the teams that have been cast for the sixth edition of the Race. Hopefully, there will be clues from that information about each team's "combination of brains, brawn, and teamwork" to make some preliminary judgments about those new teams in preparation for the premiere of the sixth cycle of The Amazing Race.