Contestants on CBS’ Emmy-winning global wind sprint ”The Amazing Race” face many challenges, such as restraining themselves from strangling their partners until AFTER the race is over, and realizing that speaking louder and slower does not make foreigners understand English any better. But the greatest challenges are the exotic, terrifying, and goofy competitions that frustrate players in every time zone. In ”Race”’s fifth season (premiering Tuesday, July 6 at 9:30 p.m.), the 11 teams will recruit Calcuttans to help them push engineless cars, haul stones in front of the Sphinx like Egyptian slaves of yore, and participate in a chocolate-eating task that exec producer Bertram van Munster calls a ”’Willy Wonka’ takeoff” in honor of the show’s first little-person contestant. ”It’s not about how deep, how high, how low, how ‘Fear Factor’-ish you can be,” says van Munster. ”It’s about, when you get in all these crazy situations, do you lose track of where you need to go in life?”
The assorted ”Roadblocks,” ”Detours,” and ”Fastforwards” evolve from van Munster’s preseason jaunt around the planet, where he devises a route and searches for indigenous sports, like last season’s get-dragged-through-the-mud-by-a-bull spectacle in India. Back in California, challenge producer Jym Buss (who has now moved on to devise games for ”Big Brother 5”) and his research team flesh out the ideas and test them around the office. For a Hawaii pit stop in ”AR4,” for example, Buss wanted teams to chisel open a rock to find a clue inside, so he experimented with many fabricated stonelike compounds, smashing them in the parking lot. Says the meticulous Buss, ”I needed the competition to take at least 35 minutes to see frustration on the players’ faces.”
Though stunts involving things like bungee jumping and trips to Nelson Mandela’s old cell are the most visually and emotionally compelling, the simplest challenges often give the producers the most joy. In ”AR3,” Buss feared that a Switzerland challenge where players had to count trees with ribbons tied around them might be dull. But he himself couldn’t master the task – ”I counted them 30 times and always came up with three different answers” – and at the end of the challenge, the standings were upended. ”When the last teams in are the first ones out, that’s when you feel like you did the best job,” he says. Nothing exhilarates ”Race” producers more than seeing a player self-destruct over one of their creations; reminiscing about ”AR3” champ Flo’s aneurysm-baiting tantrum while attempting to maneuver a round boat in Vietnam, van Munster gets positively giddy: ”She got so frustrated!” Forget the Emmys: For the ”Race” crew, watching a player burst into tears is the REAL sign of a job well done.