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The Amazing Race 1, Episode 13 (season finale, 13 December 2001)

Denali State Park, AK (USA) - New York, NY (USA)

Thirty-one days: “Nine countries, four continents, thirty-five thousand miles”

The events of first season’s final episode of “The Amazing Race” reality-TV show on CBS had little to do with travel skill, and could almost have been decided by the vagaries of New York traffic.

The final leg began with a dogsled ride — mostly on a groomed path too narrow for passing, so the racers stayed bunched together. After jumping into some Alaskan ice water (cold, but not very time-consuming), the contestants were directed to “Vincent Daniels Square” in Sunnyside, Queens, New York City.

Brennan and Rob paid a passer-by $300 for her cell phone, in the hope of making reservations while driving back to Anchorage Airport that would get them on an earlier flight than Margarita and Frank. They could easily afford it, but it did them no good. Note to the producers of “The Amazing Race”: next season, give each team less money. One of the most unrealistic things about the race was that lack of money never became a decisive issue for any of the teams. Yes, travel around the world can be very affordable, but few real travellers can afford to take taxis everywhere, without worrying about the cost.

There are no nonstop flights from Alaska to New York. Even from Seattle, the gateway to Alaska from the lower 48 states, the only nonstop flight to the New York area that night was to Newark, New Jersey. Comfortable, cheap, and — so they claim — profitable new airline Jet Blue flies nonstop from Seattle to Kennedy Airport in Queens, but too early in the day to make connections from Alaska. So the two leading teams set off on the same connecting flights to the end of the million-dollar rainbow in glamorous Newark.

En route, Rob and Brennan searched every guidebook and map of New York City in the Anchorage and Seattle airports without finding “Vincent Daniels Square”. That’s not surprising, since it’s not really a “square” at all, in the European sense of “plaza” or “park”. It’s just an ordinary intersection of 51st St. and Roosevelt Ave., under the elevated tracks of the #7 train to Jackson Heights (Little India) and Flushing. I’m not sure who Vincent Daniels was, but in Boston and New York, among other Easy Coast cities, a local soldier who dies in combat is frequently memorialized by designating an otherwise nondescript street corner in their old neighborhood as a “square” in their name.

Margarita and Frank lived only a few blocks from Vincent Daniels Square, and figured they knew Queens. Maybe so, but they don’t know Newark, or else like most New York city dwellers they are accustomed to taking mass transit, not taxis. To avoid the traffic, they directed their taxi driver north to the George Washington Bridge, and across Manhattan on the expressway. Meanwhile, Brennan and Rob — Angelenos with no idea how to get to Queens — relied on their taxi driver, who took a more direct route through the Holland Tunnel and across Manhattan further downtown on city streets. That morning at 6 a.m., traffic was light enough that the shorter route was also faster, and that was the difference that decided the race. Myth may have it that New York cabbies don’t know their way around the city (unlike “The Knowledge” famously required of London hackies), but the moral of this episode is that even locals are usually better off leaving the choice of routes to the pros.

Somewhat surprisingly, the race didn’t end exactly where it started in Central Park. Instead, the finish line was against the photogenic backdrop of the Unisphere, the 140-foot (42-meter) diameter globe build by U.S. Steel Corp. for the 1964-1965 New York World’s fair.

From the “square” in Sunnyside, it was a short ride on the El to the finish at the former fairgrounds in what is now Flushing Meadows - Corona Park. But the trains are infrequent enough that Frank and Margarita, one train behind, had no chance to catch up. And Joe and Bill (“Team Guido”), who had fallen 24 hours behind in China, were still in Alaska when Rob and Brennan won the race.

For those keeping score, here are the top finishers in the first season of The Amazing Race, with links to their Web sites:

  1. Brennan Swain and Rob Frisbee (“The Lawyers”)
  2. Margarita Mesa and Frank Mesa (“The Separated Parents”)
  3. Bill Bartek and Joe Baldassare (“Team Guido”)
  4. Andrew Feinberg and Kevin O’Connor (“The Frat Boys”)
  5. Nancy Hoyt and Emily Hoyt (“Mother and Daughter”)

CBS has already chosen the cast for the second season of “The Amazing Race”. But it’s not too late to take a trip like this yourself, even if you weren’t chosen to do it on TV at a breakneck pace., the leading source of multi-continent air tickets (and where I work as staff “Travel Guru” when I’m not writing, travelling, or otherwise up to no good), currently has a special “Amazing Race” air trek around the world on the exact route of the TV show for just US$3495 including taxes. And tickets on simpler routes around the world can cost less than US$1500. What are you waiting for? There’s never been a better time to travel.

Parting advice for your journey from one of the most popular members of the “Amazing Race” cast, frat boy/fat boy Drew: “The key to being a Good Will Ambassador when you don’t know the language is to just call everybody ‘my friend,’ even when they don’t know what you’re talking about!!”

Bon voyage!

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