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Edward Hasbrouck on "The Amazing Race 4"

Episode 12: Thursday, 14 August 2003

Mooloolaba (Australia) - Ferny Hills (Australia) - Brisbane (Australia) - Cairns (Australia) - Julatten (Australia) - Ellis Beach (Australia)


Which risks are worth taking?

There are lessons for both would-be racers and real-life travellers in the "The Amazing Race" this week, where the key task was a lap around a seven-mile track in the outback near Cairns, Australia in a high-speed dune buggy. (It's actually a tourist attraction open to the public for A$129, or approximately US$85, per person for the day.)

David and Jeff regained their lead (lost when all the teams had to wait for an earlier attraction to open) because David drove more cautiously and completed the dune buggy course without incident. The teams whose drivers tried to gain time on the track fell behind when they tried to take corners too fast. Chip ran off the track and damaged his dune buggy on the shrubbery, Jon flipped his dune buggy, and both had to wait for replacement vehicles.

It was extremely unlikely that faster driving would make the difference in getting a team on an earlier flight out of Cairns. The potential upside (a few minutes) was likely to be of no consequence; the potential downside (a crash) was huge. Over a seven-mile course, the difference between the fastest and most cautious driver wouldn't have been more than five or ten minutes. And the racers still have to fly back to the USA (with a likely wait of several hours in the airport for infrequent long-haul flights) before the next elimination at the finish line. There was almost no chance that trying to drive faster could have any benefit.

In four seasons of the race, we have yet to see a case where driving speed made the difference in an elimination. But we've seen many episodes where teams in too much of a rush, or driving too fast, missed markers or turns, costing them time and elimination. (Although no one was eliminated this week, both of the other remaining teams -- Chip and Reichen, and Jon and Kelly -- made navigation errors that put them even further behind.) When some teams have gotten on a flight, and others haven't, it's usually been because no more seats were available (which depends on the order in which they made reservations, not the order in which they got to the airport) or because of delays in ticketing.

On the road or on a dune-buggy track, the chances of gaining a significant amount of time by driving faster are small; the chances of disaster (especially on an unfamiliar road or track or in an unfamiliar vehicle) and loss of time are much greater.

Real-world travellers sometimes have to hurry to make a fixed deprature time. But at least as often, trying to rush ahead is counterproductive. And it's always stressful. No one can travel at top speed all the time, no matter how strong the temptation to see as much as possible in a short vacation. Knowing when to hurry is an important travel skill, especially for longer trips.

Jeff and David get my nod for making the right choice of when to hurry, when to take risks, and when not to. That's something they've demonstrated in their decisions throughout the race.

As I discussed in one of my columns last season, the most important strategic factor in "The Amazing Race" is the "Fast Forward" that lets the one team that completes it first skip the rests of the tasks and go directly to the finish line of the leg. Since each team can use the "Fast Forward" only once in the entire race, and since airport waits and other delays are likely to erase intermediate leads of as much as several hours, finishing first in any but the final stages is unimportant. The entire focus of each team should be on avoiding elimination without using the "Fast Forward", so as to use the last "Fast Forward" (this season, in leg 11; there's no "Fast Forward" in the finale) to get a head start on the final sprint to the finish.

Many of the racers haven't seemed to understand this, and have wasted their only chance at a "Fast Forward" to win an intermediate leg when they weren't in imminent danger of elimination. Jeff and David have been the first team to talk explicitly about this strategy, and they've executed it successfully to become the leaders down the stretch. We'll find out next week in the season finale (and the finale of the show for now, since there's been no call for applicants for another season of "The Amazing Race") if their strategic choices get them the million dollar payoff.

P.S. If you were scheduled to be on flights that were cancelled, changed, diverted, or delayed by yesterday's power outage (14 August 2003) in the Northeastern USA and Eastern Canada, see my answers to frequently asked questions about refunds, airline procedures, and your rights:

P.P.S. For those of you in the Bay Area, I'll be speaking next Thursday evening, 21 August 2003 (set your VCR to record the finale of "The Amazing Race") at the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco on the role of travel in our lives and how it has changed since 11 September 2001. Hope to see you there!

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