At one point in the season opener of “The Amazing Race,” Alexander Rossi completes a harrowing zipline stunt that sends him hundreds of feet over a river in Iceland. When he returns safely, Conor Daly deadpans: “You didn’t die. That’s huge.”
Reality television is an odd beast, contrived competitions that we watch in lieu of bettering ourselves. Instead of reading “Wuthering Heights” and discussing Bronte’s unusual development of characters, we waste time wondering if Puck will get voted out of the house on “Real World: San Francisco.” (It’s been 24 years, folks, yet we still remember that tool.)
Truth is, reality TV is an effective and clever vehicle to introduce INDYCAR personalities to people who otherwise wouldn’t be aware of them. Most of us know someone hadn’t heard of Helio Castroneves before he won “Dancing with the Stars” in 2007. The effect may be marginal, but it’s positive publicity that reaches millions of viewers. For some reason, we watch this stuff. For some reason, it’s good for this sport.
That’s no different from the latest season of CBS’ “The Amazing Race,” which posits two-person teams in a competition of clue deduction, navigation and dealing with strange surroundings in order to reach a final goal. It’s quickly paced and edited, which suits Rossi and Daly, who have known each other for years and share a home. Or, as Rossi puts it in last week’s introductory episode, “He needs a house. I need my couch back.”
Attention is the point of reality TV and, as #TeamINDYCAR moves along to Wednesday’s second episode, it’s working.
“Obviously that’s the true goal,” Rossi says. “That was the motivating factor behind me doing the show. I wasn’t a huge fan of ‘Amazing Race.’ I had never seen it prior to getting the phone call about it, but it was an immediate, obvious ‘yes’ because of the potential brand awareness that the series would get and I would get and my team and sponsors would get. It’s a very important thing to do, I think.”
For those who haven’t seen it, “The Amazing Race” is different from your average reality show. Instead of a straight-up competition, it has layers of nuance and complications. It’s beautifully filmed; when the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Reality-Competition Program was introduced in 2003, “The Amazing Race” won the first seven. The show relies on the relationships of the team members to create the faux drama. For Rossi and Daly, whose everyday back-and-forth is entertaining enough, the situations of the show serve as a backdrop for their banter.
For the Verizon IndyCar Series, though, the show is priceless.
“It shows how the relevance of the series and the championship is growing,” said Rossi, the 2016 Indy 500 winner who will drive the No. 27 Andretti Autosport Honda this season. “This is two straight back-to-back offseasons where INDYCAR drivers have been on major network reality TV shows (following James Hinchcliffe's runner-up performance on "Dancing with the Stars" in the fall of 2016). That’s a very positive sign. I was honored that I was recommended to do it. It’s been a crazy experience.”
As they complete a leg of the competition in last week’s opener, Rossi and Daly are rewarded with a shot of a mystery drink. After slamming it down, Daly turns to Rossi and asks, “Was that vodka?” Rossi answers with “I’m ill,” to which Daly responds with “stings the throat.”
Many more people watched that comical exchange than watch Verizon IndyCar Series races. The Season 30 premiere on Jan. 3 had the largest viewing audience for an “Amazing Race” premiere since the Season 23 debut in Fall 2013. The show’s Facebook page is followed by 1.4 million people. For marketing purposes, that’s invaluable exposure.
“Right off the bat, the show got 7.3 million viewers,” said Daly, who also hopes the exposure helps lands him a ride in the 2018 season. “Obviously that’s more than our races get. Maybe people will ask the question, ‘Hey, what do these guys actually do?’ or ‘What are these guys actually about?’ I think it puts us out into another realm of eyeballs, and that’s what we need as a series.”
The only issue in the early stages of the season is the lack of on-screen time. The show starts with 11 teams, so airtime for each is scarce. Much of Rossi and Daly’s 11-hour adventure in Iceland remained in Iceland.
“That was the biggest surprise to me,” Rossi said. “I don’t think they cut it in a way that really changed how Conor and I were or how the leg went for us, but there were a lot of entertaining parts with us – going into random gas stations and asking directions, or stressing out about where we were going in the middle of nowhere and backcountry roads – that isn’t on TV. I’m sure that’s the same for all the other teams, as well.”
It’s worth a look. If anything, it validates INDYCAR racing with a large amount of attention from another direction.
(Catch #TeamINDYCAR with Daly and Rossi competing in the second episode of "The Amazing Race" at 8 p.m. ET/PT Wednesday on CBS.)