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The 25 Most Amazing Amazing Race Teams

Photo: CBS

When CBS kicked off The Amazing Race on September 5, 2001, offering eleven teams of two the chance to circumnavigate the globe, it seemed destined to be a short trip. Not only was the show competing directly with Lost — the short-lived NBC reality show with a nearly identical premise, not the 2004–2010 ABC drama — but the bulk of the first season aired in the wake of the September 11 attacks, when few Americans wanted to travel, let alone see a bunch of total strangers reveling in it.

And yet, The Amazing Race endured, and then some. Even 23 seasons in, the series still plays much like it did at its debut: Pairs of competitors travel the world completing challenges that test their logic, strength, negotiation skills, courage, and ability to deal with culture shock. You’d think that seeing one American scream at a cabbie in a language the cabbie doesn’t understand would be enough, but every six months, some 10 million viewers flock back to see more contestants complaining about how India smells, marveling at being in Africa, and jumping out of airplanes. Oh, those crazy contestants!

To help us settle into yet another installment (the fourth episode of season 23 aired last night), Vulture took a look back at the 25 most amazing teams to have competed on the show. The question of why we did such a thing can be answered with Sir Edmund Hillary’s famous line: Because it was there. To gather important scientific data on the many teams that have participated over the years, we watched every episode from the show’s first 22 seasons — yes, all 260 episodes — and assessed each squad based on a mix of important traits: competitiveness (i.e., do they seem like they actually want to win, or merely be on the show at all?), success (how well did they actually do?), drama (and, more specifically, did they manage to overcome any internal squabbling?), audience enjoyment (they must entertain us!), and backstory (they better not have seemingly perfect lives). Being the winningest or the most lovable goes a long way, but TAR (that’s shorthand for The Amazing Race, for the uninitiated) fans root hardest for teams that have a little bit of everything going on.

And no, no one from season eight’s disastrous Family Edition made this ranking. Everyone sucked that season.

Lisa and Joni were with The Amazing Race for a short time — only the first two legs in season nine. But had they survived even half a season, these self-described “glamazon” sisters would have been candidates to make the top ten based on spunky enjoyability alone. While their inability to decipher directions obviously doomed them from the get-go, Lisa and Joni lifted the ninth season out of the depths it had fallen to in Family Edition through sheer enthusiasm; every Roadblock, Route Info, or Detour they encountered inspired squeals and screams of excitement. Many bonus points for their introductory video, in which they excitedly bedazzle an outfit together. Photo: CBS
Sometimes the best team is also the very worst team. At its core, The Amazing Race thrives owing to its unspoken promise that we’ll get to watch couples being awful to each other, and Jonathan takes the cake as the most awful person ever to compete on the show. He strut onto the scene as an egomaniacal monster, screaming and hooting about his own perfection, all the while belittling poor Victoria so entirely that even the other teams took notice and appeared to be uncomfortable with it. In a sprint to the finish in Berlin, Jonathan dropped his bag even as he screamed at Victoria, who picked it up because she was afraid someone would steal it. Her thoughtful pause in the action allowed models Freddy and Kendra to run past them and claim first place in the leg, an outcome that Jonathan reacted to by shoving Victoria in front of host Phil Keoghan and millions of viewers. You could tell that Phil wished he could eliminate them right there, but we had to endure Jonathan’s reign of terror for several more legs. Jonathan and Victoria were train wreck TV at its finest, operating with a level of disfunction that has never again been rivaled on The Amazing Race and hopefully never will. Photo: CBS
It took two seasons for The Amazing Race to get its feet under itself and deliver a team worthy of this list. Unfortunately, the show’s first truly memorable duo was of the cringe-worthy kind. It’s hard not to feel bad for Zach: The poor guy had paired up with a female friend he had feelings for who clearly didn’t have feelings for him, so he was on hand to watch her flirt blatantly with a member of another team as the game sent them through several countries. When that rival squad got eliminated, Flo reacted by essentially quitting, which forced Zach to work double-time and drag her along. She sobbed her way through India, constantly talked about going home, and hired someone to paddle a boat for her in a task because she refused to paddle herself. The most shocking thing about Flo and Zach is that they won it all, and any team that pulls that off deserves some respect, even if America wanted to strangle one of its members. Photo: CBS
The most recent season was a bit of a downer for powerhouse teams. YouTube hosts Joey and Meghan became the pair to pay attention to, if only for their irritability and sheer WTF-ness. In their contestant interview, they explained that they’d bonded on such key points as “how important hair was to us” and “music.” Before twerking became a national debate, Joey twerked on the beach during the very first leg. While it was easy to laugh at Joey and Meghan, they also represented a new breed of team: two young adults who aren’t dating or siblings. Plus, their chosen professions meant their post-Race presence would amount to more than the typical Us Weekly interview slot. If only all the teams on this list had the forum and know-how to offer up a fifteen-minute, self-produced insider recap! Photo: CBS
Best friends Zev and Justin faced one of the most frustrating and infuriating eliminations in season fifteen. After checking in first in Phnom Pehn, Cambodia, they realized Zev’s passport was missing. The golden rule of The Amazing Race is you must have your passport for forward travel, and so they called their cab back and tried to retrace the leg’s steps to see if they could find it. Other teams have recovered from misplaced passports in the race’s history (most memorably, a female team who’d lost one and had it returned with the help of social-media-savvy Race fans), but Zev and Justin were not so lucky. Justin had befriended Zev, who has Asperger’s, during childhood, and when Zev’s condition presented a challenge for them during their two appearances on the program, Justin was able to keep him calm and motivated enough to finish tasks. They fall into the inspirational team category, with a solid dose of humor and strength to carry them through. In the end, it was Zev’s lack of rhythm that cost them their second chance at a million, when they fell behind during a Brazilian dance challenge. Photo: CBS
If we were ranking teams by their commitment to fashion, the creatively named Kynt and Vyxsin would easily claim the top spot. The “dating goths” painted on impressive eyebrows and managed to pack an endless supply of pink zebra print in their two stints on the show. Even though they were terrible navigators, the did have a knack for coming up with deceptive tricks that helped keep them in the game, like when they didn’t admit to their rivals that they’d been hit with a 30-minute penalty. They argued a lot, but their precision eyebrow pencil work, even after fourteen-hour flights, ensured that you’d never truly get annoyed by them. Although they fell considerably short of victory twice, Vyxsin and (newly re-branded) Kent were a welcome streak of pink and black in a sea of stereotypical Amazing Race couples. Photo: CBS
Comeback kids Uchenna and Joyce are very nearly the ideal TAR team. The married couple went to great lengths to make it further into the game, like when Joyce, faced with the dreaded Cut-Your-Hair-in-India FastForward, sucked it up and allowed the men to shave her head; in doing so, she became the first and only woman to complete that task in Amazing Race history. They were also resourceful, such as the nail-biter finish in their first appearance: Depleted of cash, Uchenna begged strangers for money to pay for their cab at the gateway to the final pit stop (a moment that also came with social commentary, as passers-by took the time to scold Uchenna for panhandling). Their struggle made their first-place triumph even sweeter, capped with Uchenna’s loud declaration that they’d be using the money for IVF treatments. They also were given a second chance to compete in the All-Stars season and finished fifth. Photo: CBS
Kris and Jon appeared to have walked straight out of early-aughts central casting. They wore visors. He had the slightly frosted, spiked hair going for him. She looked like a young Britney Spears — a pre–K-Fed, pre-headshaving, pre-comeback Britney Spears who still had her whole life ahead of her. They skated through a season that featured two of the absolute worst Roadblocks in race history — an exercise asking teams to unroll a bale of hay and a key-unlocking challenge. They notably avoided alliances, ran a totally clean race, and, unlike their fellow competitors, remained respectful while having a horrible time with cabs and the language barrier in China. Instead of raging when an honest-to-goodness train thwarted them just as they were about to hit the home stretch, giving them a second-place finish, Kris and Jon just hugged each other and commended each other on a race well run as they waited to get to the line. If only we could all be so upbeat. Photo: CBS
The bright spot of any Amazing Race season is when the show highlights humans whose whole lives could be changed by a million dollars, instead of people who’d like to win some cash for the extra bankroll (e.g., football players, wives of basketball players, people who’ve already won a million dollars on another reality show). Enter Bopper and Mark, two boys from Kentucky and lifelong best friends. They weren’t in particularly good shape, had no discernible travel savvy, and not once but twice skirted elimination when their last-place finishes fall on godsend non-elimination legs. The second one, in India, made for one of the few Amazing Race moments that could bring a viewer to tears — perpetually carsick Mark got stuck doing a Bollywood-dancing Roadblock in the heat because Bopper’s knee had been hurt. After eleven failed attempts at completing the challenge, Bopper begged Mark to quit and take the penalty, for fear he might have a heart attack. Mark realized that a million dollars wasn’t worth dying over and quit — but the dance organizers begged him to give it one more go, and he finally triumphed. We’d bet a million dollars that these guys will return for the next All-Stars edition. Photo: CBS
Former NFL player Marcus brought the true competitive spirit to the race, treating tasks like they were training exercises (carrying villagers on his shoulders through waist-deep water like they were nothing) and exploring any and all football metaphors in relation to the race. Amani was the calm and sensible balance to her husband, and their great marriage stood in stark contrast to bickering daters around them. As comeback kids, they made a stunning leap into the final three when season dominators Andy and Tommy made a fatal blunder in the second-to-last leg and fell far behind. Even with the upper hand of a final leg in their hometown of Atlanta, the pair only managed a third-place finish thanks to Marcus’s gaffes in a flight simulator. But they’re definitely ripe for a return appearance on a future All-Stars season. Photo: CBS
Cowboys from Oklahoma, Jet and Cord managed to run two entire races without ever removing their cowboy hats (or so it seemed). That alone is cause for celebration, but they were also strong players whose combination of athleticism and determination earned them a spot in the final three for their first stab at TAR glory (twins Dan and Jordan, honorable mentions on this list, won season sixteen). On their return race in the All-Stars season, Jet and Cord were definitely more shrewd and not as well-liked by their fellow competitors — or viewers. But their good fortune, strong skills, and awesome names made them impossible to ignore. Photo: CBS
Ken and Tina came on the race with a pretty standard reality-TV setup: They were hoping the journey would allow them to reconnect with each other after a rocky stretch in their relationship (Ken had cheated on Tina, but we don’t get much more info than that). While other teams bickered, Ken and Tina grew stronger and stronger. Their second-place finish — they were edged out in a cab race by Nick and Starr — featured Ken’s touching request that Tina wear her wedding ring again and start their marriage over. It provided one of the most tear-jerking finishes in race history, and made it hard not to root for the couple to succeed with their post-TAR relationship. Photo: CBS
Mallory is the undisputed sunniest contestant in Amazing Race history. Models and beauty queens tend to earn eye rolls from the audience and usually make for a lot of whining and complaining, but Miss Kentucky 2009 broke those stereotypes. Her father, Gary, a superfan of the show, equally matched Mallory’s chipper spirit. The pair’s undoing in season seventeen: a faulty map during their stop in Oman which also almost knocked out fellow contenders and eventual winners Kat and Nat. But Gary and Mallory didn’t have to wait long for a chance at redemption, and hustled their way through the All-Stars season with the same can-do attitude, finishing yet again in a not-embarrassing sixth place. Photo: CBS
These damned dirty hippies from San Francisco swept into The Amazing Race with a whirl of optimism and patchouli. The Ivy League grads goofed off, kept their spirits up even when they thought they were last, survived two non-elimination legs, ate a bucket of fried crickets for a FastForward, received a T-Mobile Sidekick from an elephant, and other impossibilities. While other racers tend to slam “unpleasant” foreign cultures, B.J. and Tyler spent time talking to locals and took time to enjoy the race while running it. Most enjoyable was their bromantic camaraderie with the “frat bros” Eric and Jeremy, which carried into the final leg and the race for a million. While they ran much of the last leg in second behind the other male-male pair, flag recognition and race memory pushed them just ahead of the frat bros in the end. Photo: CBS
It took seventeen seasons, but Nat and Kat hold the distinct honor of being the first ever all-female team to win the race. These surgeons reeked of race success from the outset, especially tackling precision tasks with ease. They had some mid-season stumbles that sent them falling to the back of the pack, but they worked hard to make up the lost ground. They both had to overcome personal challenges: Nat is a type 1 diabetic, while Kat, a vegetarian for 22 years, ended up with a FastForward task of eating a sheep’s head. But they never complained or quit, best exemplified by Kat’s quip after swallowing her portion of sheep’s head: “tastes like money.” While it’s a bit perplexing why it took a female team so long to win The Amazing Race, the payoff was sweeter, since the season’s other competitors were so strong. Nat and Kat’s success can be chalked up to their having been blessed with calm heads, good cabbies, efficient research, and nimble memory skills. While they may not have been the most entertaining or endearing all-female team to appear on the show, they definitely excelled and deserve their spot in Race history. Photo: CBS
Harlem Globetrotters teammates Flight Time and Big Easy precariously straddled the line of being lovable and frustrating during their two-season run. The pair’s tactics were sometimes suspect (e.g., taunting a competitor who was petrified of water as they ran past her on a water-slide challenge), but ultimately they were enjoyable gamers, giving their all to ridiculous and challenging tasks alike. They had the brute strength and athletic skills down cold, and their strategy led to forming alliances that helped them breeze through tasks in the early rounds, thanks to brainier pals feeding them answers. But when crunch time came and the alliances broke apart, Flight Time and Big Easy got tripped up by logic puzzles — twice. Their inability to complete a word scramble earned them a six-hour penalty and elimination in season fifteen; in the finale of the All-Stars season, they lagged behind and couldn’t complete the reconstruction of a trailer home faster than the sister team of Kisha and Jen. Still, they were within visual distance on the final race to the line and knew enough about clowning to concede that they’d never make up the distance on tricycles. Photo: CBS
The winningest team in the history of The Amazing Race, fighter pilot Dave and army wife Rachel won eight legs of the season-twenty race, including the final. Even more impressive, Dave and Rachel managed to stay mostly above the fray in a season that featured epic catfights and deceit — from catty comments about yoga pants and nose jobs to Federal Agents pretending to be kindergarten teachers to get ahead. I say “mostly” because they kept their bickering to themselves; nearly every leg of the race found one of them saying “shut the fuck up” to the other. Whatever works. Photo: CBS
Spunky TV-show hosts Brook and Claire were neck-and-neck with the ultimate winners, Nat and Kat, down the stretch but settled for second place in their season. But they rank higher on our amazing list for having been a more entertaining team to watch. They kept a kiss count of the smooches they exchanged with people in various countries. They kept their outfits bright and coordinated. They surged ahead of almost all of the teams. And of course, Claire survived one of the most painful and unfortunate mishaps during their very first Roadblock: While using a giant slingshot to launch mini-watermelons at a suit of armor in England, Claire’s slingshot twisted up and fired backwards, slamming her directly in the face at nearly point-blank range. But instead of quitting or falling far behind, she nailed the target to eke out fourth place on the leg. That’s the kind of determination and staying power that builds a star team. Photo: CBS
Lest you forgot what a phenomenon Survivor was in the early aughts, former CBS sister show castmates and newly engaged couple Rob and Amber had no problem enlisting star-struck civilians to help them with tasks no matter where on the globe they seemed to find themselves in their first season on The Amazing Race. Coming off their dominant Survivor: All-Stars appearances, which ended in Rob proposing marriage to Amber in the finale, they had received a helpful burst of international fame, which netted them unpaid assistants willing to sit in cars at their behest and nurses in the middle of Africa willingly offering up directions in exchange for a photo op. While this outside help definitely contributed to their impressive initial run on the race, it was their Survivor-cultivated cunning that set Rob and Amber apart. Rob pulled swift life-saving moves, such as convincing other competitors to take a penalty on a food-eating challenge to keep his team effectively safe. Even though they never won, Rob and Amber proved that brute strength and travel savvy can only get so far in the game, and that the strategy portion of The Amazing Race is almost as important as it is on Survivor. Photo: CBS
The Fabulous Beekman Boys, goat farmers and bloggers from New York, were a breath of fresh air on The Amazing Race. The pair had la successfu Planet Green TV show about their lives together living on a farm in upstate NY and building a green lifestyle brand, and Josh was already a successful writer while Brent was a doctor. They were basically the manic pixie dream couple you wish you could be, or at least befriend. On their particular race, they provided a needed dose of sanity, as Josh fought through an ankle injury to play tennis in Spain and the pair’s farm lifestyle helped them repair windmills in Holland. Kept outside of a strong alliance in the final four, the pair of underdogs nonetheless miraculously pulled out the million-dollar win. Their only minus point for the Race is that they used wheeled backpacks instead of traditional ones; it’s hard to be in complete awe of a team that resembled elementary schoolkids while running to the Pit Stop. Photo: CBS
A sibling powerhouse team, Nick and Starr were the model of consistency. After a few middling finishes in the first legs, they won seven out of final eleven segments of their race. They stirred up drama with their less-than-lovable personalities (especially on Starr’s end), not the least of which was a rivalry that surfaced over their supposed tossing of an energy bar off a hotel. While Starr, the youngest-ever winner of the race at 21, proved herself to be exceedingly difficult and easily frustrated, Nick was a calming force keeping her in line and focused. The constantly camo-clad pair sailed to victory in their season ahead of fan favorites Tina and Ken (not to mention the bumbling, how-did-they-even-survive-leg-one pair Andrew and Dan) and made you wish that you and your sibling could work this effectively together. Photo: CBS
Another brother-sister powerhouse team, lawyers Tammy and Victor may not have had the consistency of their predecessors Nick and Starr, but they worked well together and never fell out of sight of the lead. After a single stumble in Romania, where Victor’s stubborn and domineering nature led them the wrong way up a mountain, despite Tammy’s protests, the pair stayed in striking distance and soared once Victor learned to take heed of his sister’s opinion. And for extra luck factor, two of the legs happened to take place in China, which allowed them to use their language skills to jump ahead of other teams. Back-to-back victories by mixed-gender siblings made you wonder if it was going to be a long-running trend, but a married couple wound up in the winners’ circle the following year. Photo: CBS
There’s absolutely no denying the awesomeness of cousins Mirna and Charla. They accuse other players of being in potential BDSM relationships. They get electrocuted while driving through Argentina. And they manage to come back from twenty minutes down to overtake strong competitors Rob and Amber. And that’s without noting that Charla is a little person who routinely trounced numerous average-size competitors at tasks. Despite being there to prove she can do anything an average-size person can do, the cousins had no problem using Charla’s small stature to their advantage in scoring special privileges, such as getting on priority-upgrade lists on flights, help on tasks from Good Samaritan locals, and flat out lying to airport personnel about her having medical issues (although, to be fair, many teams on the show have made up fake emergencies to get them through airports swiftly, but Mirna and Charla’s lies seemed to fool people pretty easily). Mirna and Charla, who were both born in Syria, also seem to be able to speak every language needed to win the race. Sure, the other teams hated them, but it smacked of jealousy; when the cousins got eliminated halfway through their first season on the show, the watchability quotient of the season fell sharply (who cares who gets to the mat if you don’t have Mirna’s budding crush on Phil to watch for?). A second dose of the pair in an All-Stars season earned them greater triumph and higher ranking on this list, even though the girls only placed third. Photo: CBS
Margie and her son Luke faced one of the most difficult communication challenges on the series, as Luke was the first deaf contestant to appear on The Amazing Race. But if that makes you picture someone demure, think again — Luke was one of the most aggressive competitors on the race, not willing to give an inch against anyone (except redhead allies Jaime and Cara). Witness his shoving match and name-calling fights with Keisha and Jen. Margie and Luke were inches away from a first-place finish in the season fourteen finale when Luke found himself stumped on a race memory Roadblock that asked teams to find surfboards with designs from each of the pit stops; for some reason, Luke kept guessing that Beijing was represented by a neon skull and crossbones, leaving you screaming at your TV as powerhouse siblings Tammy and Victor sped past. Unfortunately, Margie and Luke’s near miss was not redeemed during their All-Stars appearance, with Luke failing hard on an Indian tea-tasting ceremony, but they had impressive showings regardless. Photo: CBS
Before Reichen became known as “the Guy Lance Bass Was Dating When He Came Out,” he was one half of the most amazing Amazing Race team. He and Chip inspired social commentary owing to their relationship status being described as “Married” (how far we’ve come since 2003!), but they were also a force to be reckoned with. While CBS dealt with protests about the pair, Reichen, a former Air Force pilot who’d kept his sexuality under wraps while in the military, was out and inspiring throughout the race. He and Chip thrived on being expert communicators, talking each other through a live-octopus eating challenge by re-branding the quivering seafood as “octopus shooters” like the kind they’d had at their wedding. They also excelled at the strategy portion of the game and had no problem with being unhelpful to other teams if it got them further in the game. Love the or hate them, Chip and Reichen combined the ideal mix of power, strategy, backstory, and luck to catapult them to Amazing Race glory. Photo: CBS
The 25 Most Amazing Amazing Race Teams