How much distance lies between Darlington Raceway and Outer Mongolia? In Kellie Patterson's case, about five feet, three inches.
Patterson wanted to learn more about the business side of one of her favorite sports when she enrolled in the University of South Carolina's Motorsports Marketing class taught by Darlington Raceway staff members. The 22-year-old Greenville, South Carolina native will graduate in December 2006 with a degree in Broadcast Journalism.
She almost didn't get her wish.
"My minor is Sports Entertainment Management, and I'm so lucky that it is, because I love NASCAR. I heard there was a NASCAR class but I wasn't sure if that specific class was offered as part of my minor. I'm fascinated with the whole NASCAR corporation and how it's structured and how it has evolved and gotten so big and so successful, and I'm a big fan, too," Patterson said.
"The department said I couldn't take the class, and I was so disappointed, but I was determined. I just came to the class anyway hoping someone would drop out or not show up. Finally I guess I just wore everybody down. I got in, and I'm so glad.
"I learned a lot in the class. I knew a little bit about NASCAR from being at the races but I never knew the history, how it was created, or even that it was a family-owned company. Learning so much about NASCAR made me love it even more."
In the spring, Patterson's perfect attendance record came to an abrupt halt with two consecutive, and unexplained, absences.
"Kellie told us she would be absent from class for a couple of weeks, but that she couldn't tell us why," said Mac Josey, vice president and general manager of Darlington Raceway. "We thought it seemed pretty mysterious at the time, but all we could really do was wait for her to come back and wonder what was going on."
The answer to that particular mystery revealed itself in September when the multiple Emmy Award-winning TV series "The Amazing Race" opened its new season on CBS. Among the contestants were Patterson and her friend and fellow USC cheerleader, Jamie Hill.
How many times have you watched "Survivor" and thought, "I could do that; no problem?" Have your friends ever said, "You should really try out for 'Jeopardy!' You always know the answers?"
The difference lies in the fact that Patterson and Hill didn't just talk about doing something. They did it.
"Jamie and I have always been fans of 'The Amazing Race'. The way we decided to audition is not an exciting story, really; we were just sitting there watching the show one night and we looked at each other and said, 'We should try out', Patterson said. "So we got together and did an audition tape and sent it out. We used the cheerleading angle, saying that we used to be competitive cheerleaders but we don't do that anymore, and we need a new competitive challenge. I guess they saw something about us that they liked and thought would work for the show."
A semi-final interview in Columbia was followed by a trip to Los Angeles in March for "10 straight days of interviews," Patterson said. "It was really intimidating, but we managed to make it through."
The waiting game began. Patterson and Hill weren't informed that they had been selected to compete in "The Amazing Race" until three weeks before they were actually scheduled to leave.
They used their time wisely, working hard to prepare themselves for the challenge by keeping physically strong and training mentally by studying such things as rudimentary French and Spanish, which they hoped would prove helpful during the race.
Then in June, Patterson, who had never traveled outside the United States and had previously spoken no foreign languages, literally landed on the other side of the world.
All races follow the same basic format: An individual or group of competitors begins an event, but in end, only one is victorious. At Darlington Raceway, about four hours and 500 miles of bone-rattling speed
and sound comprise a complete event. In "The Amazing Race," those numbers are multiplied exponentially.
"It was kind of surreal. You were literally never sure what time it was, or even what day of the week it was," said Patterson. "I have no idea how many miles we physically traveled. Just one bus ride we took was over 900 miles. It was exhausting and disorienting at times, but it was always exciting."
The journey began in the "Emerald City" of Seattle, Washington and traveled to Beijing, China before proceeding to Ulan Bator in Mongolia. Along the way, the racers encountered traffic jams, extreme language barriers, the Forbidden City, the Great Wall of China, and a meal of raw fish eyes before ending up on an archery field where they were required to ignite a target 160 yards away with a flaming arrow, using a traditional Mongolian bow.
Displaying the characteristic determination that got her enrolled in the Motorsports Marketing class, Patterson fired 118 arrows at the target before nightfall forced her to stop and her team was eliminated from competition.
In NASCAR races, alliances are often forged and then abandoned according to situations that develop during the course of an event. "The Amazing Race" takes a different approach. In order to compete successfully, the two-person teams must remain strong and supportive from the green flag to the finish line. For many viewers, part of the fun of reality television is watching team members get snarky with one another as their composure slowly unravels.
In this case, those viewers were disappointed. Although their "Amazing Race" experience came to an end after just two episodes, Patterson and Hill maintained their strong friendship throughout. "Sharing this experience has brought us so much closer, and I love her so much," Patterson said. "I know we will be friends for the rest of our lives. I'm glad we got to do this together.
"This entire experience opened my eyes to a whole new world," she continued. "I was born and raised in South Carolina but now I realize how much more is out there, and I'm anxious to travel more, and see more, and do more. It really changed my way of thinking. It changed my life. It was incredible. It was ... amazing."