Phil Keoghan

The Amazing Race picked up its ninth trophy (in 10 nominations) for reality-competition series at last Sunday's Primetime Emmy Awards, but the evening was special for Phil Keoghan for another reason.

"My daughter was 6 the first time we won and I told her that I would take her to the Emmys when she's 16 if we're lucky enough to be nominated then, let alone still be on the air," Keoghan tells "So a decade has gone by — I don't know how it's gone that quickly — we're still here and we got nominated, so I took her and it was great to be there with her." It wasn't smooth sailing the whole night: His daughter Elle fainted before the show from the oppressive heat (she's OK) and Keoghan had trouble getting into the theater after seeking help for her. "The entrance was blocked, so we had to go all the way around and luckily made it back in time before the category was announced," he says. "It was our own Roadblock!"

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Nine Emmys later, Race is heading into its 21st season (Sunday, 8/7c, CBS) and raising the stakes even higher. For the first time, the show is doubling the prize money to $2 million — but there's a catch: A team must win the first and last legs to win the $2 million purse. So why up the grand prize now? What else can we expect from Season 21? Keoghan gives us the scoop.

Congrats on the Emmy win! Do you still get nervous after so many wins?
Phil Keoghan:
Thank you! I do. Every year that we have won, I was more nervous than I ever was, last year included since we had lost [in 2010 to Top Chef]. The first time we ever won, I was so relaxed because there were absolutely no expectations. In some respects, we were an underdog show. We weren't the highest-rated. We were just a critically acclaimed show, I think. I think that first award really put us on the map. It made people who hadn't found our show yet go, "What's this show that just won?"

That one was for Season 3, which was a game-changing season. And now you're on 21.
Yeah, Season 3 was a pivotal one, [Season] 5 too. In fact, all our odd-numbered years were really pivotal — 1, 3, 5, 7 were big years for us. And now it's 21. I remember thinking five years was extraordinary. It's absolutely mind-blowing to be in the 20s now.

Is that why you're upping the prize to a potential $2 million?
Yeah, that came from CBS. CBS said that they really wanted to have a game-changer, to have something that would make the audience pay attention and certainly make the teams race a little harder. Thankfully, they managed to find the resources to be able to offer it as a prize. The reaction that I got at the starting line was quite enthusiastic. "Oh, that sounds like a good idea!" (Watch a sneak peek of the starting line below.)

I'm not sure we can say the same for past Racers.
[Laughs] I always say, I don't think there's anybody who's been on the Race who was in it just to win the money. Honestly, I think if you could offer any of the Racers a chance to come back just to race, they would take it. While the money is definitely a tantalizing prize waiting at the end, the experiences that they have, money couldn't buy. We've allowed teams to go to the pit where the Terracotta warriors are in China — no amount of money could buy you into that place. I don't even think $2 million could cover it, quite frankly. It's the best that money can't buy.

Meet the Amazing Race 21 cast

Judging from the premiere, this is one of your most eclectic casts ever.
Yeah, I think you're gonna love the teams. The team that stood out from the beginning were the Sri Lankan twins [Nadiya and Natalie]. They talk incessantly. They have a wonderful, self-deprecating sense of humor. They constantly bicker at one another and then turn around and love each other dearly. The Beekman Boys [Josh and Brent] — the funniest thing was that during the auditions [when] they were describing how they lost their jobs and they started this goat farm. They described having one arm attached to a certain part of the goat's anatomy while the other hand was holding onto an iPhone on how to help a goat give birth. I don't know if there's a goat app now, but when they described that with hand gestures, we just were like, "These guys are hysterical!" The Chippendales [Jaymes and James] are gonna be some real eye candy. They're very funny, very quick, vivacious, quite sensitive. They're not what you would expect and not what I expected. I was just surprised at their humility and their sensitivity. They came on this Race to have a great time and they definitely did. They know how to have fun.

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There's a somewhat suspenseful finish to the first leg. Were you surprised at what happened?
I was really surprised. The thing about Amazing Race is that the teams don't realize that one decision about letting something go or trying to be nice at some point can come back and sting you. You have to just focus on racing and race smart and be careful about ever giving up anything. All I can say is, every single one of them says, "Man, we used to yell at the screen and say, 'Why are they doing this?' But when we come on, we realized it's not as easy as it looks.'"

Someone also doesn't read a clue properly. How can teams still do this after 21 seasons?
I know! Honestly, I think people underestimate how much jet lag is playing into bad decisions. People stop thinking when they're under pressure. This is all happening at a million miles per hour — 12 shows in 21 days. It was faster than the last season and the last season was crazy-fast. I think people think because the show airs week to week, there's this big space between legs, like we're all resting and hanging out for seven days, but we literally do not stop. You're going to see some very smart people make some very dumb mistakes.

How dumb? Missing you at the Pit Stop dumb?
[Laughs] Just mistakes they would not ordinarily make if they were not so tired and so out of it. It's part of what makes the Race work. If we did have a week between legs, it would be a completely different show. There are definitely fatal mistakes, not just one, but a number of multiple fatal mistakes. ... You're gonna see, literally, in one episode two teams racing for last place. There's an intersection where they can go left or go right to get to the Pit Stop. They're in a mode of transportation where they're side-by-side yelling at each other. One team goes left, one goes right. One stays and one doesn't. They were within seconds of arriving on the mat.

Are snowboarders your new beauty queens? You used to have beauty queens all the time and now you have another snowboarder in three seasons.
[Laughs] It's kind of topical now with the Olympics and the Paralympics — these athletes with these extraordinary mindsets to overcome adversity. [Amy] is our first-time double-amputee Racer. She's a three-time World Cup champion snowboarder. She's one to watch. I think that's what's so great about our show — we can cast such diverse people. Other people cast for singing ability, dancing ability, losing-weight ability, cooking ability, designing ability. Our show is not about any particular ability at all. The more different you are, the more likely you are to be chosen if you have a really interesting personality and backstory. A Chippendale, a monster truck driver [Rob] and a former rock star [James from White Lion and Megadeath] would never wind up together in a pub for a drink in real life. James and Abba are another team to watch out for. People think they know what to expect from the long hair and hearing that he's a rock star. These are pretty smart guys.

Fans were not fond of the fighting between Rachel and Vanessa last season. How much inter-team drama is there this season?
There's definitely drama and some bickering, but nothing like last season. I think this cast has a better competitive attitude than last season's. There's healthier competition this season. I mean, some of that stuff with Rachel and Vanessa was getting really nasty last time.

And the Switchback is back.
Yeah, you like that? What's interesting is the fans are trying to guess which [old task it is.] People love to see how new teams would cope with those legendary moments. I'll just say it had hilarious results the first time.

Please tell me it's the cheese.
[Laughs] I will tell you that the cheese is probably one of my favorite moments ever. The cheese task was not necessarily planned out to go the way the cheese task went. I don't think we planned for 50-pound cheese to roll down the hill and possibly take out locals. Thankfully there were fences down the hill, otherwise the headlines would've been "Amazing Race Cheese Takes Out Village."

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What kind of new tasks will we see?
Going to Indonesia the first time was so popular that we decided to head back, and we do something interesting there. The best challenges are the ones that are indigenous. I can promise some very messy and smelly challenges. (Check out a sneak peek of a Roadblock from the premiere.)

Were the final three who you expected — or who you think viewers might expect — to be?
The final three are always a surprise because none of us ever get it right! I'm terrible! Even the first couple that left, I didn't see coming. That was not the team I had picked. We always take a few bets on who we think will make the final three and nobody has ever gotten it right. I never saw Flo and Zach winning [Season 3]. Everybody had Rob and Amber picked to win [Season 7]. This year, I was way wrong and a couple teams that I picked got eliminated pretty early. They might be the same teams fans will latch on to.

Any update on Season 22?
We're good to go on Season 22. We're scouting and will be shooting at the end of the year. People always ask what makes this season different from past seasons. We don't change the format. We just change the faces and change the places, and you will get The Amazing Race. We're not reinventing the wheel. I think a show like Survivor — which is great — comes up with more twists because it's more needed. They change the faces, but what about the places? It's a pretty similar kind of location, so they need to change something in the format. A talent show, you're on the same soundstage every year. Our advantage is because we never go back to exactly the same place, so there will definitely be new locales in Season 22.

The Amazing Race premieres Sunday at 8/7c on CBS.