They'd barely unpacked their backpacks when the call came offering Gary and Mallory Ervin a second shot at winning The Amazing Race.
"It kind of dampened the blow of watching us get eliminated from the first one," said Gary Ervin, half of the Western Kentucky father-daughter duo that came in sixth in the most recent season of CBS's globe-trotting reality competition.
Sunday night, just three months after their last episode aired, the Ervins will be back on TV when The Amazing Race: Unfinished Business premieres.
The new season, the Emmy-winning show's 18th, gathers 11 non-winning teams from previous seasons for a second chance at the $1 million grand prize. The Ervins, of Morganfield, are the only team from last season. They are one of three with strong Kentucky connections (see below).
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Mallory, 25, thinks that the way the pair were eliminated (they had an incorrect map of the Arab nation of Oman) might have helped them get another shot on the show.
The highly competitive team — he's a businessman, she's a former Miss Kentucky — had done well until that point, she said, and people realized they had the potential to win.
It didn't hurt, the producers told them, that they were favorites of the show's fans.
Gary, who has watched the show since it began 10 years ago, says he was a little star-struck when he met some of the competition for this round of The Amazing Race, particular the cowboy brothers, Jet and Cord McCoy, and a couple of Harlem Globetrotters, Herb "Flight Time" Lang and Nate "Big Easy" Lofton. "He wanted to get autographs," Mallory said.
To prepare for round two, Gary, 53, lost 20 pounds. And both learned how to drive a car with a manual transmission — a perennial hurdle for the show's racers. In a shift in strategy from last season, Dad will do the navigating and Mallory will drive. "She's a more aggressive driver," he said.
Unlike some Amazing Race contestants, the Ervins didn't bicker or snipe on the show. For the most part, their time on camera was remarkably free of drama.
That doesn't mean they agree on everything.
Mallory, who was Miss Kentucky 2009, wanted to pack a hair straightener for the trip. Dad said no.
"I told him that I wouldn't take it but he would have to iron my hair," she said.
And he did. With an iron.
"It didn't have a setting for 'hair,'" Gary said. "I didn't know how hot to make it."
"I think you burned it a little bit," Mallory said, laughing.
Shooting for the show is complete, but the pair are sworn to secrecy — not only about who won but about any particulars of their global travels.
The show's publicity materials say that teams will travel 40,000 miles through five continents and 23 cities and that the first episode begins in Palm Springs, Calif., and takes teams to Australia. Other stops include Liechtenstein and Tokyo. Beyond that, everyone is mum.
Gary said family and friends don't pry too much but are eager to see the race play out week by week on television.
"They don't want to ruin it," he said. Knowing the outcome would "destroy the excitement."
"My dad and I are together all the time. We'll see something that we saw on the race or start talking about having some kind of injury, and my mom will hold her ears and say, 'I can hear you,'" because she doesn't want to know, Mallory said.
Gary said that if he ends up winning the $1 million prize, he will give his share to charity. Mallory said she'll also donate a chunk of her winnings.
The way they looked at it was "that we had such a gift to do this race two times in a row, the money was secondary," she said. "What we treasure is the experience."
They already have donated money from their first Amazing Race winnings to spruce up downtown Morganfield. They also are selling autographed yellow bandanas, like the ones they wear on the race, and Mallory's handmade prayer bracelets.
The profits from those sales are being donated to charities that help members of the military; that's in honor of a relative injured in Afghanistan.
Their hometown fans have turned the streets of Morganfield yellow with bandanas. "Everybody in our town feels like they are running with us," Mallory said. She said one older fan told her he had to stop watching the show because he was getting too excited and having chest pains.
Now that the race is over, the Ervins will watch it on TV. Gary isn't sure what his next challenge will be. Mallory, who had long aspired to pursue a career in theater in New York, is heading instead to Hollywood in hopes of getting into television.
She'll stay with friends she met through the show.
And, she said, "We are ready for them to call us back for a third time."