Metro Detroit father-daughter duo on 'Amazing Race': 'Dreams do come true'

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

Sitting down to watch "The Amazing Race," the beloved long-running reality show that sends teams scrambling across the globe to compete in various challenges, has been a weekly tradition for years for Arun Kumar of Sterling Heights, his wife Veronica, and their daughter, Natalie Kumar.

So when Arun, 56, found out that Natalia, 28, now a lead designer with Ford Motor Company, had not only auditioned to compete on the hit show with her then-fiance but was going to turn down a chance to be on it because her partner couldn't get out of work, her dad immediately offered an alternative. He'd be his daughter's teammate instead. 

"When she told me, I told her, 'Are you serious? You applied to the race without letting me know?'" said Arun, the co-owner of four Dunkin' franchises across Metro Detroit. "...Natalia and me have been watching 'The Amazing Race' from episode one. We've never missed an episode. It's always been my dream to be on 'The Amazing Race.'" 

Now that dream is a reality. On Wednesday, Arun and Natalia are one of 11 teams competing on the Emmy-winning show's 33rd season. It premieres at 8 p.m. on CBS 62 in Detroit.

Arun Kumar of Sterling Heights and his daughter, Natalia Kumar, at her wedding. The two are competing as one of 11 teams on the new season of "The Amazing Race."

The new season promises to be unlike any other in the history of "The Amazing Race," which debuted in 2001 and is considered the most celebrated reality program of all time. Filming started in late February of 2020 before COVID-19 hit. Only three episodes were filmed and then production was halted for a year and a half. Filming finally resumed last fall. The winning team gets $1 million.

"It's the longest pit stop in 'Amazing Race' history," said Arun.

Arun is this season's oldest competitor while Natalia is one of the youngest. But Arun, who grew up in India before moving to Metro Detroit roughly three decades ago, said he's proud he kept up with his competitors as well as he did despite being hesitant at first.

"Most of the cast is either athletes or they're really young," said Arun. "But I'd say it was the best thing I've ever done in my life. And I got to do this with Natalia. It was just so amazing."

Natalia, a graduate of Wayne State University who now lives in Canton Township, actually auditioned in 2016 with her now husband, Tayson Lin. Just out of college, they decided to do it for fun and forgot they'd even applied until a casting director called in 2019.

She said her dad was actually "kinda mad" when he found out she'd applied with Lin but that reaction changed to total excitement after she suggested to the casting director that Arun be her partner instead and they got word they'd been picked to be part of the cast.

"They actually called us on the phone and at time my dad was in India so we were in different places," said Natalia. "He just screamed on the phone. We couldn't believe it. Honestly, at first, we were a little bit silent. It didn't hit. 'Did they just say we were going to be on the show?'"

Both Arun, who moved to Metro Detroit after visiting a brother who was living in Troy, and Natalia say the show is far more difficult than it appears on TV.  They said the hardest part was navigating and driving in different countries without GPS.

Natalia Kumar and her dad will compete on the 33rd season of "The Amazing Race."

Arun was the driver and Natalia was the navigator. Due to COVID, teams didn't have drivers or taxis — which has been the case during other seasons.

"It's interesting as a fan watching the show and you're judging everyone," said Natalia. "I told myself I will never judge anyone else again. It's such an adrenaline rush when you're doing some of these challenges."

And the stress level is so high, said Arun.

"You'll probably see us yelling at each other" during the show, said Arun. "...People need to understand it's 100 times more difficult than what you see on TV, sitting on the couch."

Along with self-driving, COVID also meant the teams competed mostly in rural areas in western Europe. Natalia said with the challenges, they tried to divide them based on each other's strengths.

"I'm a designer, so anything with attention to detail or memory, were more me," said Natalia. "He was going to do more of the physical challenges. But we're both adrenaline junkies."

Ultimately, the show isn't just about being physically fit, Arun said.

Natalia Kumar, 28, and her dad, Arun, 56, have been watching "The Amazing Race" since it premiered in 2001. Now they're competing together on the show's new season.

"You have to be good in a lot of things — you have to be mentally good, you should also be able to handle stress and there's a team dynamic," he said.

Both Arun and Natalia proudly represented Detroit during filming. Promotional photos show them wearing bright red "Detroit vs. Everybody" shirts.

"We're so proud to be from Detroit," said Natalia. "Detroit has so much culture and spirit. We wanted to bring that and highlight on the show."

For Arun, who worked for Arby's for 20 years and is now a Dunkin' operating partner with four Dunkin/Baskin Robbins' franchises, he also wanted to shine a light on how hard restaurant employees have worked during the pandemic. Right until filming resumed last fall, he was dealing with staffing challenges and high demand at his restaurants.

"I left on Monday for the race but I worked on Sunday," said Arun, who has a location at Eight Mile and Gratiot in Detroit along with three others in Woodhaven, Wyandotte and Monroe. "I've been in the industry for 30 years but I've never worked so hard. We were so short-staffed but we didn't want to close up our restaurants because a lot of hospitals and frontline people need coffee."

Still, being on the show and competing with his only child was a dream, he said: "Dreams do come true."

"We're pinching ourselves now," said Natalia. "It feels unreal. So many years of watching the show and now we're on it."

 'The Amazing Race'

Season 33 premieres at 8 p.m. Wednesday on CBS 62 in Detroit