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NBC Insider Hot Wheels: Ultimate Challenge

On Hot Wheels™: Ultimate Challenge, Finding the Line Between Toy and Car Is the Real Challenge

"I know it when I see it," says host Hot Wheels™: Ultimate Challenge host Rutledge Wood.

By James Grebey

In NBC's new reality competition show Hot Wheels: Ultimate Challenge, two people must compete in every episode, each attempting to transform a normal car into an elaborate, extravagant ride inspired by the iconic toy line. It is, as the show’s name suggests, the ultimate challenge, especially because what makes for a cool car and what makes for a cool toy car aren’t always the same thing. Still, the contestants must thread that needle, and the judges must evaluate the final products accordingly. 

How to Watch

Watch Hot Wheels™: Ultimate Challenge on NBC and Peacock.

“How do you define what a Hot Wheels™ is? Sometimes it’s easier to say ‘I know it when I see it,’ than to put it into words,” said host Rutledge Wood, speaking to NBCInsider at Hot Wheels™: Ultimate Challenge press event.

“There are a few differences between a toy car and a real car. Obviously, you don’t need to be street legal or race legal or comply with any laws of physics when you’re designing a toy car,” noted fellow judge Dalal Elsheikh, a designer for the Ford Motor Company. “When you scale down a real car into a toy car, there are some elements that you might need to push or pull. Maybe you exaggerate certain things because they just don’t read at a smaller scale. Also, you get to be more playful. Toy cars, for the most part, sell to children. Children love bold, bright colors, whereas, the everyday person doesn’t want to drive a hot pink convertible to work every day.”

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A contestant on Hot Wheels™: Ultimate Challenge, however, just might blow away the judges with a car that makes a hot pink convertible look tame by comparison. But, there’s more to winning than just making a crazy vehicle. Contestants on the show aren’t just transforming any old car, they’re transforming a specific car from their past, meaning they have an emotional connection to it.

“It’s really about turning the car into whatever they think this car should be,” Wood said. “If you always dreamed of having a pickup truck but it turns out you had a Toyota Camry, we’ve got a lot of work to do! They’re trying to put as much of their personality, their style, and their story into a build. So, that’s how they get wild. Whether it’s a monster truck, or a ‘69 Dodge Charger that’ll do a wheelie, it’s really about making this car completely customized to the person.”

Terry Crews, one of the guest judges along with others like Jay Leno and Anthony Anderson, echoed Wood’s sentiment, saying the emotional importance of the cars’ transformations was key to his own judging criteria. 

“For me, it was about the meaning factor. How meaningful was this transition? The car with the most meaning was the one that did it for me,” Crews said. “Outside of all of the logistical things, what surprised me was how emotional the show got. There were a lot of laughs, but there were also a lot of tears because it meant so much to people who grew up with these cars.” 

Still, the most emotional, meaningful car transformation in the world isn’t enough if it’s not also, you know… a car. Not to mention one inspired by Hot Wheels™. Judges Elsheikh and Hertrech “Hert” Eugene Jr. both admitted that sometimes contestants struggled. On the one side, there were contestants who had trouble going too wild. 

“We’ve had some contestants on who had a large history in racing, and because there’s so much technical demand on the weight of your car and aerodynamics, it’s kind of hard to remove yourself from that and design a toy that’s larger than life,” Elsheikh said.

Eugene, a car culture influencer, was the execution judge on the show, and this meant he was especially focused on how well done the car makeover was. 

“Functionality is very important to us. There were a few builds that went kind of wild with their wheel placement, and it affected the way that they turned. It affected functionality,” he said. “Yes, we’re building Hot Wheels™, but we’re building life-size Hot Wheels™. They gotta look good, but they gotta work good, too.” 

Hot Wheels™: Ultimate Challenge premieres on NBC on May 30 at 10 In all time zones.