Cousins with area ties anticipate fun homecoming as Great Race finishes in downtown Fargo
Chris Brungardt and Jerome "Jay" Reinan look forward to driving their "loud and stinky" 1918 fire engine-turned speedster past the historic Fargo Theatre as race organizers save "the best for last."
FARGO — If there’s one thing Chris Brungardt and Jerome "Jay" Reinan have come to count on in all their years of running The Great Race , it’s the karma of their current car, a 1918 American LaFrance.
It started as a fire engine, was chopped and turned into a speedster after World War II, and is as over-engineered and close to indestructible as anything its age can be, the cousins say.
“Last year, we lost a valve cover, which is a huge part of the engine. … We call it manhole cover, it’s about 4 inches across. It covers the valves in one of the cylinders. And that thing went blowing through the hood of our car and we lost it,” said Reinan, a 1987 North Dakota State University graduate.
“And so we drove 150 miles with an open cylinder. You could see the valve pumping — pum, pum, pum, pum, pum. And we made it!” Reinan said. “The thing is … it’s a crusty old gal! People love it.”
“We get stopped whenever we get gas or wherever we are at. People want to come and see the car. We miss our start times at times,” said Brungardt, a Fargoan who heads the city’s housing authority.
“Kids crawl all over it. You see the thing is covered with about three inches of grease. It’s dirty. We just let the kids crawl on it. We tell their parents, ‘You know, if you get greasy, it’s their fault, not ours,’” he said.
“It’s loud, It’s stinky. It mirrors the occupants is the way to say it. We’re both loud and stinky,” Brungardt said.
About 140 vintage automobiles will start the 2022 Hemmings Motor News Great Race on Saturday, June 18, in Warwick, R.I.
The race, which is presented by Hagerty Drivers Club, will then wind 2,300 miles through the northern tier of the U.S. East and Midwest.
The survivors finish Sunday, June 26, rolling past the historic Fargo Theatre in the heart of downtown Fargo about 1 p.m.
Race director Jeff Stumb said Reinan, Brungardt and their LaFrance bring a personality to the race that can’t be beat.
“We’re finishing in Fargo because of these two, because they have the most exciting team and they have the most exciting vehicle,” Stumb said. “It’s loud and a crowd favorite.”
The cousins anticipate a homecoming hullabaloo to finish their ninth race.
“Just the opportunity to see all your family, your friends. … There’s people asking all about it,” Brungardt said. “My co-workers are all excited.”
The pair didn’t grow up far apart. Brungardt graduated from high school in Wahpeton in 1982 and later earned a degree from the University of North Dakota.
Reinan now lives in Salida, Colo., near Denver. But he grew up in Fergus Falls, Minn., and graduated from high school in 1982, before going on to NDSU.
The cousins will also enjoy a signature honor when the racers roll onto West Lake Drive in Detroit Lakes, Minn., around 4 p.m. Saturday, June 25.
Race officials decided Detroit Lakes is close enough to Fergus Falls to count as Reinan’s hometown, so the LaFrance will lead the pack into town.
“It’s a lot of fun,” Reinan said. “They let the hometown guys do that first. Anyone who doesn’t read your article will be fooled into believing that Chris and I are in (first) position.”
About the race
The Great Race was first run in 1983. It’s not a speed race, but a time/speed/distance rally. The vehicles, each with a driver and navigator, are given precise instructions each day that detail every move down to the second. The teams are scored at secret checkpoints along the way and are penalized one second for each second either early or late. As in golf, the lowest score wins.
The race routes have been designed to suit antique cars and the backroads can be beautiful.
“They find some incredible scenery for us to go through and see every year. ... If there’s a national park nearby, we’re going through the national park,” Brungardt said.
“I remember one year, we were going through upstate New York, and Jay and I were so taken by the scenery, we missed our turn. We just kept on going until we realized it wasn’t right and had to turn around. I guess that’s one of the reasons that we’re never in fear of winning,” Brungardt joked.
The original race rules limited entries to pre-World War II vehicles. But a couple of decades back, the rules were changed to allow vehicles manufactured in 1974 or earlier.
Reinan first heard about the event when he was going to law school in the early 1990s.
“A friend of mine had mentioned that this race existed. I didn’t know about it prior to that. When I finally got a car and got enough money, I thought it might be fun to try,” Reinan said.
“I just remember it was a Thanksgiving at my parents’ house, and Jay just shows up and says, ‘Want to go (do the) Great Race?’” Brungardt says with a laugh.
“We’ve been doing it, except for that COVID year, this is going to be our ninth race,” Brungardt said.
The cousins, with the help of their support team, have driven several vintage vehicles:
- Their first year they ran a 1931 Rolls Royce. “And that one was too reliable. We almost fell asleep. Nothing went wrong with it and it was comfortable,” Reinan said.
- A 1914 Cadillac, which blew a rod in California.
- A 1931 Auburn Speedster, which qualified for the Indianapolis 500 in the mid-1930s. “That car was hot and uncomfortable and miserable. But it looked really cool,” Reinan said.
- A 1916 Franklin “which was a big, huge scary monster of a car” with a 17-liter motor.
- The 1918 American LaFrance has turned out to be a comfortable crowd-pleaser, Brungardt said. “We took off the muffler and put some short pipes on there, so now it belches fire and does everything. Everything it’s not supposed to do, it does.”
A bygone era
Reinan bought the LaFrance from a collector in St. Louis about 15 years ago.
“What’s great about it is everything is over-engineered about it. So it’s less prone to breaking than most cars of that vintage, because it’s just a massive piece of steel, this thing,” Reinan said.
“It’s got dual chain drive. They look like big old agricultural chains, like you might see in an old bale conveyor,” Reinan said.
“The great thing about the Great Race is the catch line, which may have been more appropriate in their earlier days. It was ‘Race, Repair, and Repeat,’” Brungardt said. “They used to have a lot more older cars that weren’t mechanically reliable. We’re wrenching on this thing every night. And there’s something (that always) breaks down. We’re probably the most original or primitive car in the race.”
“Hands down. We’re the only chain-drive car,” Reinan agreed. “We’re the only car with wooden wheels. And we’re the only car with two-wheel brakes. We don’t have brakes in the front. We only have them on the rear wheels. And they’re mechanical, not hydraulic.”
Reinan and Brudgardt like to run in the spirit of the earlier Great Races.
“You had this group of guys, probably from two generations ago, three generations ago maybe, who probably grew up before the war and were familiar with primitive tractors and things like that. Perfect for someone from around North Dakota, Minnesota rural areas. And, they … want you to run the car the way it was built. As these folks passed on, (race organizers) had to figure out a way to keep folks interested. So then they got the muscle car crowd involved,” Reinan said.
“But, yet, we sort of insist on doing it the way it originally was done,” Reinan said. “We won’t win. We can’t win. It’s impossible for us to win, because we don’t have the technology that other people are using in the race.’
Brungardt jokes the the LaFrance’s technology isn’t the only factor in the won-loss column.
“We handicap the car a little bit, additionally,” Brungardt said.
Reinan rolls with the set-up line.
“Oh, sure, we’re probably the biggest handicap on the car, but the bonus is that we figured out how to keep this thing going. The car has not died on us along the way yet. I mean, occasionally we don’t finish a day. But we’ve never not finished a race in this car, even though it’s the oldest one we’ve driven. Knock on wood,” Reinan said.
In 2016, the race started in San Rafael, Calif., by the Golden Gate Bridge, and was to end in Moline, Ill.
The cousins had decided to wear white motoring dusters, similar to the dusters worn by cowboys.
“We got progressively browner and finally blacker, as we crossed through South Dakota into Iowa. People thought we were actually fabricating this, like we were spending our evenings spraying our costumes with grease,” Reinan said.
“But when you see these chains …, they’re 100-link chains, so they’re an inch and a quarter across from link to link, and they spray 1500-weight grease at you all day long, because the grease just runs through them. We just get coated. I’m sure my lungs just look awful. And I don’t smoke,” Reinan said.
“The karma this car has is just incredible,” Brungardt said. “We were in the high desert of Nevada and we actually ran the radiator dry. It overheated and seized. We sat by the side of the road and thought we were done for the race, and it cooled off. And we put water in the radiator after an hour, and we finished the race.”
“We were saved by the fastest woman in the world. Her name is Jesse Combs (who died in August 2019 trying to break a land-speed record),” Reinan added. “She had spare water, and she pulls over behind us … and she just gave us her water and we were able to finish the race.”
Reinan is hoping the race’s finish draws the type of crowds that descended on Fargo’s downtown for the ESPN College GameDay broadcasts.
He saw his biggest crowd for the event in 2013.
That year, the race started at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds in the St. Paul suburb of Falcon Heights, with a route following the Mississippi to Mobile, Ala. The start coincided with the Minnesota Street Rod Association’s annual “Back to the ‘50s” show. About 200,000 people showed up, Reinan estimated.
But small towns can draw big crowds, too.
“We go through a little town like Mayville, for example, or Hillsboro, a town of a couple thousand people, and there will be 15,000 people in these little towns. People will just show up from all the farms and ranches and places around there, because it’s pretty exciting. And they bring us through really rural America,” Reinan said. “That’s the whole point of this thing. We don’t spend a lot of time in the big cities, we spend most of our time driving through little towns that I would never frankly ever see if they didn’t route us through them. I mean, I have no reason to go through Monticello, Ark., but we were there. And, you know, Covington, La., … all these little towns, and the people are so excited."
“It’s pure Americana; it truly is,” Brungardt added. “You see the America of the past that’s slowly disappearing.”
The vehicles are worth watching, too, the cousins said. Bughattis, Jaguars — some of them past winners of high-end car shows.
“The great thing is these guys are out driving these cars. They’re not trailer queens. They’re not sitting on something and worried that people are going to touch them. … They’re working, operating pieces of art. And there’s just some beautiful, beautiful cars out there,” Reinan said.
The route for each leg of the race is not released until the morning’s start.
“Every morning, Chris stands in line with his coffee and his doughnut, and they hand him a packet of instructions that’s 30 to 40 pages long” with detailed directions that include specific speeds to travel on roads and times, Reinan said.
“It’s just this crazy list of instructions … And he yells at me where I’m supposed to turn and he yells at me if I’m about to miss a turn. And then we’ll take a “Rockford slide” and we’ll make the turn,” Reinan said.
Brungardt, who navigates, said the precision required for the timed rally makes it a bit more difficult for the oldest cars. The cousins use headphones to communicate.
“They don’t take into account acceleration or deceleration, and every car is different. So if there is a turn, you’re traveling at 40 miles an hour and take a turn and come out at 50 miles an hour,” Brungardt said. “You have to figure out how much time you lose to make that turn and how to accelerate.”
The LaFrance is not the oldest car — there are a few 1916 models in the field, the cousins said. But it is the most primitive.
“It’s a nine and a half liter four-cylinder” engine,” Reinan said. “Which means the cylinders are about the size of paint cans. They’re big. Anyone who’s worked on a 1920s or 30s tractor would understand what we’re talking about. It looks like a John Deere Model C.”
Seeing newer, higher performance vehicles getting towed can be a moment of triumph.
“I love seeing Corvettes on the trailer,” Brungardt said.
“My favorite time of the race is when we’re driving along in our 1918, and the flatbed wrecker shows up, and passes us up with a new muscle car that someone has just fully restored. And our car is running, and theirs isn’t.”
The best for last
Fargo-Moorhead officials, meanwhile, have shifted their race preparations into high gear.
Stephonie Broughton of the Fargo-Moorhead Convention and Visitors Bureau has worked with the Great Race organizers for more than two years.
“I think we’re in a pretty good place” as far as the logistics of display, storage and safety of the race and support vehicles, Broughton said. The Great Race was supposed to be here last year but was postponed due to COVID, she said.
Rhode Island and North Dakota are the last two contiguous states to visit for the race.
They’re “saving the best for last,” Broughton said.
The vehicles will be displayed along Broadway after they arrive.
“This is a wonderful thing for Fargo,” said Charley Johnson, the CVB’s president and CEO. “We have a lot of car enthusiasts. This is just a natural event for us to host.”
Johnson said the race will be a big boost for the area’s economy.
“It will not be insignificant. It will have an impact on our tourism economy for sure,” Johnson said.
Cindy Graffeo, executive director of the Downtown Community Partnership, says Fargo will shine.
“It’s really an opportunity for us to show off downtown," Graffeo said. "It will be just an all-around fun event."