Long Beach Grand Prix gives IndyCar superfan Kathy Burgemeister a chance to heal
Kathy Burgemeister bought too many bags of M&M’s for Halloween.
She decided, eventually, to not answer her door for trick-or-treaters in the fall, so Burgemeister had a surplus of candy on her hands. When the Arizona native booked a trip to Southern California for the Long Beach Grand Prix, she decided to stuff the bags in her suitcase and take them to the track.
They were her husband Dave’s favorite candy. Married since 2003, the two became familiar faces at IndyCar tracks across the nation, developing close relationships with many drivers and their families.
Dave died in 2020. This past weekend was Kathy’s first race since.
“He’s always with me,” Burgemeister said, lowering her head as tears welled in her eyes.
On Sunday, Burgemeister wheeled around the paddock on a mobility scooter, greeting old friends with a reach into the moped’s front basket. She passed out fun-size bags of M&M’s, lightweight tokens of a heavy heart.
It was much bigger than a day at the track. It was a chance to reconnect with a group she called “family.”
“Through the pandemic, there was a lot of interaction like that that we didn’t get, that the fans didn’t get,” said Ed Carpenter, driver and owner of Ed Carpenter Racing. “It’s one of the things behind the scenes that goes on that makes our sport so special.”
Dave was a smart guy, Burgemeister said.
A former mechanical engineer and veteran of the Air Force, she said he had a “dry sense of humor.”
“He made me proud,” she said, voice shaking.
One night in early March 2020, Dave wasn’t feeling well. She took him to the hospital in the morning.
After dropping him off to park, he suffered a heart attack in the lobby. By the time she walked inside, it was too late. Doctors revived him, but his brain was gone.
Dave was a smart guy. He wouldn’t have wanted to live like that, she said. A week later, he was taken off life support.
She remembers, in racing terms, when Dave introduced her to the sport: around when driver Helio Castroneves joined Team Penske in 2000. The two became mainstays in the troupe of an IndyCar traveling roadshow, attending five to seven races a year.
The Long Beach Grand Prix is considered the biggest race of the IndyCar season after the Indy 500, and the drivers would like nothing more than a win Sunday.
Drivers would recognize her, and she and Dave would meet many at post-race parties and on pace car drives. Carpenter and his wife, Heather, have known them for more than a decade.
“She’s a superfan,” Carpenter said of Burgemeister.
During offseasons, she’d twiddle her thumbs, unsure of what exactly to do with herself.
“When the holidays roll around, I’m like, ‘Ugh,’” Burgemeister said. “This [race] is more like Christmas for me than Christmas.”
It was raining the day Burgemeister took her first pace car ride. A drift driver was behind the wheel and he skidded the car inches from the wall.
Burgemeister was screaming her head off. She got out of the car, emotions splayed six ways to Sunday, a mess of tears and laughter and unspoken thrills.
“It’s better than any rollercoaster,” she said. “That’s why this place is so special.”
Dave was there that day. On Sunday, Burgemeister brought him back with her. His black wedding ring hung from a gold chain around her neck, a necklace Dave got for her. Her shirt, black with a silver lace decoration, was the last thing he ever bought her.
Burgemeister’s Twitter bio reads, “Lost mobility & (Dave) in 2020, but still trying to find hope & something positive.”
She found it at Long Beach. The condolences for Dave started, Burgemeister said, on a Thursday elevator ride from her hotel, where she ran into auto legend Roger Penske.
During the weekend, Meyer Shank driver Simon Pagenaud gave her “the sweetest face,” Burgemeister said. Before the race Sunday, she got a picture with Dale Coyne’s Takuma Sato, telling him her husband had died.
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” Sato said, giving her a soft pat on the back.
Long Beach is special to Burgemeister. It’s an easy track to get around, important after hip replacement surgery in 2019, and offers a bevy of opportunities for fans to connect with drivers.
Pole-sitter Colton Herta crashes out from the lead, opening the door for Josef Newgarden to claim his first IndyCar win on the streets of Long Beach.
At Long Beach, engagement was fully back after a couple of years dampened by the pandemic. Andretti’s Romain Grosjean said he went through six or seven packs of about 150 signature cards.
“There are so many opportunities to create some of those interactions and relationships … in some cases, see families grow up,” Carpenter said.
For Burgemeister, it was bittersweet being back. She couldn’t help crying. Everything, she said, reminded her of Dave.
But it was a chance to heal.
“I think for her to see people and be remembered, and have other people remember her husband,” Carpenter said, “it hopefully makes her feel better and the pain that she’s gone through.”
On Friday, Carpenter saw Burgemeister for the first time in years. She told him, too, that Dave had died.
Carpenter responded he was sure her husband was happy she was there. Because Dave would’ve wanted to be too.
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