Long Beach Grand Prix helps IndyCar superfan heal

Kathy Burgemeister bought too many bags of M&M’s for Halloween.

Eventually, he decided not to open his door for trick-or-treating in the fall, so Burgemeister had a surplus of candy on his hands. When the Arizona native booked a trip to Southern California for the Long Beach Grand Prix, she decided to pack the bags in her suitcase and take them to the track.

They were her husband Dave’s favorite sweets. Married since 2003, the two became familiar faces on IndyCar tracks across the country, developing close relationships with many drivers and their families.

Dave passed away in 2020. Last weekend was Kathy’s first race since then.

“He’s always with me,” Burgemeister said, lowering her head as tears welled up in her eyes.

IndyCar superfan Kathy Burgemeister is all smiles as she stands among the race trailers at the Long Beach Grand Prix.

IndyCar superfan Kathy Burgemeister was warmly received by the race teams during the Long Beach Grand Prix, the first race she has attended since the death of her husband.

(Luca Evans)

On Sunday, Burgemeister toured the paddock on a mobility scooter, greeting old friends with a reach into the front basket of the moped. He handed out fun-sized bags of M&M’s, light displays of a heavy heart.

It was so much bigger than a day on the track. It was an opportunity to reconnect with a group he called “family.”

“During the pandemic, there was a lot of interaction like that that we didn’t have, that the fans didn’t understand,” said Ed Carpenter, driver and owner of Ed Carpenter Racing. “It’s one of the things behind the scenes that makes our sport so special.”

Dave was a smart guy, Burgemeister said.

A former mechanical engineer and Air Force veteran, she said she had a “dry sense of humor.”

“It made me proud,” she said, her voice trembling.

One night in early March 2020, Dave was not feeling well. He took him to the hospital in the morning.

After leaving him in the parking lot, he had a heart attack in the lobby. When he entered, it was already too late. The doctors revived him, but his brain was gone.

Dave was a smart guy. He wouldn’t have wanted to live like this, she said. A week later, she was taken off life support.

She remembers, in racing terms, when Dave introduced her to the sport: when driver Helio Castroneves joined Team Penske in 2000. The two became company mainstays of a traveling IndyCar roadshow, turning out five to seven races per year.

Drivers would recognize her, and she and Dave would meet many at post-race parties and 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 the off seasons, she twiddled her thumbs, not knowing exactly what to do with herself.

“When the holidays come around, I’m like, ‘Ugh,'” Burgemeister said. “East [race] It’s more like Christmas to me than Christmas.”

It was raining the day Burgemeister took his first car ride. A drift driver was behind the wheel and skidded the car inches from the wall.

Burgemeister was screaming at the top of his lungs. He got out of the car, emotions spread six ways through Sunday, a jumble of tears, laughter and unexpressed emotions.

“It’s better than any roller coaster,” he said. “That’s why this place is so special.”

Dave was there that day. On Sunday, Burgemeister brought him back with her. Her black wedding band hung on a gold chain around her neck, a necklace Dave had given her. Her shirt, black with a silver lace trim, was the last thing she bought him.

Burgemeister Twitter bio says: “I lost mobility and (Dave) in 2020, but I’m still trying to find hope and something positive.”

He found it in Long Beach. The condolences for Dave began, Burgemeister said, on an elevator ride Thursday from his hotel, where he met automotive legend Roger Penske.

Over the weekend, Meyer Shank driver Simon Pagenaud showed him “the sweetest face,” Burgemeister said. Before Sunday’s race, she took a picture with Dale Coyne’s Takuma Sato and told him that her husband had died.

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” Sato said, patting him gently on the back.

Long Beach is special to Burgemeister. It’s an easy track to navigate, important after hip replacement surgery in 2019, and offers plenty of opportunities for fans to connect with drivers.

In Long Beach, engagement has fully recovered after a couple of years clouded by the pandemic. Andretti’s Romain Grosjean said he went through six or seven packets of about 150 signature cards.

“There are so many opportunities to create some of those interactions and relationships … in some cases, to see families grow,” Carpenter said.

For Burgemeister, it was bittersweet to be back. She couldn’t help but cry. Everything, she said, she reminded him of Dave.

But it was an opportunity to heal.

“I think for her seeing people and being remembered, and having other people remember her husband,” Carpenter said, “hopefully makes her feel better and the pain that she’s been through.”

On Friday, Carpenter saw Burgemeister for the first time in years. He also told her that Dave had died.

Carpenter responded that he was sure her husband was happy she was there. Because Dave would have wanted to be too.