2023 Starter Workers of the Year: John and Beth Burkhard

It all began in the 1960s when Beth Burkhard’s parents, Sheila and Josh Cockey, were invited to a race at Marlboro Speedway by a cousin who was a Formula Vee® racer. They were hooked and started working Flagging & Communications in the fall of 1969. Years later, they’ve raced and volunteered in numerous positions, with their most recent adventures on the starter’s stand earning them the 2023 SCCA® Starter Worker of the Year Award presented by Mazda.

Beth grew up at racetracks. As she left childhood behind, she found that while SCCA is a “crucible of motorsports,” it can also be a “crucible of relationships.”

“There were a number of young men who were interested [in me], and I would take them to the racetrack,” she says. Their response determined if she was interested anymore.

John Burkhard came to motorsports later than Beth. “A friend from high school came to do an event at Summit Point – a highway safety school sort of thing,” he recalls. John went along and helped however he could. At lunch time, the instructors went out to play on track.

“There was a 911 that came out of Turn 10, and its engine was screaming to the world. I thought, ‘I’m so happy!’ I was hooked,” he says. “A few months after that, I called the DC Region flag chief, who was Beth’s dad, and I came out to work the fall Drivers’ School in October 1990.”

Her dad was station captain, and Beth soon became part of his life.

Eventually, they decided to get their racing licenses. Beth went first, doing Drivers’ Schools in the fall of 1995 and spring of 1996. John followed in the fall of 1996 and spring of 1997. They shared a Honda in ITC. “He would take a weekend, and I’d take a weekend, then we’d compare notes,” Beth says, turning to John and saying, “I was never so happy as when you killed that car!”

They did that for a couple of years, then, with another Honda, they raced against each other. They were warned that it would ruin their marriage, but they had fun. John said, “We weren’t fighting for the win, we were fighting not to be last.”

John is, as Beth says, a computer nerd. Beth was trained as a marine biologist and now works as a budget analyst. Neither are very mechanically technical, but being in the paddock, they met good people who helped them with racing and race prep. Beth noted that SCCA is different than other organizations, in that “whether you’re on a flag stand or in the race car, you’re surrounded with people who you trust your life to. It forges a bond.”

The Burkhards raced for 20 years or so, taking off a couple years to build a house. They also won several Mid-Atlantic Road Racing Series ITC championships. John did it in 2005 and 2006; Beth’s championship was in 2007. During that time, their son, Morgan, was born. He got his first laps on a racetrack in the womb during one of John’s victory laps in 2005.

“Beth was a better driver than I was,” says John, so they sold his car in 2007 and converted Beth’s car to ITB, where she even raced in H Production in National events.

John began racing an ITA Honda CRX and got a second-place finish in the series in 2010, but Morgan was getting involved in karting. In fact, he won a championship his first year racing. Their focus was about to change.

John and Beth raced until 2018-’19. At that point, Morgan was old enough to have a job at the track – he ran results from Timing & Scoring to where they were posted in the paddock. Not tall enough to reach the board, he would get someone to hold him up so he could put the results in their proper position. As they say about it taking a village to raise a child, everyone in the paddock watched out for Morgan.

They eventually chose to stop racing, but that didn’t take them away from the track. Instead, they volunteered.

At Summit Point, the tower, starter’s bridge, and T&S are all grouped together. They had considerable experience in flagging on corners and had been on the starter’s stand with Beth’s dad, so they were welcomed as Starters. With Morgan’s racing taking more of their time, being Starters worked well for them and they settled in quickly on the starter’s bridge. Interestingly, both have a similar experience the first time they started a race. The first time John started a race, “You realize that there are several thousand horses coming toward you, and every guy riding them is staring at you waiting for any little hint – slightest twitch – before they’re going to take off. It was a rush to realize that it was completely in my control. And I realized that I can’t start these guys.” He waved off his first start.

Beth also waved off her first start. When she saw the field coming out of Turn 10, they were a mess.

“The reason for being on the bridge is, first and foremost, to give everyone an equal chance,” says John. “If they do what the GCR requires, they won’t get a wave-off. It’s not something we do lightly.”

“There’s a subtlety to it,” Beth explains. “Where you put your feet; where is the stick so you don’t catch in on something and throw the flag out onto the track. You have to get yourself set just right.”

After each race, the starters confer about the start – what was done right or wrong. Apparently, the Burkhards have been good judges of when to throw the green.

That said, they will probably be doing less flagging in 2024. Morgan is progressing very well in racing, now piloting a (and winning in) Spec Racer® Ford Gen3. He’s also a development driver for the Victor Gonzalez Hyundai team in the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge while still racing in SRF3.

Looks like it’s their turn to start following Morgan to tracks near and far.

Photo caption: John (left) and Beth (middle) stand alongside John Sterling at a flagger station.
Photo by Bill Stoler