As a race car driver, Charlie Kimball never wants to put on the brakes. So when he was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in 2007, he wasn’t about to let that slow him down.
Since he joined Chip Ganassi Racing in the No. 83 car before the 2011 season, Kimball has thrived as the only licensed driver in IndyCar history with diabetes. He has top-20 finishes in each of his first 4 years, and currently sits in 13th place in the season standings with three races to go.
In 79 IndyCar starts, Kimball has one win, 10 top-5 finishes, and 32 top-10 finishes. He also had 10 top-5 finishes and 17 top-10 finishes in 2 years on the Indy Lights circuit, including a stretch of three straight runner-up finishes at the beginning of the 2010 season.
But even while he’s waiting for the wins to start coming consistently, Kimball considers himself a winner every time he takes the track.
“I think having diabetes makes me a better driver, because of the balance it gives me,” Kimball said. “If I finish first or 21st, when I come away from the track, I know that being out there and competing proves to other people with diabetes that they can do whatever they want. Just being out there is a big treat for so many people in the diabetes community, and hopefully by sharing my story, I encourage the next generation to go out and live their dreams.”
Kimball was visiting Sterling on Tuesday, as part of the CGH Health Foundation’s health and wellness event at Westwood Sports Complex. The 30-year-old Californian signed autographs, posed for pictures, and gave a half-hour speech about living with diabetes as a professional athlete before answering questions from the audience of about three dozen people.
Kimball calls events like these “fulfilling and inspiring,” and gets as much out of them as the folks who look up to him as a role model.
“To me, it’s really neat to be able to come out and share my story, and then hear stories from other people with diabetes,” Kimball said. “To be able to come out and interact with the community is great. The message is always the same, always positive, and hearing other peoples’ successes and enthusiasm about dealing with diabetes is really cool.”
Kimball, who was born in England and grew up in Camarillo, California, spent 6 years racing in Europe before returning to the United States and joining IndyCar.
He remembers October 16, 2007 like it was yesterday. After making some mistakes in the cockpit not typical of himself, he left a practice session in Hungary exhausted, thirsty, and cold. He went to a physician, and discovered he had lost 25 pounds in 5 days. The physician suspected diabetes, and sent Kimball to an endocrinologist for confirmation.
After missing the final 2 weeks of that race season, Kimball returned to California determined to find a way to overcome a condition that he had previously known nothing about.
“When the doctor first told me, I said, ‘Oh, OK … what’s diabetes?’” Kimball recalled. “Then, the first time the nurse came in with a flex pen [injector], I asked if she wanted an autograph, because it looked like a Sharpie.
“It was scary, but also relieving because I knew what was wrong. I didn’t have a lot of time to feel sorry for myself, because I’ve fallen so much in love with racing that it’s become my life and everything I know, and I had to get back in the car. To be able to do that, and then have success has been really rewarding.”
Open-wheel racing was a no-brainer for Kimball. His father. Gordon, was an engineer who designed Formula One and Indy cars, and that’s what he grew up watching.
“When we were watching races on TV looking for him on Sundays, it was open-wheel racing,” Kimball said. “When I got into racing go-karts when I was 5, it was a natural progression to open-wheel cars, and it was the beginning of the rest of my life.”
For his 16th birthday, his father got him a 2-day pass to drive a Formula Ford, an entry-level race car. After graduating high school, he got a deferral from entering Stanford to go overseas and try out his future profession.
Since his diagnosis, Kimball has been learning and adjusting and managing his diabetes. His car’s computer has a special monitor for his blood sugar level, and his firesuit is equipped with not only a water hose to drink from, but an orange juice option as well.
But the biggest key, according to Kimball, is his race preparation. He starts monitoring his blood sugar the day before the race, and uses his flex pen and diet to make sure he doesn’t have any issues while racing at more than 200 miles per hour.
“I didn’t put my head in the sand, I just focused on handling it and making the most of it,” Kimball said. “I’m still understanding my body, and as my body and my diabetes change, I have to lean to change with it. It’s always a challenge, but it’s always rewarding, too.
“I always use bad racing puns, so here goes: I’ve still got a lot left in the tank, and diabetes is a speed bump, not a road block. I want to make sure that diabetes is along for the ride, not driving my career.”
Kimball called this season a “mixed bag” for the Novo Nordisk team. He struggled through the first four races, then placed fifth at the Indianapolis Grand Prix before leading some laps and notching a career-best third-place finish at the Indy 500. He has four top-12 finishes in the last six events, and is looking forward to returning to Mid-Ohio – the site of his lone IndyCar victory in 2013 – on August 2.
“Getting third at Indy was great, but it also made me hungry for the next two spots,” Kimball said. “We’re getting comfortable and learning what it takes to run up front and win races. We’ve cracked a couple of the race tracks we’ve really struggled on in years past, and then struggled in places we’ve been good before. I’m really looking forward to Mid-Ohio, because it’s a beautiful setting, a challenging track, and always a fun weekend.
“It seems like we have all the pieces, and we put some of them together this year. The idea for the last three races is to try and fire on all cylinders, go into the offseason with some confidence, then come back next year and put all the pieces together and really start strong from Day 1.”