Charlie Kimball wasn’t born in a race car, but he seems destined for the track.
His dad, mechanical engineer Gordon Kimball, designed Formula One and Indy cars. By the age of 9, Charlie was racing go-karts in Southern California.
By 16, he was on to full-size cars, and a couple of years later, he deferred entry to Stanford University so he could go to Europe and chase his dream of being a professional race car driver.
A little thing like being diagnosed with diabetes wasn’t about to keep him from behind the wheel, Kimball says – even though he knew that if he didn’t take care of himself, he could risk injury or death to himself and other drivers.
I had to work back to a goal, which was getting into a race car, says the sandy-haired, British-born 28-year-old, because I feel more alive being in a race car and driving a race car than doing anything else.
That would take a bit of doing, but at the end of the month, Kimball will be a driver at the Indianapolis 500 for the third straight year.
Before he departs for the Brickyard at the end of the week, he will make a pit stop Wednesday at Lutheran Hospital in Fort Wayne.
He is scheduled to visit with children in a local diabetes clinic and give a public talk to encourage people with diabetes not to let it slow them down.
Kimball is the first person with diabetes to be a licensed driver in the Indy 500.
I had no family history, and it was a complete shock, Kimball says of being diagnosed at the age of 22 with Type 1 diabetes, sometimes called juvenile diabetes because it typically strikes children and young adults.
I said to my doctor, I’m 22,’ like being young equated with being healthy.
But looking back, he sees he had several of the hallmark symptoms – constant thirst, frequent bathroom visits and sudden weight loss – losing nearly 30 pounds in a few weeks without trying.
It would have been easy to miss that last symptom, he says, because the high heat inside Indy cars and the physical demands of driving can cause drivers to lose 10 to 15 pounds or more during a race.
Kimball says he can compete in racing at a high level because he takes care of his body’s physical needs and has high-tech help.
When he races, a sensor’s hairlike wire is inserted just under his skin. The device continuously monitors his blood sugar level. It transmits a reading to a pager-like device that plugs into the car’s advanced electronics.
While I’m racing, I have all the data I need. All the car data and body data is on the steering wheel in front of me, he says. It’s also transmitted back to the pit, so they can keep track of it as well.
During a race, Kimball has two drink bottles with a tube that runs through his helmet. While most drivers have one filled with water, he has two bottles with a valve between them.
If his blood sugar gets too low, he switches from water to orange juice or other fluid containing sugar.
In Type 1 diabetes, the body’s pancreas no longer makes insulin, a hormone that allows sugar from foods to be used as energy, because of a mistaken attack by the immune system.
Without insulin being supplied from outside the body, sugar builds up in the blood. If it gets too high or is allowed to drop too low, a person can developed dulled reflexes, become confused or light-headed or even pass out.
That would be disastrous in a car going 200 miles an hour on a crowded track, he says.
I’m not worried about going high because the physicality of driving a car tends to burn my blood sugar off, Kimball says. In fact, I tend to take less insulin on a race day than on a normal day because it’s so physical.
That being said, I’ve never needed that orange juice to keep racing. The preparation I do before I get into the car means when I get into the car I’m ready to go.
Kimball says he has been working with a California endocrinologist, Dr. Anne Peters, on pre-race protocols. She also works with other athletes with diabetes, including Olympic swimmer Gary Hall.
Unlike some other people with Type 1 diabetes who wear an insulin pump, Kimball says he’s chosen an insulin pen which he uses before a race.
I don’t have to worry about batteries or tubing or keeping everything refrigerated, he says. The high temperatures in the car could mean that the insulin wouldn’t be good anymore, and there’s the worry that the vibration and G-forces would cause a pump not to work effectively.
Plus, there’s times when you crash, and a 2- or 3-pound pump at 200 mph becomes a 400-pound projectile. There are problems that could come into play for very little upside.
Peters contacted his current racing sponsor, Novo Nordisk, about working with him. The company makes diabetes-related equipment, drugs and supplies, and Kimball now races wearing orange and blue in the NovoLog FlexPen car and makes appearances on behalf of the company.
The company also provides booths with diabetes information at races which have been visited by thousands, says Kimball, who lives in Indianapolis when he is not racing.
He wears No. 83 – to commemorate 1983, the year in which a car his father built won the Indy 500 with driver Chip Ganassi, who now heads the Novo Nordisk racing team.
I wanted to honor that, Kimball says, adding he knows parental encouragement is a big reason he has been able to realize his ambitions.
The modern insulins and the delivery devices like the FlexPen and the monitor I wear have given people the tools to continue to chase their dreams, he says. Twenty years ago, I don’t know that it would have been possible.