Charlie Kimball, Veteran Indy Race Car Driver Talks About Life In The Fast Lane with T1D

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By : Suvarna Sheth

For Charlie Kimball, a professional Indy race car driver, there’s no place he’d rather be than in a racecar. “I love the competition, I love the speed,” he tells dLife in an exclusive interview.

Growing up, Kimball was always exposed to racing, first winning go-kart championships as a boy, then designing racecars, and eventually going on to become the first driver in history to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 with Type 1 diabetes. A few years later, Kimball made history by becoming the first licensed driver with diabetes to win a race in the NTT IndyCar Series.

The Indianapolis 500 is the single largest one-day attendance sporting event in the world each and every year.

“There are over 300,000 people there on race day, and I’m biased, I will admit, but I think the single coolest moment in sports for an athlete are driver introductions at the Indy500,” Kimball says. “It’s like nothing else in the world.”

Kimball was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes mid-season in 2007 when he was competing in World Series by Renault in 2007 at the age of 22.

“I was fortunate being diagnosed at a little older age,” he says, “I had already fallen in love with racing and I wasn’t going to let that diagnosis get in the way of me continuing to chase that passion. If there was a way to make it work that was healthy and safe for me and the other drivers, then 100% I was going to pursue my passion.”

While the diagnosis prevented him from completing the season, he began to work with a team of diabetic specialists to return to optimum physical form to get back into the cockpit.

Kimball says what’s been the most rewarding has been overcoming his diagnosis, and getting back on the racetrack. He says now his diabetes diagnosis even gives adds balance to his life.

“If I don’t have a great day on the race track as a competitor, it can be really disappointing, but when I get out of the cockpit and meet another person with diabetes, another member of the ‘cool kids club,’ and they share their story and tell me how I’ve inspired them, it really adds another level of fulfillment that I never expected to get out of the career of driving,” Kimball says.

And that’s really the heart of Novo Nordisk’s Race with Insulin campaign, which Kimball has been the face for many years. At its core, the campaign aims to raise awareness and educate the public about diabetes management.

“The campaign is based on encouraging people to chase their dreams, to not let diabetes get in the way of them living their passion,” Kimball says. “For me, it’s racing cars, for other people it’s running marathons, or dancing with their kids at weddings, or whatever goal they have in mind, there are tools and ways to successfully manage diabetes, to reach those goals.”

What Extra Precautions Do You Take?

For Kimball, managing his blood sugar is obviously very critical. “Unlike some other sports, I can’t call a timeout in a racecar,” he explains. “I make sure that my body is prepared from green flag to checkered flag.”

From the start of the race to the finish of the race, Kimball has to make sure he’s able to compete at full effort and be fully committed for the length of the race, which can be up to 500 miles, upward of 3 -31/2 hours.

“I work really hard on my nutrition, my hydration, my insulin dosing,” he explains and takes both long-acting insulin and mealtime insulin.

“When I get in the car, ideally at that point, diabetes is along for the ride, it’s not behind the wheel, it’s not affecting what I’m doing, it’s just kind of there with me,” he says.

How is Your Car Different?

Kimball’s Indy car is different then everyone else’s because his body is different.

He wears a Dexcom G6 continuous glucose monitor, and that readout plugs into his car’s readout system. On the electronic dash of his steering wheel, he has his car and body data right there in one place: speed, lap time, oil pressure, blood sugar, water temperature, etc.

Not only can Kimball see the data on his steering wheel in the cockpit of the car, but the engineers that are making sure the car is running right keep an eye on it as well. Kimball checks the information on the screen multiple times during the course of a lap. “It’s just one more piece of data, one more piece of information that I absorb and use as necessary,” Kimball says.

And because he can’t call time out, he has to be prepared for other eventualities or for the opportunity for things to change.

Most drivers in the Indy car have a drink bottle to stay hydrated throughout the race because even though they don’t have a roof, and they get a pretty good breeze at 200 miles per hour, it’s not uncommon for drivers to lose 5-15 lbs. in body weight through sweat through the course of the race.

“We don’t have power steering, we don’t have power brakes, so it’s really physical and that drink system can be really important,” Kimball explains.

The drink system is different for Kimball in that he has two bottles: one full of water to keep him hydrated, and the second one with orange juice with extra sugar in it. Those two come together at a valve from his seatbelt, that runs into his helmet through a kind of long straw. He can choose and pick between water and that high glucose concentrated fluid, depending on what his body needs during the race.

What Advice Would You Share?

Kimball says the biggest piece of advice he can offer is to find ways to overcome the challenge of having diabetes.

“Like the drink valves, and the two bottles in the cockpit, integrating my continuous glucose monitor inside the car’s data system, you might have to change how you go about things, but it shouldn’t get in the way of you living your dream.”

When Kimball was first diagnosed, he says diabetes was stigmatized and not many people talked about it. There weren’t as many awareness campaigns, and people talking about having diabetes and how it affected their lives.

As an athlete today, he feels very proud to be a part of a campaign that raises awareness for the tens of thousands of people who are touched by diabetes, either themselves or their family members, friends, coworkers, etc.

“Being able to really make an impact and take some of that stigma away, and open up some conversations and dialogue has been really meaningful,” Kimball says. “It really hits home, being able to meet with young people whose outlook on diabetes has changed after conversations with me.”

Kimball also says there’s been more and more conversation over the last several years about insulin affordability and options.

“I’m really proud to work with Novo Nordisk and see the work they’ve done to help people be able to afford insulin and come up with options has been really positive for me, because they are listening to the conversation, and working towards making a meaningful impact in the community,” he says.

This year, Kimball will be joining AJ Foyt Racing to participate in the 2020 NTT IndyCar Series, marking his 10th consecutive season in IndyCar.

He will drive the No. 4 Chevrolet with backing from Novo Nordisk and is slated to participate in the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach, GMR Grand Prix in Indianapolis, Texas Indy 600 in Ft. Worth, Bommarito Automotive Group 500 at Gateway, in Madison, Ill. and the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey.