IndyCar drive Charlie Kimball learned he had type I diabetes six years ago, but he's never let that diagnosis slow him down
By Peter Martin
Every time Charlie Kimball passes under the checkered flag he isn't just finishing a race. He's reminding everyone that diabetes won't control his life. Kimball now competes in one of racing's most prestigious series, but just six years ago, his childhood dream of IndyCar glory nearly came to an end with a diagnosis — type 1 diabetes.
The son of renowned IndyCar designer Gordon Kimball, Charlie was immersed in the sport from birth. He was 17 when he started his professional career.
In 2007, at age 21, Kimball was racing in Europe in a lower tier of the prestigious IZOD IndyCar Series. He was on the verge of breaking through to the highest level. But suddenly, in his second season, Kimball's performance began to decline.
"I remember telling my dad that it felt like I was running as fast as I could, but I was stuck in one place," Kimball says.
Because of a skin rash and the loss of 25 pounds in five days, Kimball went to his doctor for answers.
His doctor found his blood sugar was six times what it should have been. That, combined with his other symptoms, led to the diagnosis of diabetes. Diabetes is a disease that prevents the body from processing sugars in foods and beverages properly. Kimball has type 1 diabetes, which means his body doesn't produce insulin. (Type 2 diabetics produce insulin but cannot process it, a condition that can be brought on by lack of exercise and poor diet.) In either case the disease can cause severe weight loss, fatigue, seizures, or even death.
According to the American Diabetes Association's 2011 fact sheet, 25.8 million people in the U.S. have diabetes, 8.3% of the total population. That includes 215,000 kids under the age of 20.
A Frightening Time
For Kimball and his family, the diagnosis came with a mix of emotions and uncertainty for the future. But he knew in his heart that the track was where he belonged.
His doctors, as well as IndyCar's medical team, were supportive of Kimball's goal to get back on the track. He missed half a season to work with his doctors to bring his blood sugar levels down. He was able to return to the sport thanks to diet, exercise, and insulin. Since an average race has him driving for two hours, creative tweaks were made to his car.
"On my steering wheel, I check lap time, speed, gear, oil pressure, blood sugar, water temperature," Kimball says. "Car data and body data are together."
He also has a bottle of orange juice, in addition to the bottle of water all racers carry, to switch to if he needs glucose.
Back on Track
Within four years his dream was right back on track when Chip Ganassi Racing brought him up to the IZOD IndyCar Series. In 2011 he became the first diabetic driver to finish the Indy 500.
His return to the track was met with an incredible amount of support from racing fans whose lives had also been touched by diabetes. It was with these people in mind that Kimball joined with pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk to start the Race with Insulin campaign.
Race with Insulin educates race fans about diabetes, insulin, nutrition, and ways to manage the disease. Kimball uses Twitter and Facebook to communicate with his fans and give them a window into what his life is like.
"The son of a friend of mine in the UK was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes," says star driver Dario Franchitti, Kimball's teammate. "They told her, 'Well, he's not going to be able to play soccer.' " I was like, 'What? That's [not right], my teammate Charlie has it!' So Charlie's a great inspiration to many people, no matter if they are age five or 35."
How You Can Help: There are a wide variety of events that help raise money and awareness for diabetes. Walks and other fundraisers take place throughout the country, including a Tour de Cure cycling event for cyclists of all skill levels. Visit www.diabetes.org for more info. And, of course, kids should stay active and eat right to lessen the risk of becoming type 2 diabetics themselves.