Like most type 1 diabetics, Charlie Kimball has a typical morning. He wakes up, brushes his teeth, showers, then gets dressed. Before having a breakfast possibly including toast and eggs, he’ll test his sugar level, then inject himself with insulin before actually starting his breakfast. He’ll inject himself before every meal, as well as monitor his glucose levels. By 7:30 AM, he’s already at work, which happens to be on a track.
But Kimball doesn’t have the typical diabetic life—he’s a professional racecar driver. The first diabetic IndyCar driver to qualify and start for the Indianapolis 500. Kimball always had racing in his blood, but more from a technical standpoint. His dad was a mechanical engineer that worked on racecars. Born in England but raised in California, racing helped Kimball bond with his dad. “It was a way for my dad and I to spend some time together on the weekends, and he enjoyed the racetrack having worked in racing.”
The defining moment came when Charlie turned 16. “For my 16th birthday, rather than my parents giving me a car, they gave me a two-day practice in the formula ford. After the test, I was convinced that was the right way to go.” His parents didn’t quite agree, it took eight months of convincing for them to let him try racing, and even then they were adamant that “Bs didn’t race.” Charlie had to maintain straight As throughout high school, which managed to get him into Stanford University’s Mechanical Engineering Program.
However, according to Kimball “Racing, motorsports had really gotten under my skin and into my blood” and he couldn’t give up his dream of becoming a racecar driver. Thanks to a two year deferral from the university, he was able to put a hiatus on attending Stanford and attempt to race full-time. With support from his parents, at age 18 Charlie ventured to Europe to check his merit.
“I think my parents wanted to test me a little bit so they sent me to Europe to see how committed to racing I was. Living on my own with no friends, no real support system, in England, culture shocked, really competitive aggressive racing. Coming from California and going back to England, it was a good opportunity for them to evaluate if I was doing this for fun, or really loved racing and wanted to continue to pursue it.” He didn’t do too badly: as a rookie he had several wins and 10 podiums.
By 2005, he was the first American in 13 years to win a British F3 Race. Kimball wasn’t just pursuing his dream at being a racecar driver, he was succeeding in it.” I met some incredible people and been to some amazing racetracks around the world. And that experience was like none other,” notes Kimball.
On October 16th, 2007, Kimball went in for a general doctor’s visit. “I had a skin rash on my arm. I recall I was hoping he could look at it.”
The doctor took a look at it, and prescribed a cream, then asked if he had anything else going on.
“I had been really thirsty lately, and he said ‘OK, well how thirsty is really thirsty?’ I said, I’m drinking maybe 7-10 bottles of water at night and I kind of have to go to the bathroom all the time” says Kimball.
Kimball assumed it was due to his diet—but when the doctor asked him to step on to a scale, something very alarming came up. Just five days earlier Charlie Kimball had hopped on a scale at a track weigh in. Less than 60 hours later, he had lost 25 pounds.
Kimball recalls the doctor’s words: “I want to do some other tests and draw some blood but I think you have diabetes.” Admitting he was a bit ignorant about diabetes, Kimball was unsure about what this diagnosis exactly meant so he went to a specialist in Oxford, London, unsure if he would ever be able to race again. Kimball broached his main concern upon meeting with the specialist. “I’m a professional racing car driver: am I ever going to be able to get back into a race car?”
The doctor looked him straight in the eye and said, “I don’t see any reason why not. There are incredible people doing amazing things all over the world with diabetes—you know, driving a racecar shouldn’t be anything different.” The doctor went on to explain that Kimball might not be able to race exactly like he used to, but he should still be able to compete. It was already the end of the racing season when Charlie Kimball found out, so he felt it best to take some time off. “I took the rest of that year and the winter off-season to get healthy again, regain that health and the weight I’d lost. Figure out blood sugar testing, figure out insulin management, and figure out how to get back into a racecar.”
Just six months later, Kimball was back in a racecar. “I had my first race with diabetes in April of 2008 and finished second. I remember sitting at the podium thinking, yup, I’m the same competitor with diabetes as before I was diagnosed.”
Along with learning how to live with diabetes, Kimball had to learn how to race with it.
“I wear a continuous glucose monitor, which is a sensor, which is worn on my body with a wire that is injected under my skin. It transfers the reading to a display that I put on my steering wheel. So when I’m racing, just like I check lap time, water pressure, oil temperature, speed, gear, I can also check blood glucose at the same time. That way I can double check the cars running right, and my body is running right as well.”
In addition to that, Kimball also has a drink bottle mounted in the car, as most drivers do. He also has another bottle filled with a glucose-rich fluid like orange juice so he can take a sip should his sugar run low. When asked if he could give back diabetes, he doesn’t pause for a second. “In a way, yes, absolutely. If it was possible, would I give it back, absolutely, but the cards that I’ve been dealt, the fact that I still have the chance to do what I love and make a difference, it’s a dream come true, it really is. I honestly think I’m a better athlete because of diabetes rather than despite it because I’m more conscientious about my nutrition, my physical training, my health, I just do a better job at managing my being than I ever have before.”
In some ways, diabetes has been a blessing in disguise for Kimball. He’s become a spokesperson for diabetes thanks to help from his sponsor Novo Nordisk, and has been able to push kids with diabetes to follow their dreams. “I have the opportunity to hopefully help people, inspire them, encourage them to not let diabetes slow them down and to chase their dreams and overcome and beat diabetes every day.”
His plans for the future are simple. “Last year, I was the first licensed driver with diabetes to race in the Indy 500, I want to be the first driver with diabetes to win the Indy 500, and win the IZOD IndyCar championship.” In pursuit of that dream, he hopes to inspire others to follow there’s, even if they do just happen to have diabetes. Charlie Kimball will be racing in the IZOD IndyCar Series Race beginning March 25, 2012.