Diabetes Doesn't Stop Race Car Driver Kimball
Charlie Kimball doesn't let diabetes slow him down. In fact, on a typical day at work he averages over 100 miles per hour.
For Kimball, 24, type 1 diabetes has become part of his daily routine as a professional race car driver. Since his diagnosis in late 2007, he has taken creative measures to manage his diabetes while competing in his sport of choice. Kimball currently races in the Indy Lights series, a developmental league for the United States' prestigious Indy Car division.
Kimball, who started racing go-karts at 9 years old, became a professional open-wheel driver in 2002 while still attending Rio Mesa High School in Oxnard, Calif. Two years later, he deferred enrollment in Stanford's engineering program and moved to England to participate in Europe's highly competitive racing leagues.
In 2005, his first and only season in the British Formula 3 series, Kimball won five races, set two track records, and finished second in the championship. He was the first American in 13 years to win a race in Britain. The following year, he became the first American ever to win a race in the Formula 3 Euroseries.
Then, in 2007, Kimball started to falter. He was competing in a top-tier European racing series when he suddenly started to lose weight and mental focus. When he developed a rash, Kimball went to the doctor. The diagnosis was type 1 diabetes.
"I was very surprised, because I have no family history [of diabetes]," he says. "I didn't really know what it meant at the time either, so I was scared of the consequences." Kimball's primary concern was whether or not he could resume his racing career post-diagnosis—a fear his doctor quickly relieved.
"There are those moments in your life where the world kind of stops, when you know you have to ask a difficult question," he says. "That's how it felt when I asked the doctor if I could race again. If he had said, 'No,' I don't know what I would have done."
With a job that requires constant concentration, lightning-fast reflexes, and split-second decisions, properly accommodating diabetes was key for Kimball. He worked with a doctor at the University of Southern California to learn how to manage his diabetes. To keep tabs on his blood glucose while in the cockpit of his race car, Kimball uses a continuous glucose monitoring system (CGMs). "I attach my CGMs receiver by Velcro to the steering wheel, right under the car data input, so my blood glucose shows up as another data point," he says.
If his blood glucose dips during a race, Kimball has packs of orange juice hooked into his helmet so he can raise his levels quickly by sipping through a straw. He used these tricks for the first time in 2008, when he returned to the Formula 3 Euroseries.
Kimball's diabetes has also affected his diet and pre-race routine, especially on race weekends. "The mental and physical exertion of racing lowers my blood glucose quickly, so there's a lot to consider," he says. To maintain steady glucose levels, he eats high-protein foods during race weekends. Since a typical race lasts 45 minutes to an hour, it's important for Kimball to stabilize his glucose beforehand. "I take constant readings an hour [before a race], then 30 minutes, then 15 minutes," he says. "There's certain numbers I like to see to make sure I'll make it through the race."
Kimball's journey with diabetes hasn't been limited to his own management. "One of the biggest things I found within a few days of my diagnosis was that I was overwhelmed by the support of the diabetes community," he says. "I received e-mails from diabetic fans in Holland, Spain, Texas. That's when I realized I had the opportunity to help others through my story." Since his diagnosis, he has become a spokesman for DexCom, a CGMs manufacturer, and equipment provider American Diabetes Wholesale.
Recently, Kimball teamed up with American Diabetes Wholesale to launch GlucoStories, an essay contest that allows people with diabetes to tell how the disease has changed their lives. The grand prize is a trip to Miami to see Kimball race in the Firestone Indy Lights Championship on October 9.
Kimball says he hopes to continue to raise diabetes awareness. "I think everyone, both people with diabetes and those without, needs to hear how great a life you can have overcoming diabetes day to day," he says. "Hopefully, in 16 to 18 months I can move up to compete in the Indianapolis 500 and bring diabetes to the forefront in exposure."