Charlie Kimball's Race With Diabetes
Indy Lights race car driver copes with type 1
"There are those moments in your life where the world kind of stops."
It was late 2007, and professional race car driver Charlie Kimball had just been diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. Now he was about to ask his doctor the crucial question: Will I ever race again? "If he had said 'No,' " Kimball recalled recently, "I don't know what I would have done."
Instead, Kimball, 24, has made diabetes part of his daily routine as he trains, practices, and competes from April through October in races across the United States and Canada. That's meant some creative thinking: To keep tabs on his blood glucose while in the cockpit of his race car, Kimball uses a continuous glucose monitor (CGM). "I attach my CGM 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. And he has packs of orange juice hooked into his helmet so he can respond quickly to a blood glucose dip by sipping through a straw.
Kimball started racing go-karts at 9 years old and in 2002 became a professional open-wheel driver—the kind who compete in the Indianapolis 500 and the Formula One races of Europe, like the Monaco Grand Prix—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, Kimball won five races in the British Formula Three series, a stepping-stone to the big leagues of Formula One, setting two track records and finishing second in the championship. He was the first American in 11 years to win a race in Britain. The following year, he competed on the Continent, becoming the first American ever to win a race in the Formula Three Euroseries.
Then, in 2007, Kimball started to falter. He was competing in a top-tier European racing series when he suddenly began to lose weight—and mental focus. When he developed a rash, Kimball went to the doctor. The diagnosis was type 1.
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 condition. "The mental and physical exertion of racing lowers my blood glucose quickly, so there's a lot to consider," he says. A typical race lasts 45 minutes to an hour, so 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 currently races in the Firestone Indy Lights series, a developmental league for the United States' prestigious Indy Car division. Since his diagnosis, he has also become a spokesman for DexCom, a CGM manufacturer, and equipment provider American Diabetes Wholesale. "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."
"Hopefully," he says, "in 16 to 18 months I can move up to compete in the Indianapolis 500 and bring diabetes to the forefront." While not every kid with diabetes who wants to grow up to be a race car driver will succeed, Kimball will be out there to show that it's worth dreaming about.