Update: Charlie Kimball finished 24th after being involved in a crash
on Lap 67. Kimball was punted from behind in an incident that included
Charlie Kimball is moving at light-speed these days in his race car and in his personal life. He falls asleep at night exhausted, and wakes up each morning pinching himself--just to make sure it’s all real.
At 26, he is the first licensed driver with diabetes in the history of INDYCAR, a student who deferred his academic career--accepted at Stanford University--to chase his racing dream. One day, he said, he may study math or physics, "because they're fun."
For right now, nothing's more fun for this son of a farmer than racing around city streets this weekend in the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. It’s the home race for the Camarillo, CA native, who is learning to manage racing and his blood sugar while clocking triple digits.
Diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in 2007, Kimball says he was forced to abandon his race program half way through that season. But he returned in 2008 and is now driving for Chip Ganassi, whose teams have won the last three IndyCar championships.
“I’ve got a lot to learn, but I have the tools to learn—from the team, from the mechanics, from the engineers, from the management,” Kimball said. “I’ve got a lot to absorb.”
He can also cull from the experience of Ganassi teammates Dario Franchitti, who has won three of the last four IndyCar championships, and from Scott Dixon, who won the other. His other teammate is Graham Rahal, another American with huge upside.
Kimball finished fourth in the feeder Indy Lights Series last year,
and his step up in class this year has been eye-opening. After making
a mistake in the season-opening event, he finished 10th last week at a
road race in Birmingham, AL, when it was 90 degrees with 90 percent
humidity. Despite the conditions, there were no problems health-wise.
Since moving to the marquee series, he says everything is more intense.
“The speeds are higher, the loads are greater, the races are longer," said Kimball, whose car is rigged with a bottle of orange juice that he can drink through a straw. "I have a lot more personal commitments, sponsor commitments, team commitments,
media commitments, time in the gym—all the things I need to do a good job in the race car. They’re happening a lot more and a lot faster
Kimball will prepare for a race a week in advance by carefully choosing what he eats. Some drivers don't have to worry about nutrition. He does.
Despite living with a chronic disease, Kimball is proof that diabetes isn't a dream-killer, a message he shares freely with those with whom he comes into contact. He is believed to be the first diabetic to compete full-time at such an elite level. A pioneer, he takes his role seriously.
"I don’t want to set the trail on fire,” he said.
As an American driver on a team that can give him competitive
equipment, and with the hook—driver with a disease—that will give him a story to tell, Kimball has the potential to be a star.
He’s articulate, engaging, and he's racing against more than most. He may have the most personally relevant
sponsorship of any driver in history: Novo Nordisk, a global health
care company that sells diabetes products. It makes the insulin, and insulin delivery
device, that Kimball uses-- the Levemir FlexPen--and the two types of
insulin that he takes to control his blood glucose levels. He takes
five to seven shots daily using the FlexPen, which is advertised as more accurate than a vial and syringe.
Kimball constantly monitors himself, even during races. He uses what's called a continuous glucose monitor. A microfilament
injected into his abdomen is attached to a transmitter, and up to this point it's what a non-racing diabetic might wear. But Kimball's sends a
signal to a receiver on his steering wheel. Engineers are trying to
integrate the glucose monitor into the car’s on-board telemetry
system, which would allow his team to keep track of what’s going on
inside Kimball’s body as well as lap speeds and RPMs.
“He’s a unique individual who’s been able to display remarkable
driving talent," said Jim Michaelian, the president of the Grand Prix Association of Long Beach. “The fact he’s able to excel as well as he has is a testimony to his natural talent as well as the marvel of modern medicine.”
Kimball works closely with a three-woman medical team in Beverly Hills
that he affectionately calls “Charlie’s Angels” and which includes a
dietitian and nurse practitioner. Dr. Anne Peters, who heads the
support group, is the director of clinical diabetes at USC.
“I think diabetes was lucky to have him,” Peters has said. “I don’t
wish anyone to have it, but he’s going to help people understand the
Kimball actually thinks he’s lucky to have diabetes, even though it
stopped his career in its tracks in 2007 when he was diagnosed. It has
allowed him to forge a relationship with a sponsor—Novo Nordisk
sponsored him in the Indy Lights last year—that has ensured and
accelerated his ascent into North America’s premiere open wheel
It’s an opportunity he doesn’t plan on wasting.
Although his father, Gordon Kimball, is an ex-racing engineer that
helped build the car that Johnny Rutherford drove to victory in the
1980 Indy 500 and the series championship, Charlie’s family background
is in growing avocados. It has helped Charlie gain “an important
understanding that a lot of times there are things out of your
“My dad said he never needed to go to Las Vegas because farming is
gambling,” Kimball said. “You never know when you’ll get a freeze, a
fire, a drought. For me, my drought was diabetes. How you learn from
it, how you rebuild and continue, determines how successful you’ll