Driving 200 miles per hour, elite IndyCar racer Charlie Kimball receives multiple data inputs as he speeds around the track: oil temperature, tire pressure, fuel level, weather report, blood sugar level.
Blood sugar level?
That’s right. Kimball, 31, has Type 1 diabetes and is a professional racecar driver. Managing a disease that requires checking blood sugar up to eight times per day doesn’t stop Kimball from living his dream life.
“I’ve been dealt these cards. Would I give them back if I could? Of course, but I can’t,” says Kimball, who was diagnosed at age 22. “So I have figured out how to play a winning hand with the cards I’ve been dealt.”
This unstoppable attitude earned Kimball the title of being the only licensed driver with diabetes in the history of IndyCar to win a grand prix. Only six months after his diagnosis, Kimball took second place, proving hard work and perseverance meant he could be a strong competitor — with or without diabetes.
Now in his prime, Kimball competes in 16 races per year, even clutching third place in the 2015 Indianapolis 500, with a top speed of 235 mph.
How Does He Do It?
Kimball’s No. 83 Chevrolet has unique features to keep him safe. A sensor he wears on his body wirelessly transmits his blood sugar level to his steering wheel and to his crew in the pit.
If his blood sugar drops, he can sip orange juice from a tube attached to his helmet to give his blood sugar a boost. This custom-made tube, similar to a CamelBak rubber tube, is a two-valve system that administers water from one valve and orange juice from the other.
“Because of the diligence of my food preparation before I get into the car, I’ve never had to drink the orange juice,” says Kimball. “It’s just a backup.”
Working closely with a leading endocrinologist at USC, Kimball is meticulous about his fitness regimen and how he eats. First thing on the morning of the race Kimball tests his blood sugar, and then he administers a long-acting insulin.
Breakfast is followed by a fast-acting mealtime insulin, and he continues to check his blood sugar and hydration levels throughout the day. Just before the race he eats the same meal: grilled chicken breast, pasta, salad, fruit salad and a lot of water.
Since Kimball burns through glucose quickly while driving, he elevates his blood sugar level higher than normal and maintains a blood sugar range that is healthy, competitive and safe.
As the race commences, he watches his blood sugar gradually decline with each passing lap. But if it goes too low he knows he has the tube of orange juice to save him.
“I’m a better athlete because of my diabetes,” says Kimball. “And each time I get into the car I appreciate it more than before the diagnosis. There was a time I thought I would never put my helmet back on. So now when I race I never take it for granted.”
Roughly 3 million Americans have Type 1 diabetes, an autoimmune disease that afflicts both children and adults. There are no prevention measures, and there is no cure.
Kimball actively participates in the diabetes community. In 2010, he partnered with the global health care company Novo Nordisk to launch a diabetes-awareness campaign called Race with Insulin. www.racewithinsulin.com
While Kimball enjoys connecting with fans, the kids with diabetes who cheer him on at races especially inspire him. One 12-year-old boy in Ohio came up to Kimball after a race and said, “You were so fast out there! You were so great! How is your blood sugar?”
After not performing well in the race Kimball was despondent, but chatting with the boy provided perspective. “It’s not whether I finish first or 21st,” says Kimball. “Just the fact that I’m out there competing is a victory for so many people with diabetes.”
Another child with diabetes, an 8-year-old boy, recently told his father, “Charlie races Indy cars with diabetes with number 83, so I’m going to play soccer with diabetes with number 83.”
“There’s no place I’d rather be than at the racetrack and to be able to share my story and inspire others with diabetes to live their dream is just an added bonus,” Kimball says.
Kimball is a shining example of how one can overcome health challenges to achieve their goals with a positive attitude, incredible determination and the right medical care. “When you get to the top of that mountain or get to that championship game or cross the finish line, it will mean more because of what you’ve overcome.”