Charlie Kimball — Racing Against Diabetes


Security is tight and a veil of secrecy permeates throughout the caravans of massive, 18-wheelers at the Long Beach Grand Prix. What’s at stake is the protection of each team’s coveted racing technology, for one change in the engineering can alter the outcome of a race. But secrecy aside, on this particular day, members of Team Kimball, including the successful race car driver Charlie Kimball, his father Gordon, and his public relations manager, Tip Nunn, met up with Team ABILITY, including human relations manager Donna Mize, medical editor E. Thomas Chappell, MD, 
photographer Nancy Villere and editor-in-chief Chet Cooper.

Five years ago, Kimball, then 22, was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes and was forced to abandon his racing program midseason. Undeterred, he climbed back into the cockpit the following year and claimed a podium finish in his first race after returning. Traveling more than 200 miles per hour, he’s the force behind car No. 83 for Novo Nordisk Chip Ganassi Racing. He is also the first licensed driver with diabetes in the history of IndyCar racing.

While Mize and the others waited for Kimball, who was in a meeting, Nunn shared interesting stories about the young racer’s upbringing: Charlie and his parents, for example, struck a deal while he was growing up. His mom always said, “B’s don’t race. You’ve got to get A’s if you want to keep racing.”

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Kimball was later accepted into Stanford, but deferred entry for two years in an arrangement with his parents. His mother advised, “You can give this racing thing a try, but if it doesn’t work out in two years, get your butt into Stanford.”

Cooper: What’s his likely major?

Tip Nunn: Possibly engineering. You know, I wanted to mention something about the way Charlie found out he had diabetes when he was in the UK. He went to the doctor for one thing, and the doctor asked, “Is anything else bothering you?” That’s when Charlie said, “Yeah, I’m really thirsty.” So he looked at him and said, “Have you lost any weight?” He said, “Yeah, like, 20, 25 pounds.” It’s not unusual for a driver to lose a lot of weight. When they weigh in for their physical in February, they want to be the heaviest they can be, because the weight of the car is based on that weigh-in, and they know they’re going to drop weight during the season. But they diagnosed him almost immediately. It was an interesting situation which he just happened to be at the right place at the right time.

In the UK, they have diabetes centers. Charlie was immediately put on the FlexPen (a pre-filled, dial-a-dose insulin pen). He was never given a vial and syringe, never given a pump. Novo helped create a sponsorship opportunity.

A lot of teams will let their whole staff go at the end of the season on September 15th, and one of the great things about Charlie’s team is that everyone stays year-round. You have that camaraderie and teamwork. You end up getting the best guys. Also, I love seeing more women involved in racing. J.R. Hildebrand, on the National Guard Panther team, has a woman who works in a key position on their crew. Years ago, women weren’t allowed in the pits.

[Charlie’s dad, Gordon Kimball arrives.]

Nunn: I was telling them about how Charlie first got diagnosed.

Gordon Kimball: My wife claims credit for connecting Charlie with Dr. Anne Peters. We went on the Internet and started looking for “diabetes” and “sports,” and because she had worked with Gary Hall, the Olympic swimmer who won a gold medal and was diagnosed with type 1, we sought her out. But when we called to see if she would take Charlie as a patient, the woman at the desk said, “Yeah, but it’s about a two or three month waiting list for a first appointment.” I said, “Okay, do you mind if I bring some information down?” She said, “No, that’s fine.” So I took one of his racing brochures down and a couple pictures, because I thought, if she got a kick out of helping Gary Hall, she’ll enjoy working with Charlie.

After I dropped the material off, she called the next day and said, “How about three weeks from now?” She found a spot for him. Charlie was on his way to New Zealand to do a race at the time, so he went to the appointment on the way to the airport. She sat and talked to him for half an hour and they made a connection.

Cooper: Did Charlie get the racing bug from you?

Kimball: Yeah, it’s my fault.


Cooper: I heard you’ve been in the business for a while now.

Kimball: My father brought home a soap box derby rule book when I was 10 or 11, and I discovered racing. That’s what I wanted to do. I got a degree in mechanical engineering and started begging for jobs in racing. I was fortunate enough to work in IndyCar and Formula 1.

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Cooper: Were you successful? Feel free to brag about yourself!


Kimball: I designed two cars that won at Indianapolis in the 80s, and then went to Europe and worked on a Formula 1 for McLaren, which was the premier team. So, yeah, I had some success.

Cooper: How do you think your experience influenced your son? You were in racing and engineering. He races and is likely to study engineering in college…

Kimball: When I was growing up I had a fun go-cart that I drove around, and after we’d moved back from England, my younger brothers had left it in severe disrepair, so I gave it to Charlie for Christmas as a project to rebuild. We straightened it all out, fixed it all up. My mistake was that I said, “It doesn’t have a seat. Let’s go see if we can find a seat for it.” So we went to a go-cart shop in Van Nuys, and they had a race car for sale. We got the seat and went home, but Charlie just kept bugging me about buying the race car. I thought, “That’s something that I can at least help him with.” So that’s probably how he got started.

We did go-carts together, and that was a great father-son thing. We had an awesome time. I fully expected that when the time came, he’d go away to college and that’d be the end of it. Then I made a second mistake, which was, for his 16th birthday, I gave him a test in a Formula 4. He did six or eight laps and came back and said, “That’s the most fun I’ve had in my whole life.” And that’s how it started. And he just loves it.

Cooper: And I assume he was fast, and you kept supporting him because of that?

Kimball: He was good. We went to an institute that evaluates that sort of thing, because I thought inevitably we needed to find out before we spent a lot of money that he had what it takes talentwise. He ranked right up with some of the best Formula 1 drivers. So I thought, “OK, he’s got the talent.”

[Charlie Kimball emerges from his meeting to join us.]

Cooper: A career as a race car driver is demanding enough without a health condition. How do you deal with the complications of diabetes while staying competitive?

Charlie Kimball: The big difference for me is the adjustments we’ve made—for instance, my glucose monitor literally mounts on the steering wheel. So when I’m driving, I can check my speed, my lap time, my gears, the revolutions-per-minute lights, and my blood sugars all on one monitor.

We’re currently working on integrating it into the car’s telemetry so it’ll come up on the dash as miles per hour, miles per gallon, and a blood-glucose number. And once it’s in the car’s telemetry—the car’s data system-we can transmit it live back to the pit lane so my engineers will be able to keep an eye on it and track the lows or highs, even at different points during the race—lap 20 is this number; lap 50 is that number…

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Dr. Thomas Chappell: Most people don’t monitor their blood glucose quite that tightly.

Kimball: True, but most people don’t drive an Indy car at 220 miles per hour, either.

Cooper: You haven’t seen Tom [Dr. Chappell] drive.


Chappell: I have a Tesla!

Kimball: Nice. With me, monitoring closely is a necessary evil.

Chappell: You don’t want to take any chance of a lapse in concentration, much less a lapse of consciousness, obviously.

Kimball: Exactly.

Cooper: I imagine that having this equipment is a condition of having a license to race and staying on the circuit.

Kimball: That’s right. Because I monitor my condition constantly, they have the confidence to give me a license to compete. With that comes the responsibility of treating myself or stopping if the numbers aren’t what they’re supposed to be because it’s not safe. I can’t put other drivers at risk on account of me.

Cooper: That device (large patch, pictured) goes into your arm?

Kimball: It’s essentially a sensor.

Cooper: So it’s just external?

Kimball: No, there’s a subcutaneous wire that monitors my glucose levels. It’s an injectable device. One of the keys to monitoring is having a backup plan that gives me the confidence that I can always keep track of what’s happening. So, if I’ve done my job before I get in the race car, it’s literally just a backup plan, and additional reassurance for myself, for the team, for my competitors.

Cooper: Do you have the sensor on all the time?

Kimball: A sensor lasts seven days, so I change it out every week. I wear it every time I’m in the race car, and sometimes when I’m struggling with managing my condition in everyday life, and things aren’t going quite the way I’d like them to. It keeps track of what’s happening.

Cooper: But you can put it on and take it off easily?

Kimball: No, once you take the unit out, it goes in the trash, so you have to put in a new sensor. But I do shower with it, swim with it, work out with it. Obviously in the race car—as much as we sweat, as gross as that is—it’s not unlike a shower, and it’s not uncommon for drivers to lose 10 or 15 pounds just through sweat.

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When you think about it, we wear long-sleeved fireproof underwear—tops and bottoms—and then our race suits are three fireproof layers, with gloves, fireproof socks, race boots and a helmet. We may get a bit of a breeze, but there’s no air conditioning, no cool suit, and it’s not uncommon for cockpit temperatures to reach triple digits.

Cooper: No air conditioning?

Kimball: It’s just the air over the car. My helmet has ventilation designed into it to move air through my head to keep me cool, but there’s no designed air conditioning unit, because it’s an open-top race car.

Cooper: Note to self: Invent air conditioning…

Kimball: Every pound in a race car has a purpose, and an air conditioning pump and unit are unnecessary weight. It’s not worth it. The other adjustment is actually here in the cockpit. I’ll go around the other side. If you guys want to step in here, I’ll show you…..

Articles in the Joe Mantegna Issue; Senator Harkin — US Budget Must Reflect Our Values; Ashley Fiolek — A Concussion Tests Her Ability; Humor — All in the Family; Web Widget — Accessibility Works; Chinese Art — Raw Beauty of the Innocents; Geri’s — Survivor Guide; Golf Pro — One Arm, Limitless Possibilities; Road Trip — MS Changes a Biker’s Course; Charlie Kimball — Racing Against Diabetes; Joe Mantegna — When Life Flips the Script; Nancy Alspaugh-Jackson — Crusader For Autism; DRLC — Beware Genetic Discrimination; Betsy Valnes — Connect the Dots in Disability Circles; ABILITY’s Crossword Puzzle; CRPD — Information and Communication Technologies; Events and Conferences… subscribe

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