Charlie Kimball was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in 2007, news that upended his personal and professional life. But the 27-year-old English-born, California-raised open-wheel racing veteran didn't just work to get his career back on track, he's worked to inspire others.
For his efforts, Kimball recently earned a Jefferson Award, a national public service award co-founded in 1972 by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, U.S. Senator Robert Taft Jr. and Sam Beard.
In bestowing the honor, spokespeople for the award said, "Since his diagnosis, Kimball has been a hero to the diabetes community, regularly making appearances and spreading awareness of diabetes. He is committed to helping others pursue their dreams and not let diabetes stand in their way. He has become a spokesperson, inspirational leader and poster child for overcoming challenges and pursuing your dreams."
Kimball is in town this weekend for the Grand Prix of Baltimore driving car No. 83. He'll be testing new equipment, including a glucose monitor that sends data directly to the pit, as well as a new diet. He says it's all about proving to the world that the disease is manageable.
In Type 1 diabetes, the body doesn't produce insulin, a hormone needed to convert sugar to energy in the body. About 5 percent of the 25.8 million diabetes sufferers have Type 1 diabetes, according to the American Diabetes Association.
Kimball and his endocrinologist changed his diet after last season. They decided Kimball needed fewer carbohydrates in his race week diet and they added significantly more structure to his race weekend meals, specifying times and weighing food (fruits, pastas, chicken and proteins). His endocrinologist said he could start the race with his blood sugar lower than he was doing last year, and this new formula has put in a better position to manage his diabetes.
Kimball has partnered with his sponsor, diabetes drug maker Novo Nordisk, to continue spreading the word about his success.
First tell me about your health and your finger? You expect to be back this week to racing?
It's my hand, the bone from wrist up to base of my finger. During practice before my last race I crashed and the steering wheel broke my hand. But 2.5 weeks post surgery, I'm back in the car and my hand feels good. I should be good to go this weekend.
Now start over and tell me how you got interested in racing? It's a family business, right?
It is. My dad is a mechanical engineer. After college he spent time during summers working in a race shop, and he started designing and engineering cars. Growing up I was exposed to open-wheel racing and became very comfortable at the racetrack. When I turned 9, my parents gave me a Christmas present of an old go-cart my father used to ride around a ranch as a kid.
I really wanted to race and it took six months to convince my parents it was a good idea. I raced until I was 16. At 16, my parents gave me two days' practice in an entry-level open-wheel car. I did a few laps and I knew what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.
Driving at 200 mph is so physical, and when you were diagnosed with diabetes in 2007 you had to take a break. How were you able to get back to driving?
A lot of my ability to get back in the race car is due to developments in medication. The insulin I use, NovoLog and FlexPen, are so much better than medicines have ever been. I'm not sure with previous iterations I'd be able to drive a race car. [FlexPen is Novo Nordisk's prefilled pen delivery system.]
Management isn't always easy. When I was diagnosed my doctor said there was no reason I shouldn't get back in a race car, but I may have to make adjustments and do things differently than other drivers, players or CEOs. But there is nothing to stop me from doing what I love.
What misconceptions do you think people in the racing industry, and maybe the public, have about diabetes?
So many people are diagnosed with diabetes and there is this perception that they can't play basketball, baseball, can't be a professional cyclist or Iron Man or race in the Indy 500. But I tell parents they should encourage their kids to chase their dreams, and if they do it's a win for me no matter how good or bad a day at the racetrack I have.
I understand your car has some special instruments like a blood sugar gauge in your dash that your doctor can access?
I wear a continuous monitor. It's plugged into the car's electronics. While I'm racing, I can see my lap time, oil pressure and blood glucose all there on the steering wheel. The engineers can monitor the race car and my doctor can also monitor my body chemistry. If I do my job right before I get in the car, this is just a backup plan. During the race, they are just making sure everything is going according to plan.
What do you look forward to on Baltimore's urban track over others?
This is a fantastic event, and I'm so glad to be going back. The fans are incredible and the turnout at the first race was overwhelming. It's one of the busier urban races, and the backdrop is spectacular.
Charlie "CK" Kimball
Drives: No. 83 NovoLog FlexPen Honda Dallara for Novo Nordisk Chip Ganassi Racing
Born: Feb. 20, 1985
Height: 5'11", weight: 150 pounds
Birthplace: England, raised in California
Resides: Camarillo, Calif./ Indianapolis, Ind.
Was accepted to Stanford University, but chose racing instead
First licensed driver with diabetes in the history of IndyCar