By PAUL NATINSKY
IndyCar driver Charlie Kimball says he is the first diabetic to start and finish the Indy 500. Legally, that is. Diabetic racer Howdy Wilcox II competed in the Indianapolis 500, finishing second in 1932, but he was disqualified before the 1933 race when diabetic symptoms revealed his secret.
Today’s racecar drivers travel much faster—in excess of 225 mph on oval tracks—than their compatriots of yesteryear. Consequently, the slowed reactions, vision issues and decision-making deficits characteristic of unmanaged diabetes are much more dangerous.
“Charlie needs to consistently keep track of before getting on the racetrack,” Michigan State University kinesiologist David Ferguson told MSU Today in 2017. “If his blood sugar is too low, it may take him too long to make the right decision. If his sugar is too high, his reaction time may be fine, but the likelihood of him making the wrong choice increases.” Ferguson works with Kimball to manage his diabetes and authored a study using data from his work with Kimball.
“Technically, since Charlie doesn’t have a functioning pancreas, all the other drivers have had an advantage over him,” Ferguson said. “We simply put him on a level playing field.”
Kimball, 33, thinks his heightened consciousness regarding his health and fitness gives him an edge. “Between my healthcare team, my training team and my race team, I feel like I’m probably a better athlete because of my diabetes rather than just leveling the playing field. I feel I understand my body as an athlete better than I ever would have without ever being diagnosed,” he said.
Kimball, who finished 23rd and 8th, respectively, in two Detroit Grand Prix races on Belle Isle June 2 and June 3, likens his disease management to the functioning of his IndyCar. “With good diabetes management, with good blood sugar control, there is no difference between someone who has a functioning pancreas and someone who has, as I like to call it, a manual transmission pancreas. I’ve always preferred driving a manual transmission car and my pancreas is just a manual instead of an automatic now.”
Kimball’s analogy extends to an actual symbiotic relationship with his race car. “My IndyCar is different than everyone else’s because my body is different. I wear a continuous glucose monitor, so I have a sensor on my body that transmits to a display that’s actually plugged into the car’s data system. On my electronic dash I have speed, lap time, oil pressure, blood sugar, water temperature—my car and my body data right there together.”
While the monitor keeps him alert to his blood glucose level, Kimball is not a candidate for an insulin pump to help him balance his glucose during races. Kimball uses insulin pens manufactured by Novo Nordisk—time-released Tresiba for long-term management and short-acting Fiasp for faster adjustments.
However, Kimball carries no insulin onboard his IndyCar, cockpit conditions and his fireproof suite are too warm for the drug to remain viable. But elevated blood glucose is not Kimball’s worry. The physical toll of racing without power steering or brakes at more than 200 mph tends to burn glucose, so Kimball is more likely to suffer from low blood sugar. He tries to start each race with slightly elevated blood sugar. So far, he has not had to use the toggle switch in his water bottle to deliver a glucose-fortified orange juice option.
This year’s Indy 500 tied the record for the hottest Indy 500 on record, said Kimball. He said he lost between eight and 10 pounds during the race. While that sort of speeding sauna might not be typical, extreme physical exertion is part of every race.
It is difficult for ordinary people to understand the physical demands of race car driving because they can’t go out and do it to get a feel for it, said Kimball. The closest they come is driving their road car to work or to the grocery store.
When Kimball details the grueling physical effects of driving his IndyCar he sounds like the techie kid he was more than a decade ago who had been accepted to Stanford University and pondered studying mechanical engineering. Kimball said his Indy car reaches speeds in excess of 225 mph, travels the length of football field every second and has enough downforce to hold two Indy cars on the ceiling. The car, with him in it, weighs 1,600 pounds, produces about 3,500 pounds of downforce, has no power steering, no power breaks and puts 700 horsepower under his right foot.
The numbers gleaned from Ferguson’s work with Kimball at MSU compare his physical conditioning favorably to that of a National Hockey League player—but there are some things hockey players and other elite athletes don’t face. “One of the unique things we see in the IndyCar series is the G-forces. My G-tolerance would have easily qualified me for the Apollo XI space program back in the day,” said Kimball.
A lot people in racing talk about their sponsors, said Kimball. But, for him, it’s been more of a partnership with drug maker Novo Nordisk. “Long before they knew who I was, I was on their insulin and their insulin delivery devices. I have been using Novo Nordisk insulin since the day I was diagnosed, back in 2007.
“When I talked to them about being involved in my race program, they saw some value and were excited. It started out really small and grew and grew and grew. This year is the 10th season of the Race with Insulin program with Novo Nordisk and myself sharing the message that diabetes shouldn’t stop you from living your dream; in my case racing at over 200 mph in the IndyCar series.”
Kimball said he and Novo Nordisk do a lot of community work, including talking to healthcare professionals to give them an anecdote they can share with newly diagnosed diabetic patients.
Kimball was born in England (his father, Gordon, who designs Formula 1 race cars, was on a job there), raised in Southern California and now makes his home in Indianapolis with his wife, Kathleen. They “love this city and how it comes alive for all four seasons,” but Kimball eyes an eventual return to California.
Gordon Kimball is an avocado farmer and Charlie envisions the more relaxed lifestyle “working on the ranch” might hold for him after his racing career is over.
“It’s a little different pace when in racing you are talking about tenths and hundredths and one-thousandths of a second and in avocado farming, you are talking about a fruit that takes 18 months to develop,” said Kimball.
But Kimball has no plans of driving a tractor soon. He has miles to go before he reaps.
His ultimate goals in racing include “being the first driver with diabetes to win the Indy 500 and being the first driver with diabetes to win the IndyCar championship; because the 500 is a body of work that is three weeks long and one of the most challenging races, if not the most challenging—and the largest one-day attended sporting event in the world—and the IndyCar championship is six months of work over 18 races. So those two are definitely on my list.”
Kimball, who raced in Europe at the beginning of his career, said he would consider other racing formats. “I’ve always said, ‘have helmet, will travel.’ I would love to drive anything, anywhere, anytime, but I still have a lot to accomplish in IndyCar. Here in the U.S., I think I can make a bigger impact within the diabetes community. That is something I take very seriously. The chance to give back to the diabetes community that gave me so much support after I was diagnosed is very important to me.”
So for now, Kimball will enjoy the rush of racing, Indianapolis’ four seasons and the remote starter in his Chevy Tahoe on those cold Midwestern nights.