Neal Rubin: The IndyCar racer with diabetes – and so much more
Visit enough kids in enough hospitals and you learn a few things. You never say “Get well soon,” for instance, because some of them won’t get well ever.
What Charlie Kimball focused on Wednesday morning was establishing a connection. Finding common ground, even if he covers his own at 225 mph. Giving out autographs to kids who’d never heard of him before, but learned enough in a few minutes to know they liked him.
Giving out hope.
Kimball, 31, finshed third in last year’s Indianapolis 500. He’ll race June 3-5 in the Chevrolet Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix.
If you follow IndyCar racing closely, he’s the guy who won the 2013 Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio. If you follow it casually, he’s the guy with diabetes, the one who drives the No. 83 Race With Insulin Chevrolet Dallara and has his vital signs fed into his car’s data system.
At the Children’s Hospital of Michigan Specialty Center in Detroit, he was the guy who invented a holiday.
Ever heard of a diaversary? The kids on the diabetes floor hadn’t, either. That’s the anniversary of the day you found out you have diabetes — Oct. 16, 2007, if you’re keeping score — and Kimball framed it as the next-best thing to a birthday.
“The first couple of years,” he told an 8-year-old from Trenton named Braden, “I convinced my friends that they were supposed to bring me presents.”
Braden liked that. He also liked it when Kimball pointed out that his black-and-neon-green race car has the same color scheme, sort of, as Braden’s glasses.
Braden’s mom liked hearing about a famous athlete with the same challenge her son faces, and you could tell Kimball’s name will come up in their house again.
More than a disease
Kimball grew up in Southern California but has adjusted nicely to being a Midwesterner.
Chip Ganassi Racing parks its IndyCar and sports car operations in Indianapolis, so that’s where he lives with his wife and their two substitute children, a Siberian husky and a black lab.
He popped into Detroit to do a few interviews, rev up a roomful of Grand Prix volunteers, speak at a luncheon and take a couple of TV reporters for brief but hair-raising rides along a stretch of Belle Isle racetrack.
The hospital visit was supposed to be closed off, just Kimball and the kids, but cajolery opened the doors to a few quiet observers.
In the dialysis center, where the youngest patient was 18 months old, Kimball compared notes with a 15-year-old named Marquis about their favorite “Fast and Furious” movies.
Alex, an 8-year-old from Belleville, told him he should get speeding tickets.
Usually, a supervisor said, the kids in the morning sleep through their treatments. They’ve learned to ignore the plastic tubes recirculating their blood. Kimball ignored the process, too, and focused on the people.
“You’re great,” Elise Bennett told him. She handles the hospital’s marketing, and has learned that no matter how well-meaning, a lot of celebrities “don’t like to engage with the kids. They feel awkward.”
Kimball laughed. “I’ve been awkward my whole life,” he said, “so I don’t care.”
Then someone on the Grand Prix team said it was time to go see the diabetes patients, and Kimball corrected him: “They’re patients with diabetes.”
Diabetes is what they have, not who they are.
Kimball’s sponsor is Novo Nordisk, the company that makes his insulin.
With that name on his car, he’s had 35 Top 10 finishes in five-plus years — a solid record overshadowed by a disease.
Kimball understands. On the track, he said, he’s the driver with diabetes. In the medical community and the boardroom, he’s the diabetes patient who drives.
It’s the driver who writes “Pedal to the metal” above his autograph. It’s the patient who tells children in hospitals to chase their passion no matter what, and who said he feels blessed to be able to make them smile.
“They’re two different people,” he said, in the same slender package.
Once you see him with the kids, it’s easy to root for both of them.