In Detroit visit, IndyCar's Charlie Kimball says diabetes didn’t force him off track

Kurt Mensching
Special to The Detroit News

Detroit — Charlie Kimball has been racing in the Verizon IndyCar Series for eight years. But if you think when he spoke to a group of teenagers at Detroit Medical Center on Wednesday that it was mostly a one-sided conversation, you’d be wrong.

“I draw strength and inspiration from meeting families who have diabetes,” Kimball said before the Pistons tipped off against the Philadelphia 76ers Wednesday at Little Caesars Arena. Kimball was in Detroit to promote the Detroit Grand Prix, which features a pair of races June 2-3 at Belle Isle.

He told of meeting one particular 19-year-old who has managed the diabetes for 14 years — four longer than Kimball, who is 33.

“His perspective on managing diabetes successfully was invaluable,” Kimball said. “More people need to hear that. (I told him) more people need to hear about you as somebody who is just a college student. Not an NBA player, not a racing driver, not a football player, not an ice-hockey player. But just as someone who is successfully living their life with diabetes. So I hope I encouraged him to do that, because he really inspired me.”

But Kimball doesn’t kid himself. He knows his story is inspirational, too. He was diagnosed with diabetes at age 22, right in the middle of the 2007 race season. That could have been a career ender in the past. But it no longer is. Using technology that helps him monitor his glucose level just as easily as his car’s speed and water temperature, he is able to continue his career and became the first licensed driver with diabetes to win a race — at Mid-Ohio in 2013 — and the first licensed driver with diabetes to compete in the Indianapolis 500, where earned a pair of top five finishes in 2015 and 2016.

In the middle of a race, if Kimball needs to he can switch from drinking water to orange juice, using a valve system designed by his father Gordon, an engineer who designed both F1 and Indy cars. His longtime sponsor, Novo Nordisk, manufactures the insulin that allows him to race.

So Kimball knows when he speaks to a group, he’s showing them that a diabetes diagnosis doesn’t have to be an ending. It’s just part of who they are.

“I hope they draw inspiration that whatever they want to do in life they can accomplish it,” he said. “If it’s (being) a professional athlete, if it’s being a CEO of a Fortune 500 company. If it’s whatever they want, there’s a way to make their diabetes work for them. That’s my goal when I talk to kids and young people, and especially families — to give their parents encouragement, (because) it is tough and there are people who understand how tough it is.”

Kimball has worked with Dr. David Ferguson of the kinesiology department at Michigan State for the past seven years to help manage his diabetes and his body.

“One of the things he’s taught me is how my body is different as a racing driver and as an athlete with diabetes,” Kimball said. “We’ve noticed some things over the course of the years and been able to tune not only my diabetes management but also my offseason training. So how I train, how I prepare, and how I evolve as an athlete has changed, not only as I get older but as the cars change.”

The race weekend at Belle Isle will be a particularly tough one for all the race teams, but for Kimball’s especially. But that’s not a diabetes thing. Kimball’s team in 2018, Carlin, is in its first year and has just one race under its belt.

Carlin’s two teams, with drivers Max Chilton and Kimball, finished 19th and 20th out of 24 cars in St. Petersburg in March.

Kimball said the first race ticked off every box they wanted it to — both cars finished the race.

“A brand new race team that didn’t have a single bolt off an IndyCar Oct. 1 of last year put two very professional operations together,” he said.

“The only thing left to find is pace. That’s normal racing stuff. You’re always looking for speed.”

Detroit will offer the challenge of points races on back-to-back days, coming only six days after the Indianapolis 500 and six days before the race at Texas. On top of that, Belle Isle is one of the bumpier street circuits IndyCar races on, Kimball said.

“It’s hard on us as drivers physically and mentally, (and) the mechanics as well turning the cars around Saturday night,” he said.

“I got some advice a couple of years ago,” he continued. “Sometimes it feels like you’re racing almost a dirt bike because you just have to let the car move underneath you. For drivers who like being in control, that’s a challenge. You want it to be in the exact same spot and settled. But one of the great things about Detroit, Long Beach, Toronto, it really lets the cream rise to the top because of that challenge.”

Kurt Mensching is a freelance writer.