Every racecar driver has dreamed of guzzling a celebratory bottle of milk as the Indy 500 victor. Charlie Kimball, who is making his sixth start this year, has actually calculated the jug’s carb count.
Kimball, a 31-year-old Indianapolis transplant from California, has Type 1 diabetes (the kind you’re born with, not the kind associated with poor nutrition). He could black out in the car if his blood sugar drops low enough, so in 2007, his father, an F1 engineer, helped modify his son’s cockpit equipment to track his blood sugar, and 3-D-printed a special valve (pictured) so Kimball can drink both water and orange juice while he’s racing. Kimball is the first driver to compete in IndyCar with diabetes.
It makes a good story, this car retrofitted with medical-monitoring equipment and decked out with insulin maker Novo Nordisk’s logo (and this year, a new number—42, as in the hours the medicine lasts—and the same number of names representing Kimball’s diabetes community). Kimball and his publicists have refined the narrative and actively promote it. The headlines usually say “diabetes doesn’t slow this driver down,” and the stories juxtapose blood-sugar readings with fuel mileage, lap speed, and other stats that racing teams monitor. It is a big deal, and yet it isn’t. It’s big because Kimball can’t win if he’s not sharp. He doesn’t really worry about blacking out—he’s more concerned with being the best thinker and decision-maker on the track, which is tough if you’re feeling sluggish and foggy from low blood sugar. It isn’t because monitoring and stabilizing his glucose level has become second nature.
“Racecar drivers process massive quantities of information very efficiently,” Kimball says. “There’s a lot that you’re listening to, you’re feeling, you’re smelling, all of those things. There’s a huge amount of input happening, from the car, the flags, the weather, the sunshine, from everything. Very little of it is completely relevant to what’s happening in the next five to 10 seconds, but every piece is relevant at some point. That glucose number is just one of those pieces of info that I file.” The margins in the sport are so tiny now—drivers win the Indy 500 by fractions of a second, not laps like they used to—any moments of weakness can cost him at the finish line.
Kimball doesn’t seem to mind the attention on his health even when it overshadows his performance, and not just because he’s paid to talk about Novo Nordisk. Some of the names on his car are bloggers who taught him a lot about the disease. He genuinely wants others with Type 1 diabetes to believe they can do more than manage the condition. He wants T1ers to dream big like he did, push themselves as he has, expect great things from themselves as he does.
But Kimball is not just a heartwarming story. The Chip Ganassi driver finished third at the Indy 500 last year—he’s a serious contender. If anything in his blood is driving him, it’s not glucose. It’s the mystique of Indy that deepens every year.
“Tony [Kanaan, his Chip Ganassi teammate] said it best,” Kimball says. “He talked about how hard it is to win here because every year, it gets further and further and further in your heart and your blood. At first, I was like, Yeaaaah, okay, that’s a little hyperbolic. Now, after six years and after finishing third last year, I get it. It’s that much more under my skin.”
Victory would be the right kind of sweet.