An Interview With Charlie Kimball, The World’s Fastest Diabetic

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I’ve never followed motor sports very closely, probably because I grew up being told that cars were meant to take you from A to B, and nothing more. No one watched motor sports in my home, let alone took me to the track. My only car racing experience has been on the PlayStation where both my ten-year- old and my seven-year-old sons beat me.

Even though I haven’t followed car racing in a serious way, I’ve always had a great appreciation for the people who drive the amazing machines that race cars are.  The physical and mental conditioning, and the focus and inner calm required to make decisions while going 200 miles per hour is, without a doubt, incredible. The truth is, I think of race car drivers much in the way I think of F16 fighter pilots.

When I first heard about Charlie Kimball, I was surprised to hear that a man with type 1 diabetes was not only racing, but racing very well.  And thanks to Charlie, not only do I feel inspired as a person with diabetes, knowing that even racing cars is possible with diabetes, I now have a real connection to a sport that I might not have had otherwise.

Charlie Kimball was born to race. His father, Gordon, is a world-renowned Formula One design engineer and was an Indy 500-winning car designer during the 1980s. Charlie started racing go-karts at the age of nine.  In 2003 he competed in the US Formula Ford 2000, winning four races andfinishing 3rd in the championship.  In 2004, Charlie moved to Europe where he competed in the British Formula 3, winning five races, setting two track records and finishing 2nd in Championship. In 2006, Charlie was the first American ever to win a F3 Euroseries race.  And then in 2007 as his career was taking off, Charlie was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes while competing in the European Renault World Series. The diagnosis prevented him from completing the season, but with the help of a team of diabetes specialists he returned to the race track in 2008.

Charlie returned to the US in 2009 to race in Firestone Indy Lights series, where he has been for the last two years.

I had the great opportunity to speak with Charlie Kimball following an announcement made last week by Novo Nordisk and Chip Ganassi RacingTeams regarding the creation of the Novo Nordisk Chip Ganassi Racing team for the 2011 IZOD IndyCar season, and the sponsorship of Charlie Kimball in the series. For those who aren’t familiar with IndyCar racing, the IZOD IndyCar Series is the premier level of American open wheel racing.

You were diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in 2007, shortly after you established a promising racing career.  Did you believe this day would ever come?

I certainly hoped, wished and dreamed for it.  It took a lot of hard work.  After the diagnosis I was afraid I wouldn’t get back in a car at all, let alone at the top level and in one as powerful as an IZOD Indy Car.  There’s a lot of hard work ahead– more to learn and a lot of challenges that I have yet to face, but now that I’m here, I’m ready to make the most of it.

Has diabetes changed you as a person or as an athlete?

It definitely has.  It’s a big part of who I am.  In all honesty, I’m a better athlete because of my diabetes rather than despite it because I’m more aware of my body and proactive about my health.  I’m more focused on making sure – physically – that I’m ready to compete (at over 200 mph).

Diabetes has given me the impetus to focus.  I feel strongly about giving back to the diabetes community because of the support I was given when first diagnosed, through email and personal contacts.

Can you tell us about your partnership with Novo Nordisk?

My partnership with Novo Nordisk means – pardon the pun – I’ve got a great vehicle for my story and I can reach out and prove to people that diabetes doesn’t have to slow you down.

Sometimes, as an ordinary driver, I worry about my blood sugar levels.  Do you have these fears?

Some calculated preparation makes me feel better.  From the minute I get up in the morning until I get in the car, I’m following my blood sugar levels.  I take Levemir and NovoLog.  I eat protein, carbs, and fat – everything my “dream team” also known as “Charlie’s Angels” (my endocrinologist, Dr. Peters, diabetes educator and nutritionist) and I have worked out, so that when I get in the car, I’m ready to go.

When I’m in the race car, I’ve got a couple of tools.  I wear a continuous glucose monitor velcroed to the steering wheel so I can check my blood sugar just like I check speed, water temperature, or oil pressure.  If my blood sugar is falling more quickly than I’d like, I have a “drinks tube” inside my helmet filled with orange juice.  It allows me to take a sip of OJ and bring my blood glucose up without having to stop.

How high do you keep your blood sugar before a race?

I like to start a race between 180-200 with the idea that it will burn down to 120-130.  I start a little bit high so I have a safety net.  When I get out of the car, I can start replenishing my muscle stores and the glycogen stores and recovering from the event.

There are some race tracks that are easier than others and in those races I might start at 180 and finish at 170.  Some are more physically demanding so I’ll start at 200 and finish at 120.  There’s a range and it depends on the type of track, on the day, and also on how the race develops.  When I’m in a tighter battle or closer to the front of the pack, there are definite changes in my blood sugar.  If I have a really close battle, sugar tends to burn off a little bit more.

Do you use an insulin pump?

I use the Levemir FlexPen and the NovoPen Junior for my NovoLog.  I use the NovoPen Junior so I can get half units, which gives me an additional level of accuracy.

My doctor and I considered the pump, but my doctor said, you’ve got good control with the pen and your HbA1c is where I want it to be, so unless there’s a good reason to switch to the pump, let’s stay with the pen. When we talked about the pump she said we’d have to keep it outside of my race suit because she was concerned about the temperature beneath the suit, and that the insulin might lose its effectiveness.  Also, it wouldn’t be fireproof.  Using a pump turned out to be more complicated than we’d originally thought, and it wasn’t something that I needed in order to compete and be successful.

Your father designs Formula One race cars in Europe, but he came home to support you.  How has that helped you?

I grew up watching racing.  Not only has my father had success engineering race cars in Formula 1, he also co-designed a couple of the Indianapolis 500 winners in the early 80s.  My father has always been a part of my racing.  He is still my manager.  He’s been my mentor.  His support, and my mom’s, and my older sister’s has led to today and they’re at the top of the list of people I want to thank.  I couldn’t be here today in this position without their help.

Have you had any scary diabetes-related moments while driving, or does it not happen because you’re so prepared?

It hasn’t happened, and I’ll say “yet” and knock on wood.  But if it did, I do feel prepared to deal with it, to deal with anything that came up.  I have the tools.  I have the information from my health care team and from my race team on how to address situations if they arrive.  So it hasn’t happened, but I’m prepared if and when it does.

What’s your message to others living with diabetes, and especially to children with diabetes?

I’m living proof that diabetes doesn’t have to slow you down.  Just because you have diabetes doesn’t mean you can’t do almost anything in life.  With good management, good routine, and good discipline, you can really chase your dreams.  For me, today shows you can not only chase your dream, you can reach it and enjoy the success of it.

Here is a short film on Charlie Kimball from 2009:

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FyhsKPEpQeE&feature=player_embedded[/youtube]

Photo of Charlie Kimball on car by Mike Levitt/LAT USA.

Photo of Charlie Kimball in helmet by Paul Webb/LAT USA.

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Dalia Colón

I’m a journalist in Tampa who recently had the privilege of interviewing Charlie about how he manages his diabetes. I thought Charlie’s fans might enjoy the video: http://healthystate.org/archives/8937

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