When Ryan Reed was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes by his family physician two years ago, the first thing the doctor said was that this teenager could kiss his dream of being a NASCAR race car driver goodbye.
He was 17 at the time, and had just started making waves in the racing world and hitting a stride at the start of his career. The diabetes news devastated him -- but only for about two hours, until Ryan decided that he'd do whatever it took to get behind the race car wheel as he'd dreamed about since age four.
He turned to the Internet, and although he couldn't find any other NASCAR drivers who were living and driving successfully with type 1, Ryan did find the story of another race car driver that showed him his dream wasn't off limits.
Now, two years later, the Bakersfield, CA native continues to embrace his dream and had a successful 2012 season in the ARCA Racing Series along with select NASCAR Camping World Truck Series events. He's made diabetes a part of his mission, advocating and raising awareness as he's out on the racing circuit across the country and worldwide.
But his young career is just getting revved up, with some recent news giving him a boost into the big leagues.
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Ryan appeared on the NASCAR Race Hub show on Speed TV on Feb. 7 to announce that he'd be driving in at least five national races for Roush Fenway Racing, one of the most recognized and winning teams in NASCAR history. His first race will be at the Richmond International Raceway on April 26. He'll be driving the red No. 16 Ford Mustang, which has the American Diabetes Association logo painted on the hood in recognition of a new sponsorship deal. Ryan is a part of the ADA's Drive to Stop Diabetes campaign campaign that will feature the teen driver's D-story, and includes various educational, awareness, and wellness events on and off the track throughout 2013.
This campaign will focus on educating the community about all types of diabetes, and the non-profit organization that Ryan set up himself, Ryan's Mission, will donate any money it raises from merchandise or other fundraising activities directly to the ADA.
"I feel that I've got a personal obligation and responsibility to help tap into this community, because I'm affected and directly living with it," Ryan said. "This is going to make a huge difference."
His news actually comes just about the same time as his role model, IndyCar racer Charlie Kimball who was diagnosed with type 1 about five years ago, is also making headlines. Just this past Friday, Charlie's own race-focused diabetes advocacy got some press when Chip Ganassi Racing Teams and partner Novo Nordisk announced that the entire racing team would be joining Charlie in a joint Race with Insulin Unites initative spread out across NASCAR, IndyCar and GrandAm. A number of racers will have their cars painted as part of the campaign, and some will drive with blue rims to emulate the universal Blue Circle symbol.
With all of those drivers supporting diabetes awareness across multiple leagues and races, the impact on race fans will be unparallelled.
After attending a JDRF Talk Type 1 conference in Texas the weekend after his announcement, Ryan took some time to chat with us by phone and let us know more about how this ADA campaign came together and also the skinny on his own D-Management routine before and during races.
Knowing how devastating a diagnosis can be, I asked Ryan about what it was like to hear from a doctor that he'd never drive again.
"To be truthful, it was one of the most scary times of my life," he said. "I decided that if I can't control it, then OK, I won't be able to race. But I'm going to do everything I can to make this happen, turn over every stone I have to in order to be inside a race car."
Ryan said in the coming weeks, his hopes were deflated when he couldn't find any other racers who were driving while living with diabetes. He did find many athletes who'd climbed mountains, swam and skied in the Olympics, but there weren't any other NASCAR drivers "like him."
Then, he stumbled across Charlie's story, about being diagnosed with type 1 at age 22 in 2007. At the time of Ryan's diagnosis, Charlie had not yet gotten to the Indianapolis 500, where he has now competed two consecutive years.
"I saw Charlie's story, and although he's IndyCar, I thought to myself, 'Wow, OK. There is some hope,'" Ryan said.
He reached out to the respected Dr. Anne Peters at the USC Clinical Diabetes Program in California where Charlie also went, and Ryan managed to get an appointment for the following day despite the typical five-month wait. That was a turning point for Ryan, because her positivity and encouragement gave him the power to reach for his dream once again.
Taking diabetes awareness to the racing world, Ryan created his own non-profit initiative called Ryan's Mission that works to build awareness and support for PWDs worldwide.
Now, Ryan has hit the big leagues of racing and will be driving in a handful of NASCAR races. Most of his D-Management happens before he even gets behind the wheel, though — "carb watching" and blood sugar number reviews 24-48 hours before a race are key, he said.
"You're so limited once you're in the car, the biggest thing is prepping when you're outside the car," he said.
With race car temperatures getting up to 160 degrees, Ryan believes there would be some challenges with insulin pumping, so he'd rather stick with daily injections that work well for him. He uses a Dexcom CGM (continuous glucose monitor) — he just got the new Dex G4 Platinum during the first week of February and says the accuracy is "ten-fold better" than what he'd seen previously with the 7+ system. His CGM is hooked up to the steering wheel just the way Charlie Kimball has it setup, and that data is monitored by his pit crew to keep tabs on his blood sugars during a race.
When he starts a race, Ryan makes sure his BG levels are between 120 and 140 mg/dL before he gets into the car. With adrenaline, he ends up between 200 and 220 once the race ends, he says.
Ryan also has a hydration system hooked up to his helmet with two hoses for water and an endurance mixture that can boost his sugars if needed. He hasn't had a low while driving, he said, but if that were to happen he keeps glucose tabs and a glucagon pen inside the car.
As part of his new ADA sponsorship deal, Ryan has a special-designed race suit that has a bullseye to mark where his injections will go so that his pit crew knows to inject in that spot (!)
When asked why he teamed up with the ADA, Ryan said it's because that organization was the first he and his family had been in touch with following his diagnosis.
He'd gone to a Tour de Cure bike ride in Raleigh, NC, and met some ADA folks there who encouraged him to get involved. He was also talking about a year ago with JDRF, and had been advocating with them with the JDRF colors and logo on his car, but it wasn't the right time to connect for a national campaign, he said. So Ryan approached the ADA and, with a high incidence of type 2 among the NASCAR fan base, the two agreed this was the perfect opportunity to work together.
Market research from a decade ago shows that one in two NASCAR fans tested have been diagnosed with diabetes-related symptoms (largely type 2), and other research says that 10% of NASCAR fans indicate they've purchased diabetes meds in the past year compared to 9% of non-fans.
Ryan says that with those stats, raising awareness about diabetes is even more important for the NASCAR fan base and he's happy to be a part of that. The campaign's goal is to recognize the differences between diabetes types, and specifically to highlight the symptoms and prevention methods for type 2 when that's possible.
"Awareness on all sides is what this is about," Ryan said. "The ADA does such a wonderful job on awareness. They are really on a path to stopping diabetes, and it's not just a slogan —- that's the end goal. There's a lot of middle ground between diabetes and improving lifestyles, and this campaign is about all of that."
That said, Ryan insists that his bigger message is all about empowerment for everyone with diabetes.
"My message all along has been that this is a life with no limits," he said. "This isn't just about what I'm doing, it's about what they can do. I am just an example, just like Charlie was an example for me. That's what I needed to hear at the time... And now I want you to go out and chase your dreams. You can do it!"
Ryan is definitely spreading that message, and during our call I mentioned the You Can Do This Project to him... he was very excited to hear about it, and word is he's planning to do a video on his personal story and message before long! So, we can add another inspirational story to the YCDT ranks, along with the overall D-Community that is proving all the time that kids and adults aren't limited by their diabetes.
We can't wait to see Ryan's racing career take off with NASCAR. And hopefully, we'll get the chance to meet him in real life before long.
Ryan hasn't yet had the chance to meet Charlie in person either, but we expect that day will come soon. We're all a part of the same community, and diabetes is just along for the ride!