As a professional race car driver, Charlie Kimball saw his life upended by the COVID-19 crisis like everyone else in early 2020. But toss in the birth of a second child and adjusting to managing type 1 diabetes (T1D) away from the racing circuit for the first time in 9 years, and it’s been a unique experience even in these strange times.
Kimball was disappointed to have to forgo the usual start of the racing season in March. But this break has also afforded him a rare opportunity to be present in his newly expanded family’s day-to-day routine. He says being a dad of a toddler and a newborn just as pandemic-mode hit has been one of the most bittersweet moments in his life.
We had a chance to reconnect with Kimball recently to chat about the impact on professional sports and personal lives during these unprecedented times.
While Kimball isn’t the only T1D driver in professional racing, his story is probably one of the most renowned within the Diabetes Community and around the world. The 35-year-old Indianapolis resident was diagnosed with T1D in 2007 at age 22 and, ever since, he’s been proving that his dead pancreas can’t stop him. Kimball was the first-ever driver with T1D allowed to compete in the Indy 500, and he’s been making that racing run every year since 2011.
We’ve interviewed Kimball in the past, hearing how the U.K.-born professional racer got his start with go-kart racing at age 9, and years later, even sidestepped his admission into Stanford University to follow his dream. He started racing in Europe in 2002 and built up an impressive resume before his T1D diagnosis derailed him in the middle of the 2007 season.
But he didn’t let that stop him. He returned the following year to participate in some of the most competitive racing categories in the world — proving that diabetes can’t restrict a person from traveling at more than 200 miles an hour if they have the proper racing skills.
Kimball is pretty well-known for how he’s managed blood sugar levels behind the wheel through the years. At one point, his CGM (continuous glucose monitor) receiver was Velcroed right under the steering wheel so he could see it at all times.
“It’s just another part of the dashboard I have to watch,” he told DiabetesMine, admitting that his endocrinologist came up with the idea at the time. He has also hooked up packs of orange juice to his helmet so he can respond quickly to a dropping blood glucose level by sipping through a straw.
As technology has evolved, so has Kimball’s setup. Nowadays he’s connected to his smartphone-integrated CGM and drives with two water bottles — one with water, the other filled with sugar-added orange juice. With his dad being a mechanical engineer, they developed a special 3D-printed valve for the bottles to connect to the seatbelt for a quick “flick of the switch” that triggers a liquid glucose boost.
Kimball’s races run between 35 minutes and 1 hour, “and it’s really physical,” he told us. “It’s really hot; there is a lot of exertion and the mental focus needed to control the car at nearly 200 miles per hour burns blood sugar off, so I typically try to get in the car a little higher than I would on a normal day and I will get out after it is burned off.”
That translates to keeping his blood glucose levels at 180 to 200 at the start of a race, and they usually drop to 100 to 130 by the end. If sipping the orange juice through a straw ever failed to boost his levels in time, Kimball says he wouldn’t hesitate to stop his car mid-race.
Of course, everything changed in March 2020 when the coronavirus crisis hit. That month, just as his son was born, Kimball was ready to start the season in St. Petersburg, Florida. But the racing season was suddenly postponed and he flew home to shelter-in-place in Indianapolis.
He and other drivers were able to borrow equipment so they could train at home, and some participated in virtual racing events to stay sharp during the pandemic-mode of no racing.
Kimball says he built a temporary gym in his garage, converting a backyard bench into a bench press. He also did virtual bike rides and Iron Man workouts with fellow IndyCar race drivers. Those extra months of training and prepping made Kimball feel as though he was actually better prepared for the season than he would’ve been under normal circumstances.
Racing didn’t resume until June 6, when an initial event was held in Texas without fans. Kimball’s been in a few more races without a live audience since, including a Grand Prix race on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway held July 4.
Kimball and colleagues are currently preparing for a postponed Indy 500, known as the “greatest spectacle in racing.” The race is normally held in late May but is now slated for August 2020.
While he wasn’t able to drive around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway this year on Memorial Day weekend, Kimball says he and some fellow drivers actually rode their bikes around the 2-mile track that day.
“It was only 10 miles, not 500… and it was eerie,” he says. “Knowing we should be racing in front of hundreds of people, and the whole place was empty, quiet, and still asleep at that point in May. It gives me goosebumps. But I’m excited to be back there, and it looks good, younger than it has in years. Everyone’s going to be very impressed once August rolls around, even as we don’t know what to expect.”
Racing was one of the few live sports back on television by the end of June, and Kimball says it’s almost been reinvigorating for the entire motor sports world to showcase itself to thousands of viewers around the world who might not normally be tuned in.
“There’s a lot we’ll be figuring out with conversations left to be had because no one has a playbook here for a global pandemic,” he says.
Interestingly, Kimball says his diabetes management remains data-driven in the same way whether he’s at home or out on the racing circuit. He uses the same insulin pens and CGM, and watches his numbers carefully.
Having his Dexcom G6 connect with his smartwatch with Siri capabilities allows him to use CarPlay voice technology in his Chevy to ask what his glucose levels are, without taking his hands off the steering wheel.
“Adjusting to all the new challenges, having the tools that I rely on — my G6, the insulins that I’ve been using for a couple of years now, the integration in the car… all of those pieces are tried and true, and what I have experience with, and am comfortable using in adapting to these new challenges in the racing world.”
Routine has been an important part of everything for Kimball, he tells us. That includes his promotional and marketing work, focused on both diabetes and racing.
“Getting back in the car was so good for my soul and psyche,” he says. “Getting back to that touchstone, that cornerstone of what makes me tick is so good for me. Whatever this new normal looks like. This normalcy starting to come back has been really valuable to me.”
Beyond the pandemic, there are other changes that make it both challenging and exciting to get back in the driver’s seat — such as a variety of new cars in a NASCAR–IndyCar double-header with varying tire styles on the oval tracks.
“All that work — from my diabetes, the fitness piece, the engineering, media and outreach, and the driving itself — are all elements that make me who I am as a race car driver. It’s nice having those switches turned back on,” he says.
The Kimballs’ first child, a daughter, arrived at the end of the October 2018 racing season. Their son arrived in March 2020 — just as the pandemic was hitting a critical point and much of the country was shutting down in response.
“It’s amazing how much chaos adding a second child to the family can be, especially having two little ones during a pandemic when everything’s shut down and stay at home,” he says. “But it’s been special, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
Instead of being off traveling and racing, Kimball’s had a front-row seat to his daughter’s exploding vocabulary and his newborn’s first smiles.
“The time I’ve had with our daughter and being home these first few months with our son is something I’m extremely grateful for,” he says.
Kimball reflects back on their decision to start a family, knowing the possible risks of his children developing T1D — and he’s grateful and diligent.
“I certainly keep an eye out on my kids as to the warning signs, things that I wasn’t aware of before being diagnosed,” he notes.
As one of the longest-running driver/sponsor relationships in the IndyCar world, Kimball has been partnered with Novo Nordisk on the Race with Insulin program since 2008. His race cars display the company’s product logos (mostly Levemir and Tresiba, the long-acting insulins he uses, and lately also the newer fast-acting Fiasp insulin). He goes by @RaceWithInsulin on Twitter.
He says he appreciates the opportunity Novo has provided for him to talk with different media outlets and reach both clinicians and people with diabetes who might not otherwise hear about his T1D and racing story.
“Figuring out how to navigate that to make a difference, as a race car driver or as a Novo ambassador, has been really important to me over the past few months, to do it in a safe and effective way,” he says.
In our recent phone interview, we brought up the issue of the insulin pricing crisis and asked how he squares that with acting as an “ambassador” for Novo — one of the “Big Three” insulin manufacturers accused of price gouging.
Kimball says he recognizes the importance of this problem and certainly has brought it up in discussions with Novo, though he added it’s not something he is “fully familiar with” to represent the company on the topic. He does highlight the financial assistance resources Novo offers, including an offer for all patients to purchase up to three vials or two packs of insulin pen refills for a flat rate of $99.
“One of the things I’ve always felt good about, in being an ambassador with Novo Nordisk… is that all of the conversations are grounded in that I’m a patient first and an ambassador and race car driver secondary to that,” he says. “That’s always made me personally, as someone living with type 1 using those insulins myself every day, feel good about the conversations we’re having. We’re trying to figure out how to help now, and to help later. I believe in those dialogues.”
To put it another way, in proper car analogy: It’s not as simple as changing a tire or slapping down a new layer of pavement. Rather, it’s complex roadwork that takes time to build.