It all started with a skin rash.
Ten years ago, race car driver Charlie Kimball went to his doctor to check out that small rash on his arm.
In the course of their conversation, the physician learned that Kimball had also been unusually thirsty in recent days.
When he weighed Kimball, the doctor discovered his patient had lost 25 pounds in five days.
He immediately suggested Kimball be tested for diabetes.
Kimball admits he was pretty clueless about the disease. He even asked his doctor if he could prescribe antibiotics for it.
“I didn’t know what it was or what it involved,” Kimball told Healthline.
He soon found out when he was officially diagnosed at age 22 with type 1 diabetes.
Since that time, Kimball has become educated about diabetes.
He has also adjusted his life, both at home and behind the wheel of his race car.
A few years after his diagnosis, Kimball became the first person with diabetes to be allowed to drive in the Indianapolis 500.
On Sunday, he will compete in his seventh Indy 500 race.
As he circles that famed track the required 200 laps, Kimball will have a water bottle and a container of orange juice by his side.
He’ll also be watching his blood glucose level on his dashboard.
How life, driving are different
Kimball concedes his diabetes diagnosis was a bit of a shock.
“At age 22 you feel 10 feet tall and bulletproof,” he said.
Kimball immediately had to start changing his daily routine.
He now takes insulin four times per day. One dose is a long-lasting insulin he takes in the morning. The other three are fast-acting insulin he takes after each meal.
Kimball also watches his diet much more closely.
He has learned that the carbohydrates in pizza, for example, take longer to enter the blood stream than most foods. He learned that corn has carbohydrates, too.
Image source: Photo: LAT USA
Kimball was initially worried about whether he’d be able to continue race car driving.
“I was concerned about getting back in my race car,” he recalled. “The race car is the only place I feel really alive.”
That involved more than just driving.
Race car drivers are athletes.
They are handling vehicles without power steering that are traveling around 200 miles an hour.
The stress keeps their heart rate high throughout an entire three-hour race. They can lose seven pounds of water weight due to the heat of the car. And they can burn more than 1,100 calories in a single race.
“I’m always concerned about the safety element and the performance element,” he said.
Kimball quickly learned, however, that his new dietary routine was actually enhancing his skills.
“It helps me be a better athlete,” he commented.
During his races, Kimball wears special sensors on his skin that monitor his body functions.
On his dashboard, he can monitor his blood glucose level and other health-related data along with his car’s speed and how many laps he has completed.
Kimball said it isn’t a coincidence he’s the first Indy 500 driver with diabetes.
Until recent years, there wasn’t the technology to provide enough support and assistance to a driver with this particular condition.
In addition, Kimball said, most people with type 1 diabetes are diagnosed when they are children.
At that stage, most kids with the disease don’t envision becoming a race car driver.
Kimball, on the other hand, was already doing it.
“I wasn’t going to let diabetes get in the way of my life’s dream,” he said.
Providing inspiration, education
Kimball hopes his drive to continue his race car career will inspire children and others with diabetes.
He said he wants youngsters to feel like they still can do whatever they want, whether it’s being an athlete, a rock climber, or a chief executive officer.
“I want them to be able to chase their dreams,” he said.
David Ferguson, PhD, an assistant professor of kinesiology, oversees the program. Ferguson has been doing this kind of research for 12 years.
When Kimball came along, Ferguson saw an opportunity to hone his research even more.
“Charlie is a good model for us to work with,” Ferguson told Healthline.
One of the more interesting experiments the researchers have worked on is how driving on an oval track seemed to be a more difficult task for Kimball than driving on a more winding, surface street race course.
To discover what was happening, the researchers outfitted Kimball with a clear plastic box that encased his body from the waist down. The case was accompanied by some wooden blocks, cushions, and a bicycle seat.
By taking readings with the box, the researchers discovered that the blood in Kimball’s lower legs was pooling more on oval courses because there are stronger g-forces.
With that knowledge, they set up a training schedule that exposed Kimball to that type of g-force to help him condition himself for it.
Ferguson said they hope to use what they learn from their experiments with Kimball to help the general population with diabetes management.
For Kimball, all of this helps him when he’s on the race track.
The past two years, he has finished third and fifth in the Indy 500.
He’s hoping for an even better finish on Sunday.
If you want to keep track, Kimball will be in the car with the number “83” and the “Novo Nordisk” sponsor decals.