Charlie Kimball dreamed of driving a racecar ever since he was 9 years old and got his first taste of speed behind the wheel of a go-kart. Seven years later his father, a mechanical engineer who worked on IndyCar and Formula 1 vehicles, gave 16-year-old Charlie a birthday present that sealed the deal: a 2-day practice run behind the wheel of a Formula Ford car.
“After the first 10 laps I was hooked,” he recalls. A few years later, Charlie deferred admission to Stanford University’s engineering program to pursue a career as an IndyCar driver, where speeds can exceed 200 mph and races can last over 2 hours. “I think my mom was, and still is, a bit worried,” he says, but his father’s inside knowledge of the sport and the latest safety technology helped assuage his mother’s fears.
Charlie moved to London, and quickly began racking up podium finishes in the European racing world. He even became the first American in 13 years to win a British F3 race. But in 2007 – at just 22 years old –his racing career was stalled by a life-changing diagnosis.
“I’d gone into the doctor for a skin rash on my arm, and he had given me some cream and asked if there was anything else going on with my health,” Charlie recalls. “I originally said no, you know, I’m 22. I’m 10 feet tall and bulletproof.” But when the doctor weighed him, Charlie was shocked to find he’d lost 25 pounds in the 5 days since his last race weigh-in. The doctor came back with a diagnosis of type 1 diabetes.
“I had a very very limited knowledge of what diabetes was or what it meant to my career or for me as a person,” says Charlie. “I didn’t know if I’d ever get back in the cockpit, to be honest.” At the time there was no other IndyCar driver with diabetes, and no precedent for how it might affect Charlie’s driving. What was clear was that diabetes would present certain risks during a race.
Unlike in other sports with time outs or breaks, “In the car I have to be ready from green flag to checkered flag with no breaks,” says Charlie. Racing is also surprisingly physical. During races, Charlie’s heart rate elevates to between 140-170 beats per minute, and his body begins to burn more glucose. If his blood sugar were to drop suddenly during a race, he could suffer from fogginess, shakiness, weakness or confusion. Equally, if his blood sugar spiked he could lose focus, have blurry vision or be unable to make the split second decisions that racing requires.
Confused and determined not to let go of his dream, Charlie visited an endocrinologist in London and asked if it would be possible for him to ever race again. “He looked me square in the eye and said, ‘I don’t see why not,’” Charlie says, ‘There are incredible people doing amazing things with diabetes all over the world. You may have to change how you go about racing but it shouldn’t slow you down at all.’”
Determined to get back behind the wheel as soon as possible, Charlie started working with his father to engineer solutions to the two biggest challenges he’d face as a diabetic racer: being able to easily monitor his glucose and having the ability to adjust his levels while racing.
To make sure his glucose would be easy to track during a race, Charlie and his father arranged for the data from his body glucose monitor to automatically feed into his electronic dash. By scanning the dashboard, he could see his body data and his car data displayed side by side. The solution they developed to address his second concern – being able to make adjustments to his blood sugar – was even more innovative. While other drivers typically have a pipeline of pure water coming into their helmets, the pair began to work on a model that allowed Charlie to switch between water and orange juice, depending on his glucose needs during a race.
“My dad said ‘Why don’t we just have a valve?’” says Charlie. “It’s as simple as switching between hot and cold water at home.” The valve solution would allow Charlie to switch his liquid supply easily, but it needed to be manufactured to weigh as little as possible. In IndyCar racing, two-tenths of a second can mean the difference between 1st and 7th place, and extra weight can make all the difference.
“I was trying to avoid having my diabetes or any in-car treatment tool be a detriment, ” says Charlie. He and his father began developing the lightest, smallest valve they could. To make sure it was to their exact specifications, they used a 3D printer to make a rapid prototype of their design. Now, with the flick of a switch on his seat belt, Charlie was able to monitor and adjust his blood sugar levels while driving.
In 2008, less than 6 months after his diagnosis, Charlie got back behind the wheel and became the first diabetic IndyCar driver in history. He soon became the first diabetic driver to race in the Indianapolis 500, a race that has been around even longer than insulin treatment. “I don’t think anyone would have blamed me if I had hung my helmet on diabetes and said ‘this is much too serious’ and I can’t compete at the level I want to, “ says Charlie. “But I knew if there was a way to get back in the car, I was going to.”
As news of his story spreads, fans who are living with diabetes often come up to Charlie at races to give their support and share how his perseverance and ingenuity have inspired them. The admiration and inspiration tends to flow both ways. “I recently met a man who’s had diabetes for 55 years,” says Charlie. “He said, ‘I’m getting ready to run my first marathon.’ Those stories really inspire me. To have something like diabetes, be managing it, and pushing yourself – how neat is that?”