“I think your scale is broken, doc.”
I was in because I had a rash on my arm and it started to bug me. I had to race that weekend, so I figured I’d go in and get it cleaned up so it didn’t bother me on race day. Doc gave me a cream and said it would clear up in a couple of days. Then he started asking doctor questions.
“Is there anything else going on with your health?”
I’m thinking, No. I’m 22 years old, and when you’re 22, nothing goes wrong, right?
Then, I thought about it a little more … “Well, I’ve been kind of thirsty lately. I’m going through like eight to 10 bottles of water a night and I can’t go 30 minutes without going to the bathroom.”
“Have you lost any weight?”
“I don’t think so.” I’d been weighed five days earlier before a race and everything was normal.
“OK. Let’s see what you weigh now.” So I stepped on.
“I think your scale is broken, doc.”
“Because that’s 25 pounds less than I should weigh.”
You know as well as I do that the scale wasn’t broken. I’d somehow lost 25 pounds in five days. A round of tests revealed why: My blood sugar was five or six times what it should be. My body wasn’t converting the sugar to energy for my body to use. My body was essentially eating itself. I’m thinking, 25 pounds … How did I not notice?
You remember your grandparents’ old TV when you were a kid — the one with the rabbit ears that was black and white and always fuzzy? When my blood sugar was out of control, that’s what my life was. That’s how I saw my world. Fuzzy. I was living in a fog. When my blood sugar came back to normal, it was like changing the channel. The picture became clear and it went from black and white to full color. It was that drastic of a change.
That’s why I didn’t notice my weight loss. I was lost in that fog. But what I still didn’t know is why my blood sugar was so high. Until the doctor told me.
“You have diabetes.”
With Type 1 diabetes, the kind I have, the body doesn’t produce insulin, which is a hormone the body needs to convert sugar, starches and other food into energy. And without energy, your body burns up its fat and muscle reserves, which is why I lost all that weight so quickly.
When the doctor first told me I had diabetes, I thought, Great … What’s that? What does this mean? I didn’t know what diabetes was or how it could affect my body, so I went home and did what anyone else would do: I Googled it. And if you’ve ever Googled an illness or medical condition, you know you always get the bad stuff first. I found all the people who hadn’t managed their condition properly and let this potentially nasty, insidious disease take over their bodies. I found all the worst-case scenarios. I found all the horror stories.
What I didn’t find was a race car driver who had diabetes. I couldn’t find one story that I could look at and say, OK, he’s done this. Let me see how he did it.
Before I was diagnosed, I’d been racing for six years, mostly in Europe, and had some success. I was winning races and taking podiums, and I was excited about where my career was headed.
Now, I wondered if I’d ever race again.
When I met with my endocrinologist — a diabetes specialist — I got right to the point.
“Look,” I said. “I’m a professional race car driver. I have a race this weekend. Can I go? Am I ever gonna do this again?” Typical racing driver, ready to overachieve and be back in the car as soon as possible.
What followed was like that slow-motion moment in sports where the whole stadium holds its breath. The diving catch in the bottom of the ninth or the photo finish on the race track. That eternal second that drags out forever right before the moment of truth. That’s what it felt like waiting for his response — waiting to hear if I’d ever get back in the cockpit.
He had his head down, writing a note, and finally looked up at me and said, “I don’t see why not. There are incredible people doing amazing things with this disease all over the world. You may have to make some changes with how you go about it, but it shouldn’t slow you down.”
I was relieved, but the doctor wasn’t finished. He told me that before I got back on the track, I had to get healthy first. I had to get strong again and rehydrate. So I decided to miss the last two races of that 2007 season and focus on getting my body back to where it needed to be: back into racing form.
I’m a race car driver. I don’t get timeouts. I can‘t ask the other drivers to slow down while I grab a granola bar because my blood sugar is low. I also don’t get to check my blood sugar at halftime or between innings. Once I climb into that race car, whether it’s an hour-long practice session or a 500-mile race, it’s on.
Everybody’s body reacts differently to diabetes, so in addition to learning how diabetes worked, I had to take the time to learn about my body and how it would react under different, sometimes extreme circumstances, and I had to learn how to monitor my blood sugar and manage my insulin.
And I had to learn how to do it all while going 200 mph for up to 500 miles.
Because I’m a math/science guy — the son of an engineer — it’s an equation to me. You put carbohydrates, dehydration, adrenaline, stress and illness — all things that make my blood sugar go up — on one side of the equation, and on the other side, you put all the things that make my blood sugar go down, like being well-hydrated, low-impact cardio, being calorie-deprived and, of course, insulin. My job is to keep that equation balanced, and with so many different factors, it’s always changing. Those goal posts are always a moving target. Sometimes I need a little more or a little less insulin with the exact same meal because the stress and adrenaline levels are different. It depends on what’s been happening in my life and what’s been happening in my body. It’s very dynamic.
As much as the engineers and mechanics are making changes and adjustments to the cars to be competitive, I’m doing the same thing with my body, day in and day out.
The first time I got back into the car was about two months after my diagnosis. It was just a practice run, but I had so many questions. Will my diabetes get in the way? Can I still be an effective driver? I didn’t want to be a driver with diabetes just out there racing. I wanted to be competitive. I wanted to be a driver who’s capable of winning despite his condition — a driver with diabetes, yes, but a competitor and a racer, first and foremost.
Six months after I was diagnosed — that’s six months of studying my body and learning how it responds to my condition both before and during a race — I had my first race with diabetes. It was a Formula 3 Euro Series race in Germany, and in that first race back, all my questions were answered.
I finished the race, and I finished second.
You can’t even imagine the sigh of relief when I crossed that finish line. I had proven not only to everyone else, but to myself, that I could still be a leading driver. I could still compete. I wasn’t going to let diabetes take away the thing I loved most.
You’re probably wondering how I did it — how I got back into the car so quickly and how I didn’t miss a beat despite my condition. First, I embraced it. Then, I learned about it. Then, I decided to control it, not let it control me.
During a race, it’s pretty simple. Most drivers have a drink bottle mounted in the car so they can stay hydrated throughout the race, but I have two bottles, one with water for hydration and the second with orange juice with additional sugar to give me sugar and carbs when I need them. I have a valve that’s 3D printed (my dad designed it) and velcroed to my seatbelt, and the two drink bottles come together at that valve, which feeds into a tube that runs into my helmet. So it’s essentially a really long straw, and I can choose water or orange juice depending on what my body needs. I’m very conscious of hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) during a race because IndyCars don’t have power steering, so the physicality of driving the car can burn off my blood sugar pretty quickly.
When I first got back into the car for that Euro series race, I had a glucose monitor mounted on my car’s steering wheel like a GPS. But instead of giving me driving directions, it was telling me my blood sugar levels so I knew whether I needed to flip the switch on my water bottles to fuel up on OJ. Now, the system is a little more sophisticated. My body is electronically plugged into the car itself. I have a sensor on my body with a wire injected under my skin. It has a wireless receiver that’s plugged into the car’s data system. So on my dashboard, I have speed, lap time, oil pressure, water temperature … and blood sugar. My car and body data are right there together on my dash.
There’s a lot going on during a race and I’m pretty confident in my preparation, so I don’t have to check my blood sugar on the dash every lap. I’m always checking my lap speed and lap time, but all my diagnostics are sent back to pit lane so the engineers can look at them as well. So if I’m in the middle of a wheel-to-wheel battle — like I was at Texas earlier this year when I went side-by-side with the No. 5 car for 10 or 15 miles — and I don’t notice my glucose levels dipping, the engineers radio me to check my sugar and see if I need some orange juice. If I do, I go to the valve. It’s a total team effort.
Luckily, I’ve never been in a position during a race where I was either unsafe or uncompetitive (knock on wood) because of my diabetes. The in-car tools are a part of that, but just like the car itself, when it comes to getting my body right for race day, it’s all in the preparation.
There are already so many elements to consider when preparing for a race, and now I have all of these additional elements to think about. I have to prepare my body differently for every race. I have to consider the track length and distance, the temperature and the type of course, oval or road, and I have to make sure I’m eating the right foods to fuel my body to deal with those elements that are unique to each race. I have to attack every race differently to keep my body balanced for that race.
I have a race team just like any other driver. I meet with them before every race to make last-minute adjustments to the car to make sure it’s is ready for race day.
Then, I meet with my other team — my healthcare team. Just like my engineer, crew chief and spotter on my race team, I have my endocrinologist, my diabetes educator and my nutritionist on my healthcare team. I call them Charlie’s Angels because they all happen to be women and they’re the ones who help keep me safe in the car. They’re the ones who help me get my body balanced and prepared to go for 500 miles and be competitive.
My race day routine is also a lot like other drivers’, but with a few subtle differences.
Two hours before a race, I’ll have my pre-race meal, and it’s almost always the same: grilled chicken, pasta, salad and fruit. Then I head to strategy meetings with my race team to go over any last-minute questions with my engineer and talk to my spotter and my race strategist about who I’ll be communicating with during the race — who’ll be calling flags, who I’ll be talking to about the car.
After my last meeting, I check my blood sugar to see how my body is reacting to my lunch.
Then I get dressed. I get my firesuit on and get ready to head up for driver introductions. But before I head up, I check my blood sugar again and make any last-minute adjustments, whether it’s a snack or some insulin. Whatever I need to balance that equation.
After driver introductions, I get in the back of the truck for a lap around the track and wave to the fans. When I get back, if my wife’s there, I give her a kiss. When I’m walking out to the car, I check my blood sugar one last time to make sure I’m on track. I put my earpieces in and my gloves on and I climb in the car with my right foot first and get bolted in. I put my helmet on, do a radio check and drink from the water and orange juice bottles to make sure they’re connected and working.
Having done all that preparation and routine means that when they say, “Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines!” I can focus on driving. A driver with diabetes, but a competitor and a racer, first and foremost.
When you get diagnosed with diabetes, you have a choice. You can let it control you and limit you and take over your body, or you can take control of it. If you do the former, you end up one of those horror stories I found when I first Googled the disease. If you do the latter, you end up doing what I’m doing: living your dreams. There’s no place I’d rather be than at the racetrack, in a car, competing. I wasn’t going to let diabetes take that away from me.
Ask any person with Type 1 diabetes out there, if they had the opportunity to give back their diabetes, would they? And just about everyone would say they would. But I can’t say that. I know it sounds weird, but I think I’m very fortunate to have diabetes. The diabetes community is a strong, caring one, and the support I get from it is overwhelming. The disease has also given me another purpose: to share my story and help educate and inspire others.
It doesn’t matter if I finish first, 10th or 21st. When I get out of the car and somebody with diabetes comes up to me and says, “Hey, I have diabetes too, and I think it’s great what you’re doing. Will you take a photo with me?” That motivates me. The fact that they can show that photo to all their buddies and say, “Yes, I’m different. But so is Charlie Kimball. And it doesn’t stop him.” That’s a great opportunity.
A couple years ago, one gentleman said to me, “I’ve had diabetes for 50 years and I just ran my first marathon.” And I thought, How cool is that? I drive a race car for a living, and I love it. There’s nothing I’d rather do. But to have diabetes for 50 years and run a marathon? That’s so much cooler than what I do. That’s a true feat.
Last year, I met a young boy, Luke. He’s a little league baseball player. He was diagnosed in December of 2013, and he heard about my story not long after he was diagnosed. When I raced at Fontana in 2014, he and his dad came out to the track to meet me. His dad said, “You know, Luke didn’t wanna play sports. After he read about your story, he wanted to play Little League. He said, ‘If Charlie can drive race cars with diabetes, I can definitely play Little League.’” Then he handed me Luke’s Little League rookie card. It’s Luke in his Dodgers uniform — my team.
Now, it doesn’t matter if Luke goes on to be a Half of Famer or he just plays for a year and makes a friend or two. The fact that he thought he could play just because of what I do in a race car is so much bigger than any one race result I will ever have.
I still have his baseball card sitting on my dresser.
I never would have had the opportunities to hear these incredible and inspiring stories if it wasn’t for my condition, and I definitely wouldn’t have had the opportunity to inspire kids like Luke. I never would have known this incredible community even existed if I was never diagnosed.
I have diabetes to thank for that.
Don’t get me wrong. There are hard days and there are easier days, and in those harder days, sometimes it’s nice to know that I’m not alone in this. And it’s pretty awesome to be able to have others — like Luke — look at me and say the same thing. I’m not alone in this.
October 16, 2007. That was the day the doctor said the words that changed my life: “You have diabetes.” I call that day my dia-versary. It’s kind of like a second birthday, and I celebrate it like a second birthday.
I often think about my reaction when I got the news: Great … what’s that? I had such limited knowledge, and that’s one of the reasons I’ve been such a big proponent of telling my story. I want to get my message out there because when that next young driver or that next little boy or that next adult hears the doctor say, “You have diabetes,” I want them to have an understanding, an awareness and a knowledge of what it can be capable of, but also that it doesn’t have to take over your life.
To get this kind of message out, you always need help. That’s where Novo Nordisk, my insulin provider, comes in.
Don’t roll your eyes — this isn’t a shameless plug for my sponsor. This is a shout out to whom I consider a partner. They’ve been with me since I was diagnosed — before they were a decal on my car — and we share the same mission: to allow me to live out my dream on the racetrack and to encourage the whole diabetes community to live theirs. They’re with me on and off the track, and for them to believe in me the way they do and share in my goals — that’s a unique relationship for a driver to have with a sponsor. That’s why I call them a partner. We’re truly in this together.
I’ve been dealt this hand of cards. Type 1 diabetes is one of those cards. But this is five-card stud. I can’t give this card back or trade it in for a better one. I just have to figure out how to play a winning hand. And the first step is not letting diabetes control my life. Manage my condition, don’t let it define me and don’t let it keep me from living my dreams. Nearly eight years after my diagnosis, I can say I’ve done that.
Now let’s see how many others we can help do the same.