Charlie Kimball was living his dream as an up-and-coming race car driver in Europe when, in 2007, at age 22, he was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes.
“I had no family history of diabetes, and I was very ignorant about the symptoms,” says Kimball, now 28. “I had lost 25 pounds in five days and was extremely thirsty.” He mentioned his thirst to his doctor at a routine physical. The doctor, suspecting diabetes, confirmed it through blood tests.
“My first thought was ‘I don’t know if I can race again,’” says Kimball. “But the endocrinologist said, ‘I don’t see any reason why not. You may have to make some adjustments, but it shouldn’t slow you down.’”
Kimball took the doctor at his word. He spent six months getting healthy and learning how to manage his diabetes as an athlete. And he began working with his healthcare team to adapt a standard continuous glucose monitor so that he could keep an eye on his blood sugar while racing.
Standard monitors work through a tiny sensor wire inserted under the skin that checks glucose levels. A transmitter then sends the information to a wireless monitor. The team adapted the device so that the information gets sent to Kimball’s car panel instead, right alongside things like his fuel gauge and speedometer.
Brad Goldberg, the lead engineer for Novo Nordisk Chip Ganassi Racing, the Indianapolis-based team Kimball now races with, has continued to tweak the system. For the past 12 months, Kimball’s blood sugar information has been transmitted not only to his dashboard but to the pit lane where the engineers can also monitor his numbers.
“We wanted him to focus on driving 230 miles per hour—that’s going the length of a football field in a second,” explains Goldberg. “If he looks down to process his numbers, he runs the risk of missing a corner. So now I can watch the numbers while he’s on the race track.” As far as Kimball and Goldberg know, Kimball is the only athlete to use the technology.
Kimball also wears two drink bottles, one with water and one with orange juice, which he accesses with the flip of a valve. The tube he sips from runs through his helmet. “If my blood glucose is low, I can drink orange juice without taking my hand off the wheel,” says Kimball.
Kimball’s can-do attitude has probably helped him as much as the innovative technology. The son of a mechanical engineer who designed race cars, Kimball started racing go-karts when he was nine. His parents gave him his first race car for his 16th birthday—and despite his acceptance into the engineering program at Stanford University, the Camarillo, Calif., native decided to defer college in favor of starting his race-car career in Europe.
If anything, he says, diabetes has made him a better athlete: “I’m more aware of my body and performance than ever before.” But he also learned practical flexibility from his parents. “They were also avocado farmers. They didn’t have control of weather or disaster. They had to overcome and adapt,” he says, noting he’s had to do the same. “When I was diagnosed, those were the cards I was dealt, and I had to figure out how to build a winning hand.”
So far he has. Kimball is in his third season with Novo Nordisk Chip Ganassi Racing. In 2012 he earned six top-10 INDYCAR finishes and won the INDYCAR Tony Renna Rising Star Award. He also won the 2012 Jefferson Award for Public Service.
“I do a lot of events offering information about Type 1 and 2 diabetes,” says Kimball. “I speak often at hospitals, especially children’s hospitals, to tell my story and share my message of encouragement and hope: There’s no reason why diabetes should hold you back at all.”