When you're the first diabetic licensed to race by the Verizon IndyCar Series, there's pretty much no avoiding the fact that you'll probably be a role model for many children and adults who share the disease.
It's a responsibility that Novo Nordisk Chip Ganassi Racing's Charlie Kimball does not take lightly.
“When I was diagnosed, the diabetes community as a whole gave me so much support — I got letters of encouragement, notes and emails from all over the world from people who have diabetes themselves or had family members or friends (with diabetes). Being able to repay that favor and giving back to the community as much as I can is important to me,” said the No. 83 Chip Ganassi Racing driver.
“To be able to encourage a kid and watch a parent stand up a little straighter under that load and then see the kid light up as they just dream of everything that is possible is really cool. It's just really, really neat.”
Born in England when his father Gordon was working as a designer for McLaren in Formula One, Kimball was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in 2007 while he was moving up the open-wheel ladder in Europe. After initially worrying that his racing days were over, the then-22-year-old put his career on hold and worked hard to learn how to manage his diabetes. He returned to the track about six months later and took a podium finish in his first race.
Interestingly, because his diagnosis came when he was in his early 20s, Kimball had no idea what it was like to be a child with diabetes. That changed quickly after he began listening to the stories of kids and their parents who look to him for inspiration.
“The diagnosis experience is really different because a lot of young kids don't remember going through it,” he said.
“I remember very clearly how scary it was, but a lot of kids who were diagnosed really young don't remember life without diabetes. Sometimes it's hard for me to imagine that and yet the experiences now are the same. They face the same challenges every day that I do, so that's easy to relate to.”
After joining the Verizon IndyCar Series in 2011, Kimball became the first person with the disease to qualify for and start the Indianapolis 500 later that same year. Two years later, he became the first diabetic to win a Verizon IndyCar Series race when he took the checkered flag in the 2013 Honda Indy 200 at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.
While it changed his life, diabetes also helped Kimball create the commercial relationships that have pushed his racing career forward. He is sponsored by his insulin provider Novo Nordisk and his No. 83 car this season carried the name Tresiba, a long-acting insulin from Novo Nordisk designed for adults that he uses to control his blood sugar.
Although the youngsters who come to the track get his attention, Kimball has also helped a few young drivers coming up through the ranks with diabetes, including NASCAR driver Ryan Reed, who was diagnosed at 17 and also feared it meant his racing career was over. Reed visited Kimball's doctor and got some tips based on her experience with her Verizon IndyCar Series driver patient. Reed uses many of the techniques Kimball pioneered in his Verizon IndyCar Series car, including wearing an under-the-skin glucose monitor in his race car.
In addition to his awareness efforts, Kimball attends countless charitable events hosted by the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation and American Diabetes Association to help raise money to fund support programs and research into the disease. He helps local chapters in Indianapolis and Indiana, as well as regional and national initiatives by participating in “Step Out” walks, attending galas and donating items for auction.
With November being American Diabetes Month, Kimball’s slate is full of appearances around the nation to help spread the word and tell his inspiring story, including stops in California, Iowa, Pennsylvania, Illinois and Tennessee.
Kimball's work off the track has attracted attention at the highest levels. In 2012, he received a Jefferson Award for Outstanding Public Service by an Athlete in recognition of his efforts to raise awareness of diabetes and the inspiration he lends to others with the disease. Co-founded by former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and commonly known as the “Nobel Prize of Public Service,” the Jefferson Awards acknowledge community service and volunteerism.
“The accolades — the Jefferson Award especially comes to mind — are really special, but in a different way from winning in Mid-Ohio or getting a podium in Toronto was,” Kimball said.
“It's something I'll still have and will still be a big part of what I do when I hang my helmet up and take off my driving suit for the last time. I'd also like my legacy in INDYCAR to be more than a statistic line because I want to open the door to the next generation and inspire those young kids.”
While many look up to Kimball, he's often awestruck and inspired by those he meets at races on the Verizon IndyCar Series schedule, whether young or old.
“I met a gentleman in Toronto who has had diabetes for 56 years. He's 78 years old now and got it at 22 like I did and it was really inspiring to me to hear how full of life he is,” he said.
“Working with the diabetes community is really grounding for me and I think it balances a lot of what I do.”