LONG POND, Pennsylvania – It’s one of the longest-running driver/sponsor relationships in INDYCAR. It developed out of necessity on many levels. It has grown to become a message of perseverance and overcoming challenges that transcends racing.
Charlie Kimball and Novo Nordisk are celebrating the 10th year of their partnership at this weekend’s ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway. With the global pharmaceutical company’s American headquarters in Princeton, New Jersey, a two-hour drive away, the event is the closest to a home race for Novo Nordisk that there is on the Verizon IndyCar Series schedule.
Novo Nordisk employees will be on hand Sunday to cheer on Kimball, who starts 19th in the 500-mile race (1:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN and Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network) driving the No. 23 Tresiba Chevrolet for first-year Verizon IndyCar Series team Carlin. Tresiba is one of the diabetic care products Novo Nordisk has promoted throughout the tenure of the program, as well as one that Kimball vouches for since he uses Tresiba as a Type 1 diabetic.
“They are a healthcare company at heart,” Kimball said. “Going back to the history of insulin, that’s how they started. The guy (August Krogh) that started Nordisk Insulinlaboratorium back in 1923 – hence, my car No. 23 – he got the rights to produce insulin in Europe because his wife had developed diabetes. So the company started by caring for someone with diabetes and it’s continued that way.”
Kimball’s journey began when he was diagnosed a diabetic in 2007 while driving in the junior open-wheel ranks in Europe. Instead of looking at it as a roadblock, the Californian was determined to use it as an advantage to further his racing aspirations and inspire other diabetics to continue chasing their dreams.
One of the first people Kimball pitched was Ambre Brown Morley, Novo Nordisk’s senior director of commercial business unit communications. Morley laughs when she recalls Kimball wearing his father’s sport coat and a pair of checkered flag socks to the introductory meeting.
“I’m happy to say that I consider myself one of the founders of the relationship and the partnership with Charlie,” Morley said. “I helped convince the marketing team to give him a chance.
“I’ve been with Charlie since Day 1 and, personally, it’s one of the best programs that I’ve ever worked on in terms of something that’s truly authentic. From Day 1, from the day that Charlie was diagnosed with diabetes, he was put on our products.
“He had a doctor, Dr. Ann Peters, who recognized the authenticity of Charlie and who had the knowledge and the wherewithal to recommend that he talk to us. It’s been a village around Charlie from Day 1 – a lot of people looking out for him and people who’ve been rooting for him along the way.”
Novo’s support of Kimball started on a smaller scale when he joined Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires in 2009. After two seasons in the top level of the Mazda Road to Indy development ladder, company officials saw the benefits and decided to further invest in Kimball by taking him to the Verizon IndyCar Series in 2011.
“I remember exactly where I was when I got the call and they said, ‘We want to take your story to a bigger stage. We want to be with you in INDYCAR, we want to get this done, we want to be part of something incredible,’” Kimball recalled.
“They were there when I won at Mid-Ohio (in 2013), they were there when I stood on the podium at Mid-Ohio, at Pocono (2013) and in Detroit (2014). … They’ve been a big part of my story. They were there when I was diagnosed in 2007. They were the first insulin I ever took to manage my blood sugar.”
Morley freely admits much had to be done behind closed doors at Novo Nordisk to convince company influencers to buy into the unique program of financially supporting a race car driver, but “there was something about Charlie.”
“Pharmaceutical companies don’t create race car teams and that’s essentially what we did,” she continued. “My first answer was not yes. We definitely had to put the work in to get people to know Charlie, to get people to understand why we were doing it.
“I’m not going to lie, those first few days there was a lot of head scratching. … But once people met Charlie and once people heard his story and saw how he was engaged, not just on the track but off the track, that’s where we were able to garner the support that we have.”
Indeed, the bulk of what Kimball does to benefit Novo Nordisk is away from the racetrack – sharing his story with company sales reps and physicians who treat diabetics, meeting with adults and children who have been diagnosed, attending diabetic youth camps, speaking to government agencies to further the cause and importance of diabetic healthcare. It’s an inspirational message Kimball crafts for each audience, that with proper attention and maintenance, diabetics can drive an Indy car at more than 200 mph or do whatever they want in their own lives.
“He’s just a good guy with a good heart,” Morley said. “At the end of the day, I think Novo has been proud to be on this journey with him. Personally, he has probably been one of my most consistent and bankable brand ambassadors, if you will, for Novo Nordisk and for the products that he takes. It’s not something that’s forced. Charlie’s story is authentic and that’s what’s made it work for so many years.”
Morley said it resonates with INDYCAR fans as well. She pointed to consumer surveys showing that, while the incidence of diabetes among INDYCAR and NASCAR fans was the same, INDYCAR fans were 23 percent more likely to take action on the disease once diagnosed.
“For somebody like me, that’s huge,” Morley said. “You don’t want to just put your name on a car and have it race around, and nobody do anything about it. You want to make sure that the messages that you are delivering are ones that are going to be received and people are going to take action on. We feel like we have been successful in that sense.”
As he has since the inception of the partnership, Kimball feels blessed to represent Novo Nordisk and do his part.
“It’s an incredible partnership and I really enjoy and appreciate the confidence they have and the support they’ve given me,” the 33-year-old said. “Being able to share that story and encourage that community through those outlets has been very rewarding.”