Charlie Kimball will be racing No. 83 Sunday in the GoPro Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma. What makes that significant beyond the spectacle of the race itself – Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson is grand marshal – is Kimball's distinction as the only licensed diabetic driver to compete in the highest level of IndyCar racing.
As Kimball, now 27, was growing up, his mechanical engineer father worked on and designed Formula One and Indy cars. When he was 9, his father gave him an old go-kart from the family farm in Southern California. The two fixed it up and outfitted it with a racing seat. His love for racing solidified with that, he said.
Accepted into Stanford University to study mechanical engineering, Kimball instead pursued his racing career in England.
Then on Oct. 16, 2007, at the age of 22, Kimball was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. It didn't sideline him long, and he's now in his second year in the Izod Indycar series.
>What are the risks of racing as a diabetic?
Having diabetes isn't just about avoiding blood sugar that's too high or too low, it's about finding a happy medium. If it's too low, I can get dizzy and lightheaded. Too high and it's harder to think straight and I can even have blurred vision.
>What did you think when you heard the diagnosis?
I remember thinking "OK, what's that? Just give me some antibiotics and send me out the door." My doctor explained it's a little more complicated than that.
>Did you consider ending your career?
I immediately thought "When can I get back in the race car again?" It's a strange moment, when you consider asking for permission first or begging for forgiveness later. I wanted to be smart about it, so I asked my doctor right away if I could keep being a driver and he said, "I don't see any reason why not."
>How do you manage the risks of being a diabetic on the racetrack?
I do a lot of preparation to make sure I'm safe before every race. My race-day meal is usually simple grilled chicken, some pasta with olive oil, and a salad with maybe fruit or rolls of bread, depending on my blood sugar. Drivers also have a water tank in their cars during every race that feeds directly into their mouths. I've got one of those but I also have one filled with orange juice because it has a lot of sugars and carbohydrates. That's the simple side; the high-tech side has me being monitored.
During every race I have a continuous blood glucose monitor attached to me. When I'm driving I can check both the vitals of my car – oil, temperature, water – and the vitals of my body. That information also gets sent to my race team, so they're constantly aware of how I'm doing.
>What if everything goes wrong? What if you run out of orange juice and the monitor malfunctions?
Our last, last, last-ditch effort is simple: My inside front tire changer in my pit stop crew has been trained to administer a shot of insulin or glucose if my blood sugar is too low or too high. It adds about six seconds to an eight second tire change and refuel, so if I need it, I won't be driving competitively anymore. I would use it just to stay in the race.
>Have you ever had to use it?
No. Not even the orange juice.
>What do you have to say for diabetics trying to be athletes?
I try my best to go around and raise awareness about being a diabetic behind the wheel. There is a mutual respect between myself and several diabetic athletes that I really look up to. My team and I also run a Twitter account where we try to pull back the curtain on being a race car driver, as well as a diabetic.
>Who do you have to thank for your accomplishments?
My health team is amazing. My doctor is great. The people who have greater minds than I do – who made my insulin pen – who make diabetes an easier condition to manage. That company, Novo Nordisk, is also my sponsor.
>When do you race this weekend?
We have two practice races on Friday and Saturday. On Sunday we have the final.