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IndyCar's Charlie Kimball makes impact on and off the track

Photo: Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Charlie Kimball was diagnosed with Type I diabetes at the age of 22.

MOORESVILLE, N.C. -- Charlie Kimball may not be a household name, but there is a pretty good chance you have already seen him on television.

He's the man in the Novo Nordisk FlexPen commercials discussing his Type 1 diabetes and how the product can be used to help diabetics deal with their health issue.

"I think the exposure that Novo Nordisk is getting out there and supporting through the primetime ad campaign really helps the validity of IndyCar racing but also the Ganassi team expansion with me and Graham Rahal," said Kimball, who scored his IZOD IndyCar Series career-high finish of second at Toronto on July 8. "It helps young drivers be more than just drivers but also be brand ambassadors and spokespeople. It does a lot not just for that validity but also for my confidence knowing there are so many people that believe in me at Novo Nordisk, Chip Ganassi Racing and the diabetes community."

The young race driver from Camarillo, Calif. shares the same condition as Olympic gold medalist Gary Hall Jr., 12-time Ironman and former U.S. National Triathlon member Jay Hewitt, Kendall Simmons of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Jay Cutler of the Chicago Bears as well as former NBA start Dominique Wilkins.

Kimball was diagnosed on Oct. 16, 2007. He went to the doctor for a skin rash and when Kimball was asked if there was anything else going on with his health, he told him he was very thirsty and was drinking 8-10 bottles of water a night. He had been weighed in the Czech Republic during a race weekend five days previously and when he got on the scale in the doctor's office he had lost 25 pounds in those five days.

"One of the first things in my mind was if I would ever get back in a race car," Kimball said. "I couldn't find any other race driver to look to for advice. The doctor was very supportive and told me there are incredible people doing amazing things with diabetes all over the world. You may have to make some adjustments to what you do but there is no reason diabetes should stop me from driving a race car. With the advances in modern medicine in terms of the insulin and the insulin delivery devices like the FlexPen. I'm able to do what I love and drive race cars. If this had happened 10-15 years ago my diagnosis would have kept me out of an IndyCar."

Kimball goes into every race with a backup plan which includes monitoring his blood glucose level. He has two drink bottles in the race car with one including water and another full of orange juice. If he needs to bring his sugars up he can flip a valve in the cockpit of the car and flip from water to orange juice without having to stop.

So far, he has never needed the orange juice or an injection during a pit stop.

In 1933, Howdy Wilcox was disqualified prior to the start of the 500 when it was discovered he was diabetic and the other drivers in the field were threatening a boycott if he were allowed to compete. His car was turned over to Mauri Rose and Wilcox would never race at Indianapolis again.

"He stood up and said the Indianapolis 500 was bigger than himself and his diabetes and he halted a boycott from the other drivers in the race," Kimball said. "We are very conscientious that I'm the first licensed driver with diabetes to compete. The insulin, monitors, metering and tools are so much better than they have ever been because the opportunities for people with diabetes are more open than ever before."

Kimball is helping to prove that diabetics can lead a productive and competitive life. He is a proponent that if a diabetic can show the same discipline in sports than he or she can in diabetes management, nutrition and exercise, the condition should not stop anyone.

"People have asked me why do I think I'm the first driver in racing history to compete with diabetes? I think when people get diagnosed they automatically think that door is closed. I got diagnosed when I was 22 and had already fallen in love with racing and was not going to let diabetes get in the way. I hope through all of the different events I go to with Novo Nordisk, through my media and hospital visits that there is somebody out there that when they get diagnosed think they can't play baseball, or basketball or soccer or football or anything that they can still do that with diabetes. That would be as important to me as winning the Indianapolis 500."

Kimball was also recently honored as one of three winners of the 2012 Top Professional Athlete Award for Excellence in Service and Philanthropy Jefferson Award that was co-founded 40 years ago by former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Individuals who have been honored with the award in the past include Peyton Manning, Sandra Day O'Connor and Colin Powell. This year, additional honorees included; General David Petraeus, Branford Marsalis, Harry Connick Jr., retired NHL athlete Pat Lafontaine, and retired Hall of Fame Bills quarterback Jim Kelly. That award sits in his display case next to his starter's ring from last year's Indianapolis 500.

"Hearing the stories of the other recipients is extremely humbling," Kimball said. "I do a lot for the diabetes community, but when I heard the other stories I realized there is so much more we all can do. It was a really special day and very humbling."

Kimball is also backing that up on the race track. After a less than impressive rookie season he has finished in the top-10 in half of the first 10 IndyCar races this season.

"For every race I have finished we have finished in the top 10," said Kimball. "The results are taking care of themselves. We have been fortunate with the new car to have done some more testing and done more miles. I've been able to get more miles in so the deck is not as stacked against me."

When team owner Chip Ganassi decided to increase his team from two to four drivers in 2011 it was easy to see Kimball would get lost in the shuffle. After all, the top two drivers included Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon. The second team would include Graham Rahal, who drove to victory in his first IndyCar race as a 19-year-old in 2008 and is the son of three-time series champion and 1986 Indy 500 winner Bobby Rahal.

By comparison, Kimball was a relatively unknown driver moving up from the Firestone Indy Lights Series.

"It's hard to know where I was without any results for them to compare against," Kimball said. "Scott and Dario are champions and Graham is a race winner. I came in a couple of years in Indy Lights and did a lot of racing successfully in Europe but I never got credit for that. It was typical for people to overlook my entrance into the series or focus more on the expansion of Graham's car. But that was totally OK with me. My plan was to never make a splash in my first year but have a long and successful career."

With only five races left this season beginning with Sunday's race at Edmonton, Alberta, Kimball believes he has five more chances to improve.

"As a team we'll continue to take incremental steps and not take a step back or get wrapped up in a good result that we have a second-place finish at Toronto," Kimball said. "I look at it as a really good place to start off with when we get to Edmonton. It's the challenge of growing a team and driver together at the same time. If we continue to make progress and walk forward in bite-sized steps I don't see any reason why we can't race consistently in the top-10 in the last five races and when things fall our way earn spots in the top-five."

But even that won't compare with the gratification Kimball feels when fans approach him at the track and thank him for helping them deal with their diabetes.

"It's overwhelming," Kimball said. "It's shocking to me how many people are affected one way or another. Throughout the season there are 25 percent of everybody that I run across has mentioned a personal connection with diabetes. Be it them having it themselves, asking me to sign their FlexPen, asking me to sign their meter bag to having a family member or a friend or young nephew or cousin that has diabetes.

"It is continually heartwarming and reminds me that good or bad day on the race track the fact I'm competing for everybody with diabetes makes it a good day."

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