Charlie Kimball stood amid a sea of racing fans. "As far as you can see, there's a wall of cheering, screaming people," he says. "It's hard to describe that feeling. You're standing there in front of hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people, and you've earned that."
Kimball got into his aqua-and-orange No. 83 car and lined up with the other drivers on a 2½-mile oval track. He'd cover that distance 200 times in a race that would be the height of his career. A green flag waved. The 100th Indianapolis 500 began.
Kimball, 26, didn't make it to the most prestigious race in the world on luck. In a way, he had been training for it his entire life. With a mechanical engineer father who designed race cars for a living, Kimball grew up at the tracks. At 9, he started go-kart racing. By the time he was graduating high school in Camarillo, Calif., Kimball's career was on the brink of taking off. He was faced with a decision: go to Stanford University to study mechanical engineering, following in the footsteps of his father, or defer for a year or two to pursue a European racing opportunity.
"At that point my racing career was at a crossroads. I didn't know if I was good enough to continue on," Kimball says. "Racing was something I always wanted to work out and wanted to be a full-time career. So many people want to make it up to the top, but very few do." He made what turned out to be the right choice, picking racing in Europe over Stanford. His career took off. Last December, he moved up from the Indy Lights series, a sort of auto-racing minor league, to the IndyCar series.
Kimball worked hard for his spot in the IndyCar series, possibly harder than any other driver. That's because, in addition to fine-tuning his driving, Kimball is responsible for keeping his type 1 diabetes under control. He was diagnosed in 2007 at the age of 22.
Being able to race after his diagnosis was Kimball's primary concern. "I asked the doctor if I could get back in a race car," he says. "He looked at me in the eyes and said, ‘I don't see why not. There are amazing people doing amazing things with diabetes.' "
With the help of his endocrinologist, Kimball found a way to monitor his blood glucose levels and treat hypoglycemia-all while traveling at over 200 miles and hour. A continuous glucose monitor sticks to his wheel with Velcro, and a drink tube attached to his helmet lets him sip juice when he's low.
Going low is a real concern. "Driving a race car is surprisingly physical," Kimball says. "Because it's so physical, my blood glucose tends to burn off during a race." Since different tracks affect his blood glucose in their own way (oval tracks are less physically demanding than street races, which require more shifting and turning, but his adrenaline still soars as he tries to think quickly but act slowly), Kimball must tweak his diabetes treatment plan to fit the race.
His fastidious diabetes care has paid off. Not once has high or low blood glucose slowed Kimball down during a race. In fact, he says the diabetes diagnosis may have been a boon to his career. "I think I'm a better racing driver because of my diabetes, not despite it. I do a better job making sure my nutrition is good," he says. "I do a better job at making the most of each lap. Maybe because I almost lost it, but each time I get in the race car is special."
On May 29, Charlie Kimball became the first person with diabetes to compete in the Indy 500. Kimball came in 13th out of 33 drivers. The race-which included a battle to the finish line that found driver J.R. Hildebrand smashing against a wall after trying to pass Kimball-was also a learning exercise. "I'm looking forward to taking what I learned at Indy and applying it to the next three oval races I have," he says.
Though Kimball just met his goal of racing in the Indy 500, he's already looking to the future. He wants to become a contender to win American auto racing's greatest race and, one day, take home the Borg-Warner Trophy. Still, the significance of his recent accomplishment isn't lost on him. "Words just don't describe just how special that race track is," Kimball says. "One of [my Novo Nordisk sponsors] looked at me and said, ‘This is a big deal.' I said, ‘This is as good as it gets.' "