Diabetes in the Fast Lane: An Interview with IndyCar Driver Charlie Kimball

Charlie Kimball, 28, has been racing cars since the age of 16, and he’s got the accolades to prove it. He’s also the first diabetic driver in the history of IndyCar racing to participate in the sport.

We were lucky enough to speak with Charlie and get a glimpse into the life of a racer with type 1 diabetes. Following is Part I of this interview. [Follow this link for Part 2]

BattleDiabetes: [Racing] has been something that’s been a big part of your life, so what was it like when you were diagnosed with diabetes? When you found out, what went through your head? How did you think your life was going to change?

Charlie Kimball: Well, at first I didn’t know exactly what it meant, you know? I didn’t understand it, I was very ignorant about what diabetes was and what it meant for me, firstly as a person and secondarily as a driver.

One of the first questions I asked the doctor was if I’d ever get back in a racecar, and he looked me square in the eye and said, “I don’t see any reason why not... You may have to make some adjustments, make some changes, especially in the cockpit, but there’s no reason it should slow you down.”

BD: Now, your doctor said you would have to make some adjustments, what sort of changes did you have to make?

CK: Well, in the car – especially now in IndyCar, with the Indianapolis 500 being 3, 3 and a half hours long – I have to make sure that I can keep track of my blood glucose and make sure that not only am I performing at my best, but that I’m safe. At that speed, any small problems can create big issues.

I have an extra sensor in the cockpit, I wear a continuous glucose monitor, and it plugs into the car’s electronic system. So, on my steering wheel, I have lap time, I have speed, I have oil pressure, water temperature, blood glucose, gear; I have car data and body data right there together.

Most IndyCar drivers have a drink bottle or a drink system, so they can stay hydrated throughout the race. It’s not uncommon, especially in the Indy 500, to lose ten to fifteen pound of body weight just through sweat! I actually have two bottles: one filled with water to keep myself hydrated and keep replacing those fluids I’m losing, and one filled with orange juice, so that if the glucose monitor shows my blood sugar is falling, I can flip the valve...get some carbohydrates, get my blood glucose back, and I don’t have to stop.

BD: Wow, that’s pretty ingenious!

CK: (Laughs) Yeah, it works pretty well. And ideally, I don’t ever need it. It comes down to the preparation, and the information that my healthcare team and I have worked out: managing my nutrition before I get in the car, taking my insulin (I use the Novolog Flexpen), adjusting those things so that when I get in the cockpit I’m where I want to start with my blood sugars, I’m stable, I have the nutrition I need on board, and all I have to think about is driving. Diabetes takes a back seat at that point, if things have gone according to plan.

BD: Right. And what does managing your nutrition on the day of entail? What’s a raceday breakfast?

CK: Typically, I like to have a routine and have consistent foods on race weekends, so I know how I’m gonna react and what my blood glucose is gonna do. A typical race day morning is: a slice or two of wheat toast, a couple of eggs, some bacon, some potatoes or hash browns or jam, a cup of coffee, and a couple glasses of water. And then my pre-race meal is actually measured as far as grams – I know exactly how much protein, how many carbs I’m having.

It’s another element, to be sure, but at the same time I feel very fortunate to have diabetes and still be able to do what I love and drive racecars. When I get the opportunity to share my story…it’s an opportunity for me to use racing as vehicle to get the message out there. You can still live your dreams and chase your passion with diabetes.

Charlie will be racing at the Grand Prix of Alabama on April 7, 2013. You can check out his race live on NBC.

Part 2 of this interview >>.

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