LONG BEACH, Calif. -- He bypassed Stanford so that he could race cars, only to discover he had diabetes. That's when Charlie Kimball's education really began.
Taking a small page from the Magic Johnson playbook, Kimball has shown that a chronic disease doesn't have to be a death sentence to one's dream.
Kimball will race this weekend in Long Beach for AFS Racing/Andretti Autosport in the Firestone Indy Lights Series, a step down from the Indy cars that will highlight race action Sunday. But after two races, including second place last week, he is second in the championship and hopeful that he will one day be racing in the marquee event at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.
He grew up in Camarillo and graduated in the top 10 in his class at Rio Mesa High in Oxnard. His ex-racing engineer father, Gordon, is also an avocado farmer in the Santa Clara Valley near Santa Paula. Maybe that's why he's so adept at making lemonade out of his situation.
"I grew up knowing racing but also farming, which gives me a lot of balance in my life," said Kimball, whose father helped design the Chaparral 2K, which Johnny Rutherford drove to the 1980 Indianapolis 500 and PPG Indy Car championship. "With wildfires, freezes and the wind, it's really hard work. A lot of my work ethic I learned from my dad on the ranch, watching him farm and how he approached that whole livelihood."
It is that work ethic that has helped him continue on despite the diagnosis of Type 1 diabetes that stopped him in his tracks -- and ended his season in the World Series by Renault -- on Oct. 16, 2007. He is the only driver in the history of the Indy Racing League, and believed to be the only racer at this level, who has diabetes. As such, he is sponsored by Novo Nordisk, a global health care company dedicated to diabetes care; it makes an insulin delivery device he uses, the Levemir FlexPen, as well as the two forms of insulin he takes to control his blood glucose levels.
No doubt about it, he's a trailblazer.
"I'm setting a precedent, and I've had to be that much more diligent and focused on doing it right," Kimball said. "I don't want to blaze a trail and set it on fire."
He constantly monitors himself, even during a race. A microfilament sensor injected into his abdomen is attached to a transmitter, which sends an infrared signal to a receiver on his steering wheel letting him know his levels. "That was one of the important advances in diabetes that allowed us to do this," said Dr. Anne Peters, who heads Kimball's support team. If he needs a hit of sugar, he has a water bottle with orange juice rigged to a pump inside the car.
About 1 in 13 Americans have diabetes, and it is believed that about 30 percent of those are undiagnosed.
"The technology out there is so much better than it has been, and if anyone can do it, now's the time," Kimball said. "No place do I feel more alive than at the racetrack. No matter what's going on, everything is right in the world when I'm in a race car."
He had a pair of top-5 finishes last season, and this year he has already finished fourth and second in his first two races. Team owner Michael Andretti raves that Kimball could be a cornerstone figure in the IndyCar Series if he can continue to produce good results on track. He has certainly done so in the past: In 2005 he became the first American in 13 years to win a British Formula 3 race, and he won five that season. In 2006, he was the first American to win a Formula 3 Euro Series race.
"I think Charlie's story could be really important, a real bonus for our championship if he's out there," Andretti said. "He's a great personality. Anybody can talk to the guy. He's a very nice guy, well-spoken, an American.
"I think Charlie's a real talent. His story is very special, and he could be quite a spokesman for people with diabetes. He's still doing something that's very physical, very tough, and he's able to work around the disease and show that you can live a normal life doing it. I think that's really cool what he's been able to do."
Kimball calls his three-woman medical team "Charlie's Angels." It includes dietitian Meg Moreta, nurse practitioner Donna Miller, and Peters, who is director of clinical diabetes programs at USC and works out of the Westside Center for Diabetes in Beverly Hills.
"I think diabetes was lucky to have him, in an odd way," Peters said. "I don't wish anyone to have it, but he's going to help people understand the disease."
Kimball takes five to seven shots per day using the FlexPen, another advancement: It doesn't require insulin to be refrigerated and has been shown to be more accurate than a vial and syringe system.
Surprisingly, Kimball says he thinks he may be lucky to have diabetes. In the world of auto racing, sponsors are a necessary part of the process, and Kimball has one that can get a lot of mileage out of his continued involvement and success. By using his sponsor's products, he can show just how valuable they are in maintaining a normal active life.
"When I tell people I was diagnosed with diabetes, their first response is, 'I'm sorry.' I tell them I'm not," said Kimball, who still intends to get a college degree. "I'm a better athlete, a better person because of it. I'm more aware of my body, my nutrition, my passion for racing. I enjoy each lap more than I have ever before. Each lap is special because I nearly had it taken away from me."
Although most drivers prep themselves during the two or three hours leading up to a race, Kimball is thinking a week ahead, what time he will wake, eat, nap, snack, etc. And he's also learning what he must do to prepare for the longer races of the IndyCar Series.
"When it comes down to it, I'm doing what I love," said Kimball, who often visits hospitals leading up to his race weekends. "The opportunity to help people while I do that is a dream come true. I love being in the race car, and diabetes didn't stop me. I can prove that with good management, routine and health care you can do almost anything you want to. That's very special."