Commentary

Charlie Kimball saves Ganassi's day

Updated: July 10, 2012, 2:50 PM ET
By John Oreovicz | ESPN.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- The Honda Indy Toronto wasn't shaping up too well for Chip Ganassi.

Until Charlie Kimball saved the day.

With his three more experienced and acclaimed IndyCar teammates running into trouble in the 85-lap Izod IndyCar Series race, Kimball scored a career-best second-place finish in his Ganassi-run DW12 Honda. It was the fourth top-8 finish this year for the 27-year-old Californian, who has measurably stepped up his performance in his second IndyCar season.

[+] EnlargeCharlie Kimball
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesCharlie Kimball, who has Type 1 diabetes, finished a career-best second in Sunday's Honda Indy Toronto.

The Toronto race looked like it would be a disaster for nine-time Indy car champion team owner Ganassi. Scott Dixon's car lost an engine, a pit stop miscue left Dario Franchitti vulnerable to trouble deep in the field, and Graham Rahal crashed out.

But the No. 83 Novo Nordisk team took advantage of a perfectly timed first pit stop and Kimball's great two-for-one pass of Simon Pagenaud and Tony Kanaan to earn Ganassi an unexpected trip to the podium.

"The first yellow worked to our advantage, for sure," Kimball said. "But we had the car to be able to run really competitive lap times and save enough fuel, so the end of the race we were able to be super quick and make the mileage we needed.

"We got a good result, a really good result," he added. "Chip said in the prerace meeting today that points are important, and I'm disappointed not to come out with maximum points. But second is a lot better than 13th, where we started, or even eighth, where my previous career best was."

Kimball had a few close calls along the way. He banged wheels with teammate Rahal in a passing move gone awry, and he emerged unscathed from a tight situation on the final restart that left former Indy car champion Sebastien Bourdais parked in a tire wall and fuming.

But he crossed the line behind Ryan Hunter-Reay to complete the second consecutive 1-2 finish for American drivers in the IndyCar Series.

It was Hunter-Reay's third straight Indy car race win (and eighth overall), and he now leads the series championship. He's also the leader of the strongest contingent of American Indy car racers in the past 15 years.

With Kimball's result on Sunday, six of the seven Americans now have won races or earned a trip to the podium, and based on his performances this year for Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing, 20-year-old rookie Josef Newgarden will be up there very soon. They all have talent, and they all have a compelling story to tell.

Kimball's year and a half in Indy cars has mirrored his career to date. He was immersed in the sport at an early age; his father, Gordon Kimball, was the chief designer of the Wildcat chassis that won the 1982 Indianapolis 500. Charlie worked through the European formula car ranks before returning to America in 2009 to race Indy Lights cars.

In his last year racing in Europe, Kimball was diagnosed with Type I diabetes. An event that could have put an end to his racing career instead strengthened Kimball's resolve -- and indirectly helped him move up to Indy cars.

Kimball built a relationship with Novo Nordisk, a health care company that focuses on diabetes care, which ultimately led to sponsorship of his Indy car campaign.

But where previous pharmaceutical sponsorships in racing were purely commercial, Kimball is a walking, breathing, racing endorsement of the Novo Nordisk Levemir FlexPen insulin delivery system.

It feels really good to have only been beaten by one guy. ... But there's still one part of me that is really angry that I got beat by one guy.

-- Charlie Kimball

Kimball takes two brands of insulin -- NovoLog and Levemir -- and maintains a strict diet regimen. He is fitted with an under-the-skin blood monitor that sends information about his blood sugar level to a monitor in the pits, the same way many functions on the car are linked to the team in the pits via telemetry.

His car also features an auxiliary drink system to provide him a shot of orange juice if his blood sugar level drops, and a crewman has been trained to administer Kimball a shot of insulin in case of emergency. But in five years of racing with these backups in place, Kimball's health has never been an issue.

"I've got one of the best health care teams out there as far as diabetes management," Kimball related. "Dr. Anne Peters out of USC Medical has worked with Olympic Gold medalists, ironmen and women, and she's helped athletes be successful with diabetes in things that I think are more physically demanding than racing in Indy car.

"Having said that, she's working very closely with me and the team to develop protocols and techniques so that while I'm driving I don't have to worry about my diabetes. I have some tools in the cockpit to help, but it all happens largely before I get to the race weekend."

Kimball has heard the ride-buyer jokes, but the reality of modern day racing is that the driver is often an integral part of the sponsorship-seeking process.

Rahal put together the same sort of backing from the Service Central automotive service chain, and you can be certain Ganassi wouldn't have formed a second two-car Indy car team at the start of the 2011 season without a pair of essentially turn-key sponsorship packages.

"I think the modern racing driver is more than the guy that just gets in the car," Kimball said. "It takes more than driving to become an IndyCar driver. Gone are the days when drivers show up Friday morning and go home Sunday night. We're all integral to our partnerships, commercially, motorsports. We're as much champions in the boardroom as we are on the racetrack.

"Last year the focus was experience and laps and finishing races. This year is starting to build on that and get results in the second half of the season. We're starting to show that."

Kimball is now 12th in the IndyCar Series championship standings, right behind Rahal. It's an interesting comparison in expectations: Second place at Texas Motor Speedway for Rahal, now in his sixth season of Indy cars, was viewed as a disappointment. Second place at Toronto was a breakthrough for Kimball and should boost his confidence for the remainder of the 2012 campaign.

"It feels really good to have only been beaten by one guy," he said. "The fact that both Chip and [Ganassi managing director] Mike Hull stuck around to congratulate me, and were so impressed with my lap times, fuel saving, doing what I needed to do when I needed to do it, meant a lot to me as an inexperienced driver.

"But there's still one part of me that is really angry that I got beat by one guy."