The Winning Team: An Interview with Charlie Kimball
“‘Team’ is the most important part of my job,” IndyCar racer Charlie Kimball said during a recent conversation with Beyond Type 1. As it turns out, teamwork doesn’t only come in handy when Charlie is breaking records and changing perceptions about diabetes in his sport.
First, there’s the team on the racetrack: they’re an integral part of Charlie’s outstanding racing career, which includes competing in the Long Beach Grand Prix and the Indianapolis 500.
Then, there’s the healthcare team, which helps determine the ideal range for Charlie’s pre-race blood sugar levels (between 150 and 175 mg/dL), his racing-season meals (“boring” chicken breast, pasta, salad, and fruit salad), and other critical groundwork for the first licensed driver to win a Verizon IndyCar series race.
Finally, there’s the home team, led by Charlie’s wife, Kathleen, who’s there to support him on and off the racetrack.
Since he was diagnosed with Type 1 at age 22, Charlie Kimball’s success in managing his diabetes while pursuing a rigorous, athletic career has made him a role model for others in the community. Here are a few insights from Charlie to help you connect with the teams in your life and navigate your own diabetes journey:
Own your motivation
“I feel very lucky because I get to do what I love.”
Charlie’s motivation to stay on top of his diabetes management comes from his love for racing. He knows how hard he works to stay competitive in his sport, even when it might not be apparent to interviewers or other athletes in racing. “People within the diabetes community understand how hard it is,” he said, “but in interviews, I don’t know if it comes across how much extra work I do to get in the race car.”
“Try to find something that is worth managing your diabetes successfully for,” he suggested. “Whether it’s running a half marathon, or biking, or some goal to make [diabetes management] part of your routine.”
Find your core teammates
One of the questions Charlie gets asked the most is, “Why don’t you wear a pump?” In other words, the best technology is the best treatment, right?
When an audience member first posed this question, Charlie recalls, Dr. Peters, his endocrinologist, was standing in the audience and responded by explaining that MDIs (multiple daily injections) work best for Charlie’s lifestyle, including his racing. “We worried about the temperature of the insulin in the pump [getting too hot] under my fire-proof suit during a race,” Charlie said.
Charlie has a communicative relationship with his entire healthcare team, which continually challenges him. “A lot of times, there are heated conversations about when I’m not on the racetrack [about how to better manage my diabetes].
“Dr. Peters is one of three people I’m afraid of,” Charlie jokes. “The other two being my mom and my wife.”
Talk about burnout
“I try to be upfront and honest about struggling with burnout. I’m not a perfect patient.”
Life as an exceptional athlete doesn’t exclude Charlie from feeling diabetes burnout. Charlie’s family (including his mom and his wife) is a crucial part of what he calls “my home team.” The people around him reinforce Charlie’s determination to be actively engaged in his whole life, despite diabetes throwing “more curve balls than Major League Baseball,” he said.
Make positive connections
“One of the things I’ve noticed, especially over the last five years, is that having diabetes is not nearly the stigma that I thought it was when I was first diagnosed,” Charlie said.
He agrees that things have come a long way since race car driver Howdy Wilcox was disqualified from the 1933 Indy 500 after being diagnosed with diabetes. Following his own diagnosis, Charlie missed a race, drawing comments from confused drivers, like, “But you look fine!”
“So many people, especially in older generations, they didn’t talk about having diabetes; they didn’t talk about having to test blood sugars. They didn’t talk about having to inject insulin,” he said. Charlie feels honored to continue to break down stereotypes surrounding diabetes. He sees families connect at the racetrack and openly discuss diabetes. “One of the coolest interactions that I see from people who have diabetes is at the racetrack. I see these groups of families, and everyone has some Charlie Kimball gear, and then usually one of the kids will be fully decked out. You know, jersey, hat, backpack, everything.
“I watched two of these roving bands of Charlie Kimball fans run into each other and have this whole conversation about why they were wearing Charlie Kimball gear. [In both families] a kid had diabetes – and the parents had a whole conversation about managing diabetes and the kids had a whole conversation about being Charlie Kimball fans and being at the racetrack. Pretty soon I could see the kids pulling out their pumps and comparing pumps, and to me it was this incredible connection that happened organically at the racetrack.”
Find your community
“I get so much energy from the diabetes community at large,” said Charlie, who speaks at events like the Children with Diabetes Friends for Life Conference and makes appearances on behalf of his racing sponsor, Novo Nordisk. “To me, it’s neat for people within the diabetes community to remember that they’re not alone.”
Parents and kids who live life while managing diabetes continually inspire Charlie. A friend suggested that Charlie try out the Beyond Type 1 app, which now connects him with the broader BT1 community. Whether it’s on social media (like Instagram), through other online resources, or in-person meet-ups, there are countless opportunities for people with diabetes to connect and lean on each other for support.
What does your team mean to you? Join the conversation on the Beyond Type 1 app and share your thoughts!