The COVID-19 outbreak presents unique challenges for those of us living with diabetes. Charlie Kimball, a professional IndyCar driver and father of two and lives with type 1 diabetes. His sport (and job!) is now on hold, and he is home trying to manage his diabetes, eat healthily and stay fit, all the while adjusting to life as a family of four. Charlie and his wife just had a baby in March, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. I thought it would be nice to talk to Charlie about how he is managing despite what is going on in the world.
Charlie, congrats on your new baby! And thank you for taking the time to talk to me!
How long have you been living with type 1 diabetes?
It’s hard to believe that I’ve been living with type 1 diabetes for 17 years. At age 22, my diagnosis felt devastating and I stopped racing mid-season, unsure of how I could possibly continue to pursue a career as a professional racecar driver.
Each year on October 16, when I celebrate my “diaversary” (that is, the anniversary of my diabetes diagnosis), I reflect on the support I’ve received from the diabetes community. They, along with my wife, my healthcare team and my IndyCar family, all play a role in how I navigate and manage my diabetes.
Did your diagnosis play into your choice of becoming a professional race car driver?
Although I was actively pursuing a career as a professional racecar driver before my diagnosis, I believe racing with diabetes empowers me to be an even better driver. Physically, I have become even more in tune with my body and more connected with my team since my diagnosis. I’ve also found it really rewarding to represent people living with diabetes as part of the Novo Nordisk Race with Insulin program to reinforce the idea that diabetes doesn’t have to stop you from following your dreams.
What challenges did you face in this profession due to your type 1 diabetes?
At the time of my diagnosis, it was mid-season while I was racing in Europe and I took some time off to figure out blood sugar testing, insulin management, and how to get back on the track. Thanks to my amazing support system, I was back in a race car three months later and claimed a podium finish in my first race back.
When I decided to move back to the US and race in IndyLights (the feeder system to IndyCar), my endocrinologist, Dr. Anne Peters, met and worked with the IndyCar medical staff to create a plan to get me back behind the wheel.
With the recent news of the first person living with diabetes to be certified by the FAA for a First Class Medical, how great does it feel to know you are the first licensed driver in the history of IndyCar racing?
I first raced in go karts at nine years old and I come from a motorsports family. When I was first diagnosed, a friend helped me to put everything into perspective by pointing out that, while I’d need to manage my diabetes for the rest of my life, it was important – and possible – to get back behind the wheel. I’m really proud of my role as the first licensed driver with diabetes in the history of IndyCar racing, and I’ve never shied away from talking about living with type 1 diabetes. Now, I’m glad to see other drivers out there who are also living with diabetes on the track!
I know from my travels that there are incredible people with diabetes doing inspiring things all over the world. It never ceases to amaze me when I see people with diabetes following their dreams -– whether they are making history in their profession or they are simply accomplishing goals that they may not have considered possible, like running a half marathon
When you heard the virus was picking up speed, what were your first thoughts? Fears? How did you prepare for staying at home?
We recently welcomed my son in March, so we were impacted by some of the same considerations new parents are facing during this time. But, when I held my baby boy for the first time, it was hard to think about anything else other than the love I had for my new family of four.
There have been a lot of changes over the last few weeks and while I’d love to be racing right now, this has been a good time to connect with my family, and an opportunity to plan for future races with both my healthcare and race teams.
Even though I am home, I am still committed to staying active, eating healthy and paying close attention to my blood sugar. Also, right now, a crucial part of my management plan, is making sure that I have enough medication at home and keeping track of when I need to reorder. Having a supply of insulin on hand is not a luxury. It’s a necessity, especially at this time. My partners at Novo Nordisk are working very hard to ensure patients still have access to their medicine. If anyone is having problems affording their medicine during this time, please visit NovoCare.com for information on how Novo Nordisk can help
I’m sure racing comes with a lot of stress and adrenaline. How do you recommend people handle unpredictable blood sugars due to the stress during this time?
Yes, you’re right, racing does come with a lot of stress and adrenaline. I manage that through careful planning every race weekend to ensure that my blood sugar remains in range. But everyone has their own stress and we all handle it differently. The everyday realities of work, family, and life inevitably create that, and I encourage everyone to just have a plan in place for all different situations.
As for our current situation, I’ve found that I’m handling it like everyone else, by washing my hands often and practicing social distancing. It’s been important for me to stay in constant contact with my healthcare team, so they can help me to adjust my diabetes management routine appropriately.
I keep a close eye on my continuous glucose monitoring (CGM) and that allows me to make small adjustments throughout the day if needed. I also take time to exercise, laugh with my wife and children, and connect with people who matter to me – albeit virtually these days. This all helps reduce that stress.
How do you plan ahead for a race so that your blood sugars won’t get in the way?
I work very closely with my healthcare team on my plan for each race. We track everything from my workouts that week to my meal before I get on the track. Using this data to make a plan comes naturally to me – it’s the same way I approach driving a race car. On the track, my race engineers, strategists, and I utilize around 50-70 sensors that feed into the central brain of my car. They are calibrated so that I can monitor every detail during a race – think g-force, speed, throttle, RPM, tire pressure – and, importantly, my blood sugar levels. My blood sugar levels from my CGM are tracked and displayed on a custom screen that sits on my steering wheel and is relayed back to my team in the pit lane so that we can make adjustments as needed.
With IndyCar racing on hold, what are you doing to stay active and healthy? Both mind and body?
I’ve partnered with my team to develop a modified workout routine while I’m at home. While I’m not racing, it’s still so important for me to stay in shape so I can do my best when I’m back on the track. Beyond staying active, I’m focused on eating nutrient-rich foods, tracking my blood sugar levels, and taking my medication.
Technology has always been an important part of my diabetes management. With it, I’m able to monitor calories, carbs, hydration, and of course, my blood sugar. Lately, while I’m at home, using my CGM has been a helpful way to watch my blood sugar in real time throughout the day. For me, keeping a close eye on my numbers and taking a mindful, disciplined approach to my diabetes management has been the key to my success during this time.
I am also using this time to connect with my family as we adjust to life as a family of four. I’m especially grateful for my wife and mid-morning naps for keeping the Kimball household happy and healthy during this time!
Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me, Charlie. Congrats on your success as an IndyCar driver and as well as on becoming a family of four!