Driving with diabetes

Indy Lights driver Charlie Kimball poses with his car on Thursday. The Californain was diagnosed...

Indy Lights driver Charlie Kimball poses with his car on Thursday. The Californain was diagnosed with diabetes at the age of 22. Kimball has a blood glucose meter installed on his steering wheel, so he can monitor his blood sugar. (Crash Cameron, Edmonton Sun)

DAVE 'CRASH' CAMERON, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:42 AM ET

EDMONTON -- Every modern race car is wired up to monitor everything that’s going on inside it.

Charlie Kimball’s car is wired up to monitor what’s going on inside him.

Even if it isn’t a win, you’ll always see a driver step out of his car and immediately have the drink in his hand that matches the sponsorship on the side of his car.

Kimball lives his sponsorship. Novo Nordisk is an insulin maker specialising in diabetes care.

Kimball’s AndrettiAutosport ride has a blood-glucose meter mounted on the steering wheel. It’s hot-wired to a patch on his arm. (They haven’t quite gone wireless yet!) If he sees his level is getting too low, he can take a blast of orange juice from a tube rigged to his helmet.

As the disease has become scarifyingly prevalent in the past decade, so too has modern medicine and technology grown in an ability to deal with it.

(And so too does the research to all but erase it quietly continues at the University of Alberta.)

“I like to think of myself as a racing driver with diabetes, rather than someone with diabetes who drives race cars,” said Kimball. “It’s along for the ride, sure, but I’m still a racer at heart.”

•••

Kimball was diagnosed at the age of 22.

While racing in England, he suddenly wasn’t doing well. On or off the track.

“I probably had it for a few months. It was really affecting my performance in the car.

“Even now, when my blood sugar isn’t right, I can tell it’s affecting me. Imagine when you don’t know what’s going on.

“I actually ended up going to the doctor not for that,” said Kimball. “It was unrelated.

“After he wrote me the prescription, he asked me if there was anything else.

“I told him, ‘Well, I’ve been a little thirsty.’ He asked me, ‘How thirsty?’

“He drew some blood, did some tests … ”

There you go, Hello insulin.

“I was pretty ignorant about what diabetes was. I said, ‘OK what does that mean?’

“My first thought was, “Am I going to be able to get back in a race car?’

“Because that’s all I know, that’s all I care about, that’s all I love.”

•••

You have to pee like a five-year-old. As often. And “right now!”

It’s one of the signs of diabetes.

A diabetic race car driver can’t exactly be pulling in for a pit stop as often as a family on vacation in their minivan has to.

That wasn’t a problem for Kimball.

“I never noticed that so much in the race car,” the Indy Lights driver said of his pre-diagnosis stage.

“But I was noticing that I was really thirsty. I was going through six or seven bottles of water every night and getting up to go to the bathroom.”

Unquenchable thirst and the accompanying unending urination are two of the most significant signs.

That’s how I found out. 

It was in the front parking lot of the Muttart Conservatory on a hot summer Sunday afternoon. I was photographing a very cool 1972 Cutlass for a story on classic cars.

I had to go.

Right now.

No time to make it inside. Found the least conspicuous bush possible as people rode and bladed past on the bike trails.

I came back and apologized to the car owner, told him it had been happening a lot. 

He said, “And you can’t kill your thirst, right?”

A friend of his had been diagnosed that month. The next day, I was.

•••

The formal names now are Type I and Type II diabetes, where it used to be classified as juvenile and adult.

It had to be changed. Because people like Kimball, hardly juvenile, started getting it. And Wayne Gretzky-sized guys like me starting getting it at 40 and younger — hardly the previous stereotype of overweight.

Kimball has such a proper English-sounding name. Make it Charles and you could easily add a “Sir” to the front of it. But the accent gives it away.

“I was born in England when my dad was working over there. Both my parents are from Southern California and I’m definitely a Southern California kid.”

Except that instead of sloughing college off to go surfing, he did it to go racing.

Actually, Kimball had a two-year deferral. (To Stanford, no less.)

“My parents wanted to send me over there to see if I really wanted it, or whether it was just something to get out of going to school!

“I had been racing go-karts since age nine, got into cars at 16 in 2004, moved over to Europe and raced over there in the open-wheel formula cars over there. Then in 2007, I was diagnosed.

“In April of 2008, I had my first race back and finished second. Which proved to me I was the same driver after the diagnosis that I was before.”

Must have felt as good as a win. OK, maybe not. Kimball’s definitely a racer.

“I don’t know about ‘As good as a win!’ But it definitely did a lot for my confidence and made me realize I was going to still be able to compete. Because I didn’t want to be ‘The guy with diabetes’ running around at the back of the field. I want to be out there fighting for race wins, fighting for podiums.

“To prove that to myself was pretty special.”

Kimball is making the most of it.

“I have the opportunity to do what I love, plus tell my story and try and help people through that.”


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