Some cynical racing fans might doubt that Dario Franchitti spends his spare time shopping at his sponsor Target; they might also wonder if a health-conscious driver like Marco Andretti would choose a sugary RC Cola to quench his thirst.
But there’s no doubt Ganassi driver Charlie Kimball uses his backer’s product – because if he didn’t, he’d be in hospital or worse. The sophomore IndyCar racer, who is also diabetic, has used Novo Nordisk insulin every day to keep his blood sugar in check since he was diagnosed with the disease five years ago.
The relationship between Kimball, 27, and Novo Nordisk is so vital that he doesn’t even like to call the company a sponsor.
“I tend to refer to them as a partner because I use their medicine every day to stay healthy,” he said.
“People always ask ‘When did your sponsorship start?’ and, for me, my partnership with them began the day I was diagnosed, because it was the first day I injected NovoLog insulin. They had no idea who I was ,or even that I existed, but it was my introduction to them as a company.”
Kimball was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in October 2007 after going to the doctor for an unrelated skin rash. He mentioned to his physician that he’d been quite thirsty lately, and was drinking lots of water and going to the bathroom more often than normal. He had also lost about 12 kilograms in about five days, according to his weight from a racing physical earlier in the same week.
For a short time, Kimball was afraid he wouldn’t be able to get back in a race car again, but his doctor reassured him that he should be able to return to driving as soon as things were stabilized. Six months later, he was back on track in the F3 Euroseries in Europe.
Fast-forward four years to 2011, and Kimball became the first diabetic to qualify and start in the Indy 500. He finished 13th as a rookie.
So far this season, his best finish has been eighth place, which he has taken in three races, including this year’s Indianapolis 500.
“We have had some positive momentum going: Last year in my rookie season, we had two top-10s all year, and this year we have had four top-10s already,” he said.
“I think starting in Toronto – a race I really enjoy – we will be able to keep moving up the grid and get some positive results as we go through the late summer.”
Due to his condition, Kimball takes special care to make sure everything is perfect before he gets in the car. He needs to take his insulin, eat a carefully planned meal and be properly hydrated, which should keep him within normal blood sugar levels during the race. He is also fitted with an under-the-skin blood monitor in the cockpit, which transmits his sugar level data back to the pitlane with the other telemetry coming from the car.
Should his sugar levels drop too low, his crew can ask him to take a sip from a drink bottle filled with orange juice that will bring them up again. If things do go terribly wrong, a pit crew member has been trained to give Kimball an injection of a glucose solution that rapidly raises his blood sugar. He has never even used the orange juice in a race, let alone the injection, but Kimball knows it’s there for a reason.
“It can be very serious if things are not well-managed and well-controlled, but that’s the great thing about what Novo Nordisk and I are doing; we are proving that you can have enough control to drive a race car,” he said.
“I definitely hope that through my racing, I am able to inspire some young people. When people come up to me and tell me their stories, it’s a good reminder to me that, good or bad day on the racetrack, it is kind of bigger than just me.”
Some outside racing have noticed it too.
Last month, Kimball was given a Jefferson Award for his work raising awareness of diabetes and for inspiring people with the disease to reach higher. Co-founded by former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, U.S. Senator Robert Taft, Jr., and National Development Council chairman Sam Beard in 1972, the Jefferson Awards – often referred to as the “Nobel Prize of Public Service” – honour community service and volunteerism.
And Kimball has also impressed Novo Nordisk with his work on track and as a role model.
“As the only licensed driver with diabetes to race in IndyCar, Charlie uses our insulin to help control his blood sugar so he can get in the cockpit and compete,” said Novo Nordisk’s Sarah Spielvogel.
“His passion for driving is rivalled only by his role as an ambassador to the diabetes community throughout North America, and his desire to show that diabetes doesn’t have to get in the way of pursuing your dreams.”
While Kimball’s diabetes makes his blood a key factor in his good health, the serious racing DNA it contains also played a major role in determining his career path.
His engineer father, Gordon Kimball, worked in IndyCar, helping to design the cars that won the Indianapolis 500 in 1980 and 1982. The family moved to McLaren in Formula One in 1984 and stayed in England for about eight years. Kimball was born in the U.K. in 1985.
“I grew up watching racing and watching my dad work in F1 and seeing all the different pieces he was designing around his office,” he said.
“It’s actually why I run the No. 83 car: [Kimball’s team owner] Chip Ganassi had his best finish in the Indy 500 as a driver in 1983 in a car my dad designed.”
Tagliani gets tasty
Racing fans looking for a tasty treat and a chance to chat with an IndyCar driver might want to head over to the Loblaws at Maple Leaf Gardens on Thursday, where Bryan Herta Autosport driver Alex Tagliani will launch his new line of cookies.
The Lachenaie, Que. driver, who has a severe allergy to peanuts, helped develop the new “Tag On The Go” cookies with La Petite Bretonne, of Blainville, Que. The company built a new wing on its factory to ensure the snacks were completely peanut-free. And just to make sure they did the job right, Tagliani did the taste testing.
The Canadian will be on hand in the canteen of the Carlton Street store between 4 and 7 p.m. to launch the cookies, chat with fans and sign some autographs.
The peanut-free cookies are available in oatmeal and chocolate chip flavours and will be on the shelves of Loblaws, Loblaw Great Food, Zehrs Markets, Valumart, Your Independent Grocer and Fortinos in Ontario beginning on July 2.
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