How one IndyCar driver turned his type 1 diabetes into an advantage

Enlarge / Charlie Kimball, driver of the #4 TRESIBA / AJ FOYT RACING Chevrolet, races during practice for the NTT IndyCar Series GMR Grand Prix at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on July 03, 2020 in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Like most of us, 2020 hasn’t exactly gone to plan for IndyCar driver Charlie Kimball. Here in July, we should already be midway through the season. But the sport only waved the green flag in early June, starting a condensed 14-race season that wraps up—hopefully—in Florida in October. It promises to be hard work for the drivers; with no power steering and high cornering loads, an IndyCar requires more muscles to drive than most race cars.

“The challenge in driving an IndyCar is that, at 200 miles an hour, it produces 5,000 pounds of downforce. I’ve got 750 horsepower under my right foot, and I have no power steering, no power brake. Plus the adrenaline and the physiological response to competition means that during a race my average heart rate is between 150 and 170 beats per minute,” he told Ars when we spoke recently. And don’t forget—an IndyCar race can last well over three hours if we’re talking about something like the Indy 500.

The best way to be race-fit is to do a lot of racing, but the extended off-season obviously made that impossible. But Kimball thinks he’s better prepared today than he was back in March when the original season-opener was cancelled.

“Honestly, I think I’m in better shape now, or at least as good as I was heading into St. Pete[rsburg, Florida, which was to have held the first race but will now hold the finale instead],” he told Ars. Like many IndyCar drivers, Kimball is based in Indianapolis and told me that as a statewide stay-at-home order looked likely, his regular training gym started lending out equipment so drivers could train at home. And long bike rides continue but are now static, with virtual team rides organized online.

Kimball during testing at Circuit of The Americas on February 12, 2020. I mainly included this picture because today is July 4 and there are huge stars and stripes in it.

Kimball during testing at Circuit of The Americas on February 12, 2020. I mainly included this picture because today is July 4 and there are huge stars and stripes in it.

Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Being fit enough to race an IndyCar would be a challenge for many, and Kimball has the added complication of having been diagnosed with type 1 diabetes over 12 years ago. In fact he seems to have found a way to turn it to his advantage.

“I think I’m a better athlete because of diabetes because I listen to my body and I train, I feel it. I’m really conscientious about preparing my body. And that means fueling it with the right nutrition, managing my blood glucose numbers, my insulin doses, my hydration levels. My training, as well; my physiology is very different from other drivers. So, being able to customize that training because of my diabetes and understanding the effect it has on my body really allows me to continue to be the best athlete possible,” he told me.

That means working with an endocrinologist and an exercise physiologist as part of a fitness regime. “Because it’s not the first lap that matters but it’s the last lap, being physically able to take advantage of that opportunity to win at the end of the race,” he said.

That approach to using physiological data continues once he’s in his race car, where data from his continuous glucose monitor (a Dexcom G6) is just one more variable in his telemetry feed. “the sensor transmits to a display and that display actually plugs into the car’s data system. So on my electronic dash I have speed, lap time, oil pressure, blood sugar, water temperature… And the nice thing about that is, once it’s in that electronic system, not only can I see it, but the engineers can see it on the timing stand,” he said.

Kimball also uses his physiological data in a similar way that telemetry from the car is analyzed by engineers after each race. “At the end of the event we can export it and create a report to continue to learn about what the ideal blood glucose numbers are and how I need to be training, how I need to be managing my diabetes to continue to perform better and better,” he said.

“We’ve taken all of that information as well as my insulin doses, my meal timing and put that into a regression analysis that my exercise physiologist builds. It takes everything from Vegas odds to pit stop times to weather conditions to race track type and average G force loads, and creates windows of glucose ranges that we’ve worked with my endocrinologist on, that I aim for to be able to perform. My perspective has always been I don’t want to be a driver with diabetes, I want to be a competitor, and a race winner, and somebody who is fighting for good results, proving that diabetes doesn’t have to slow you down,” Kimball said.

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