ST. PETERSBURG — When Charlie Kimball speeds through the downtown streets at this weekend's Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, he'll continually monitor his blood sugar through a device on his steering wheel. If his levels drop, he can sip orange juice through a straw.
Such is life for the Indy Racing League's only driver with diabetes. The 25-year-old from Indianapolis insists the disease doesn't put him at a disadvantage; it just requires a greater level of preparation.
"I try to apply the same discipline in my diabetes management as I do in my life as a professional athlete," said Kimball, who competes in the Firestone IndyLights series, which is one level below the main IndyCar series.
Kimball has type 1 diabetes, a disease in which the body fails to produce insulin to properly control blood sugar. When levels rise, diabetics can feel tired, hungry and thirsty and can experience blurred vision. When blood-sugar levels drop as a result of taking insulin, symptoms include headache, nervousness and weakness. If not helped quickly, the diabetic can lose consciousness.
Such symptoms wreak havoc on anyone's life but can be disastrous for someone behind the wheel of a race car, traveling at speeds that can exceed 100 mph.
Kimball says that on race days, his preparation starts "from the second I wake up in the morning." He injects insulin through a prefilled pen device and checks his blood sugar constantly. Starting two hours before the race, he checks his levels at 30-minute intervals.
Then, inside the car, he wears a continuous glucose monitor, which is a patch attached to his arm that has a wire inserted under the skin. The device transmits his blood-sugar readings to a receiver attached to his steering wheel. If his levels drop, he can sip orange juice through a straw in his helmet.
Kimball, who has been driving race cars since he was 16, was diagnosed with diabetes in 2007. At the time, he was competing in a racing series in Europe.
"I went to the doctor with a skin rash and came out with diabetes. It was a big shock," Kimball said. "I had no family history, and I was very ignorant about symptoms and what it meant to me as a person."
He put his racing career on hold to find out what having diabetes would mean to him in everyday life, but also to his career as a pro athlete. He wondered: "Am I going to be able to get back behind the wheel?"
Over the next several months, he found out he could. He returned to competition in 2008 in Europe, before making the move to the U.S.-based IndyLights series last year. There, he finished 10th in his debut season, including a fourth-place finish at a race in Watkins Glen, N.Y.
Kimball says being a professional racer makes living with diabetes a little easier in some respects. He didn't have to change much about his diet, though he works with a nutritionist to make sure he eats foods that are nutritionally dense.
He said his preparation is so good that his blood-sugar levels don't fluctuate much when he's racing. They fluctuate more when he's working out in the gym.
Dr. Frank Diamond, a diabetes expert at the University of South Florida, says athletes can face an extra challenge regulating blood sugar, due to physical exertion and stress.
"It creates the challenge of trying to predict and maintain your blood sugar in a reasonable range," Diamond said.
But he said many athletes are able to successfully manage the condition. He said there's no reason someone like Kimball, who monitors his condition closely, shouldn't be able to compete at the highest levels, and do so safely.
Blair Perschbacher, Kimball's engineer with Andretti Autosport, said all drivers undergo a rigorous and thorough annual physical to make sure they are fit to drive in the series.
Kimball "was treated the same as any driver," Perschbacher said. "He got through that just fine."
More than 23 million people in the United States have diabetes; most have type 2, once known as adult-onset and often associated with obesity. About 5 to 10 percent have the more severe type 1, whose cause is unknown.
Kimball says the Indy Racing League has been very supportive, and his main sponsor for the 2010 season is Novo Nordisk, the company that supplies his insulin. His No. 26 car is emblazoned with the words "Levemir FlexPen," which is the prefilled insulin pen he uses.
"Racing allows me to tell my story — to tell people with diabetes that it doesn't have to slow you down," he said.
Richard Martin can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8330.