A few weeks ago I was contacted by Open-Wheel Race Car Driver Charlie Kimball’s publicist, who invited me to chat with Charlie at the Novo Nordisk Display at the ADA Expo in Pittsburgh on September 12th. Unfortunately, my schedule wouldn’t allow for the trip to Pittsburg that weekend, but I still wanted to speak with Charlie because he and his diabetes story seemed VERY interesting. So yesterday we had the chance to chat...about all sorts of things.
K2: Hi Charlie, thanks for giving me a ring!
CK: Hi Kelly, thanks for taking the time to talk with me. It’s so great to meet face to face,or talk with people over the phone and Internet and share Diabetes stories.
K2: Speaking of stories, you have a pretty amazing one. You’re a racecar Driver who was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes a few years back.
CK: It’s a lot of fun, I love what I do, and I could have never have forgiven myself if I let diabetes get in the way of my dream of racing cars and my passion and enthusiasm for that. I would have never have been happy, that’s for sure.
K2. Well I really have to commend you on many levels. First of all, you didn’t let D stop you, which is huge. I mean it shouldn’t stop anyone –it’s a new way of approaching life.
Secondly, You could literally be a Rocket Scientist- and Engineer-I’m impressed by that! You were accepted into Stanford’s prestigious Mechanical Engineering program and said no Thank-you. You wanted to race cars. I think that’s great! You must have known in your heart that racing was for you.
CK: There were some interesting conversations and some tense moments between my parents and I back in “03” when I graduated High School. I was accepted into Stanford and I had to choose between engineering and racing cars.
My parents have always been supportive of EVERYTHING I do. My dad’s an engineer and works in racing, which is how I was initially exposed to it. He was the one going to the go-cart track with me, because he loved it as well. My mom was the one who was always saying. Please don’t race. You need to get good grades, you need to get into a good college, you need to have a safety net and a backup plan because there’s just no way this can turn into a career, this is just a hobby. She’s had to comeback on that a little bit now. She helped “drive” me in school just as much as my dad did and that really gave me the confidence. Having Stanford on my resume is a big deal. People, even other race teams read that and are like: WOW, you got into to Stanford and turned it down, you obviously LOVE racing. That’s a big deal!” It’s helped me throughout my life.
K2: I’m sure it has- I’m impressed by both your driving AND getting into Stanford and saying,“You know what, that’s great, I can go back, but I want my dream!”
CK: That was the biggest point I had with my parents. I asked them how long has Stanford been around and how long will the racing be around? I need to seize this while I can!
I can always go back to school, and I plan to. When I retire from racing and can physically no longer compete at the level I want to, I plan on going back to a university and getting a degree. Whether it’s Engineering or something completely different like Renaissance Art History, to broaden my horizons. I can’t very well have a family one-day and tell my kids that they have to go to college if I haven’t.
One of the things about traveling the world and living in Europe is that the education that I get has a lot to do with what I put into it.
A lot of the value from college isn’t necessarily the name of the school on the diploma, but the effort I put into the learning.
K2: Speaking of learning and Europe, did you feel it was easier to break the stereotype of the “Slow American Racer” or the Person with Diabetes Stereotype? Which was easier to break?
CK: Um, that’s a really great question and I’ll have to think a little bit on the response to that.
K2: I’m REALLY curious about that.
CK: I’m comfortable answering that.
I think that the Stereotype w/ the racing was something that I found to be a bigger challenge because it had been confirmed in three of four sets of different situations. American Drivers had gone to Europe and had expected something since they were exposed to something completely different and, as a result weren’t able to be successful. So as a result, there was a precedence set that I had to overcome.
Where with having Diabetes, I’ve been overwhelmed with by how positive the community as a whole is. To be honest, there wasn’t a precedence with Open-Wheeled racing with the US and Diabetes, so I didn’t feel like I had to overcome a stereotype that I couldn’t race because of the Diabetes. I believed in myself that I could do it. And that I was going be as good an athlete/Driver with Diabetes as without, so I just had to go out there and prove it to everyone else that that was true. Does that make sense?
K2: Yes, it absolutely makes sense-D doesn’t hold you back!
Now when you were diagnosed, what was the first thought that came into your head?
CK: To be honest, my first thought was: DIABETES?? Don’t older people get that??
K2: Actually, that’s VERY common misconception Charlie.
CK: I’m COMPLETELY up front Kelly; I was 110% ignorant about Diabetes.
My diagnoses was completely different that yours, I don’t have ANY family history of Diabetes. There’s nobody in my immediate family that has Type 1 Diabetes. And being diagnosed at 22 was more atypical. So I sort of had never been exposed to it. I didn’t really have friends or close friends that had it in High School or grade school. But since my diagnoses and looking back at my school years, I remember thinking, “Oh yeah, that girl had diabetes.“ But had never really put it together with what it REALLY meant.’
I remember thinking, “Well that diagnoses can’t be right!” And then I thought about racing. (I was diagnosed in England, and was living near Oxford at the time) and said to the Dr: I’m supposed to be on a plane tomorrow for Portugal for a race this weekend. That’s cool right?
And he said, NO.
When he said no it forced me to take a step back and think: What are the bigger implications of this diagnoses. If this is a big enough deal to keep me out of the car this weekend, then can it keep me out of the car indefinitely? What does this REALLY mean?
So at that point I went home from the Doctors office and spent an afternoon Googling and reading all types of horror stories on line. I was quite lucky that my dad was coming over for the race. So I went and picked him up from the bus station in oxford and we went to dinner and we sat down to dinner and I said: Dad I went to the Dr. today. And he said: OK. And I said: I might have Diabetes. And then burst into tears. So once I started to share it, even with just my dad. I saw the value in talking about it and sharing it and now I’ve been able to take that on a greater scale w as many people as possible.
K2: GOOD FOR YOU CHARLIE. So many people have the opposite reaction when they’re first diagnosed.
CK: EXACTLY. Because I’d missed the race, we’d put a press release out, and explained about my diagnoses. I was working with a manager at the time who gave me great advice. He said: Don’t be afraid to talk about it. Treat the diagnoses like an injury and talk about it with everyone. And as soon as you recover, you’ll be back in the car and racing.
That forced me to get the story out and people started coming back to me and saying things like. “ I was diagnosed and I buried my head in the sand for a few weeks. But now I face it head on every day and I feel great! Your going to have good and bad days, but if you take the same discipline that you apply to your racing and apply it to your diabetes, there’s no reason you won’t be back winning before you know!
CK: One of the biggest reasons why I partnered with Novo Nordisk and am doing all this media is that when I was first diagnosed, the support I received from complete strangers (D brethren so to speak) they reached out and TOTALLY supported me.
The positive feedback I received from the Diabetes community was OVERWHELMING! Having the opportunity to give back and return the favor was a dream come true for me. Because not only am I continuing to do what I love, but I get the chance to help people while I do that- there’s not a more fulfilling life than that!
K2: We are a tight community and we definitely support out own-and everyone else to, but it absolutely gives you a different outlook on things. Once you have a chance to process it.
CK: EXACTLY. I work with Dr. Ann Peters at USC Medical and she said to me: The way I see it is the Diabetes Doctors -the Endo’s, and all the people in the Diabetes community. We’re not heart surgeons, were not ER docs. We don’t come in last minute, crack chests, start hearts, save a lives. We fight this thing day in, day out, minute in, minute out. Good and bad days. It’s more like a baseball season, you’re not trying to win every point, every game, and you’re aiming for a majority and your just trying to slide your averages. It takes a lot of love and a lot of care, and there isn’t a huge amount of money in it. Yet, it’s a very positive community because there’s so much passion involved.
And that’s something I really relate to the racing. Is the passion involved and the discipline involved in the routine.
K2: Passion and discipline are absolutely true- but the great thing about being diagnosed today is that you get to go off and have a cupcake now and then, because things like that are no longer taboo thanks to the technology. It’s a great time to be diagnosed in that respect.
CK: I completely agree. One of the things when I first was diagnosed was I thought, oh God, people are going to think I’m a junkie because there’s going to be needles and vials and blood everywhere. Your mind goes to the worst places. And she handed me the Levemir FlexPen. And I was like: look I just got diagnosed with Diabetes, I don’t need a pen! I need insulin, right?
I don’t use a pump because of the temperature in the racecar, and the temperature from being under my fireproof suit and clothing. And I’m hitting my goals with the Levemir FlexPen and Novolog. It’s flexible. When I’m headed out to a race I can just grab my Helmet and my Flexpen and I’m out the door! SO different from what I envisioned my treatment plan being when I was first diagnosed!
The Technology has come SO far. I wear a CGMS and I Velcro it to the steering wheel so I can keep an eye on my numbers in the car and out. I have ranges I try to hit before I get behind the wheel.
If my numbers start to come down a little to fast, I drink bubble mounted through the car, so I can get OJ through my helmet. It’s like a Camelback (like the cyclists wear) that's mounted in the car with a tube that runs out and up to my helmet and into my mouth. So I have the microphone on one side of my helmet, and the drinks tube on the other.
K2: YES, I read about it- send me a pic! That’s great and highly creative. Is that like a little bit of your engineering talent coming into play?
CK: I think so. I was sitting with Dr. Peters- to be honest it was her ideal because she said: We need to be able to get you liquid during the race because we want to keep you hydrated, but we also need to be able to get you sugar if your getting low. The cars have drinks bubble in them with just water for hydration. We need to have one that’s for hydration and one that’s for sugar. And I said, the races are only about 45 minutes long, I don’t need the hydration - I'll just wear it for juice. It took working with the team and finding a good location, and routing it into my helmet. The systems were all in place it just took a little bit of impetus.
K2: It just took some thought,deligation, and a little engineering!
Charlie's tricked out Juice Helmet!
K2: What’s the # 1 Point you’d like for others to take away at the ADA Expo in Pittsburgh?
CK: The most important point that I want to make with PWD’s is that DIABETES DOESN’T HAVE TO SLOW YOU DOWN. My life is hectic; it’s fast paced on and off the track. Diabetes is with me in the passenger seat the WHOLE time. I’m in the Driver’s seat, not Diabetes. I’m still very much in control of my life, yet it’s always along for the ride, but it doesn’t slow me down.
With good management and good control, and the medical advances and technology, there’s no reason you can’t do EVERYTHING you want in life
K2: I believe that once people come to terms with their diabetes, they receive gifts from their diabetes. What gifts has diabetes given you?
CK: When people hear that I was diagnosed with diabetes they always say: That’s to bad, or I’m sorry to hear that. My reply is: I’m not. Yes, if I could I’d give it back, and yes; I still have “bad” Diabetes days. But I do have more good days than bad at the moment.
I’m a better athlete with Diabetes than I was before. I’m more conscientious about my training. I’m more aware of my nutrition and how my body reacts to that nutrition. I’m more focused, and I enjoy EVERY SINGLE LAP in the car more because I nearly lost it because of the diabetes.
Having diabetes has given me an extra sense of APPRECIATION for what I do.
K2: That's BIG.
CK: I’m really excited about going to Pittsburgh, I’ve only ever been there once before and then it was for a really quick trip. I fully expect the weather to be better this time because last time I was there it was the middle of winter and there was a lot of snow on the ground! Being from Southern Cal, that shocked me a little bit.
I’m really looking forward to meeting everyone at the Diabetes Expo. I’m looking forward to meeting people, seeing the Divabetics in action .
K2: Oh those Divabetics are a crazy fun group- I’ve seen them in action!
CK: The ADA Expo in Pittsburg is going to be a great way to interact and learn from others PWD’s stories and hopefully, they learn from mine. I’m excited to share my racecar and share my story, show people my racing helmet. I’m constantly learning about Diabetes and what works for my Diabetes.
K2: That’s a great way to think. Plenty of people think they have nothing more to learn when it comes to diabetes. I’m with you, I think you can learn something new everyday!
CK: They day I stop learning is probably the day I stop living.
K2: I like the way you think Charlie!
Now, for a car question Charlie: Seriously, do I really need to switch into 4th if I’m only going 24 miles per hr?
CK: I don’t. OK I drive a stick a manual. Doing what I do, I like to be an active driver .
So I drive a manual and my rule of thumb is: 1st gear up to 10mph, 2nd gear up to 20 mph, 3rd for 30 mph and 4th for 40mph, and 5th above that. That works for me.
K2: I figured if anyone would know, you would.
CK And just a final point Kelly. My favorite cupcake is Red Velvet Cake with white Cream Cheese for future reference of course.
K2: REALLY? For future reference that sounds delicious!
CK: Yeah, I love cupcakes to. I was having a debate with my sister (whose getting married next summer,) and I think she should have a Cupcake Tree instead of a wedding cake. I think she’s on board, but her fiancé still needs some convincing !
It was GREAT talking with Charlie- I learned a lot,and not just about gears! Charlie is a man of many tastes and goals. Who lets nothing, including Diabetes steer him off track. BTW- All racing puns were TOTALLY intended!
If your in the Pittsburgh area on Saturday, September 12th. Be sure to stop by the Pittsburgh ADA Diabetes Expo at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center between the hours of 9 & 4 and give Charlie a big hello! If you can't make it to Pittsburgh, you can follow Charlie on Twitter @racewithinsulin