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Charlie Kimball: Can I Drive Your Car?

My father taught me how to drive and I distinctly remember being afraid to go above 25 mph.

"Kerri, you need to speed up," my father warned as I crawled along the road, passed by angry drivers who were in a hurry. 

"Dad, I'm scared."  I hugged the white line in my old Volvo, chugging along.  But I eased my foot against the gas pedal and pushed a bit.  Then a bit more.  Then I hit 40 mph and felt like I was traveling at warp speed.  And ever since, I've wanted to drive a race car.

So imagine my surprise when I met Charlie Kimball, race car driver and type 1 diabetic, at last year's World Diabetes Day event in NYC.  Outwardly, I said, "Oh, it's nice to meet you!" 

Inside, I was yelling, "HEY!  CAN I DRIVE YOUR CAR!" 

Charlie Kimball and Kerri Sparling

Kerri:  Charlie, you're recently diagnosed, right?  Tell us about your diabetes diagnosis and how that all went down.

Charlie:  October 17, 2007, I was in England and went to the doctor in Witney (near Oxford) for a skin rash.  After he had given me some cream to clear up the rash, he asked if there was anything else going in with my health.  In my high glucose addled brain, I nearly didn’t say anything- the typical mid-20’s guy response, “Nope, nothings wrong. I’m 10 feet tall and bullet-proof.” Then I said well I have been kind of thirsty lately. To which he responded, "Lost any weight?" "Maybe a little..." (thinking I had been training and eating better than normal). Jumped on the scales and was down 25 pounds from normal. I had gone from 10%-6% body fat and was so dehydrated my lips were cracked and infected.  He drew blood to confirm, but was convinced I has type 1 diabetes.  I didn’t know what that was. I thought only old people got that!  Boy was I ignorant! I spent the whole next day at OCDEM (Oxford Center for Diabetes, Endocrinology and Metabolism) at the Churchill Hospital in Oxford and my ‘diabetes’ life began.

Kerri: How was your learning curve?  Were you overwhelmed?  Pretty chill?  A mix of both?

Charlie:  My learning curve was pretty steep but I definitely pushed hard to get on top of it.  From early on, I was pushing my doctors for more information, alternate treatment methods, better insulins, less painful injection methods.  There were moments when I was so overwhelmed all I could do was sit and shake my head.  Then there were moments of strength when I was determined to ‘beat this thing’ and show it I was still the boss.  As time went by, I found I was having more strong moments and fewer moments of denial, bewilderment and fear.  I gave myself 10-14 days to ‘get over myself’ and get back to being me.  My friends helped with that as they wouldn’t let me get away with feeling sorry for myself either!

Kerri: What is your job and how has diabetes affected how you work every day?

Charlie:  I am a professional Open-Wheeled racing driver.  I have raced on 4 continents and won as far away as New Zealand, Europe and here in the States.  I have competed at speeds up to 185 miles per hour and my passion for motorsports and racing is a huge part of who I am.  Diabetes has affected what I do tremendously.  I remember the moment when I asked the doctor if I could race again soon after diagnosis.  It was a moment where the whole world seemed to stop moving while I waited for the answer.  I almost didn’t want to ask in case the answer wasn’t the one I wanted!  When he said, ‘of course, there is no reason why not,’ my world stopped spinning out of control and righted itself.  Then I had a road to start walking down to get healthy again and get back into a race car.  In racing, I have always sought the best advice I could find and my diabetes care was no different.  I saw Dr. Anne Peters of USC Medical and her educator and nutritionist as soon as I could.  I though I had an idea of what diabetes meant for me and my career, and then I met Dr. Peters, Donna and Meg ... now I am a carb counting machine and diary keeping fiend!

Charlie behind the wheel.

Kerri:  Have you ever had a diabetes emergency behind the wheel?

Charlie:  Luckily, I have never had an emergency behind the wheel.  I have a lot of protocols in place to keep myself from getting into trouble.

Kerri: What kind of tools do you use to manage your diabetes?

Charlie:  I manage my diabetes differently when I am going to be in the race car compared to when I am not.  In the race car, I have a ‘Camelbak’ type drinks bottle full of orange juice or Gatorade with a tube into my helmet.  That way if I am headed towards low, I can drink that and get back to good numbers.  I also use a DexCom Seven Plus to keep track of where I am both in the race car and when in every day life.  I don’t use a pump yet as I am still a baby when it comes to diabetes.

Kerri:  How has diabetes changed your perception of what's "healthy?"

Charlie:  Diabetes has actually made me stop taking my health for granted and become proactive.  Before my diagnosis, I hadn’t had my eyes checked for years and took my license physical for granted.  Now I work hard on my health and my nutrition is better than it ever has been.  I am a better athlete and while I have diabetes, I am probably healthier now than I ever have been in the past.

Kerri: What kind of advice do you have for others who are recently diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in their "grown up years?"

Charlie:  I think that my biggest piece of advice for people diagnosed later in life is not to let diabetes rule your life.  It is a big change, don’t get me wrong, but it is manageable in the long term.  And you are not alone. (If you are reading Kerri’s awesome blog- you probably get that already- but don’t ever forget it!)

Kerri: And Charlie, where can we catch your next race and cheer you on?

Charlie:  My next race is the first of this season and my first race back in the US for 5 years.  I will be racing for Team PBIR at the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, April 3-5.  And then I will be in my own personal neck of the woods and racing at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach April 17-19th.  You can keep up with me on my website, blog, and Twitter.

Kerri:  Thanks, Charlie!  ... and, um, can I drive your car? 


I LOVE Dr. Peters, Donna, and Meg too!! :)

And seriously... can we all drive his car? Just once or twice around the track?

How cool is that? His doctor actually suspected type 1 and pressed it, in an apparently healthy 20-something man! Consider me impressed, especially with the hell some people go through trying to convince pediatricians to even test for it.

Great interview! And how cool is that "straw in the helmet" trick! What a great idea :)

I'm with Nick - how many of us diagnosed type 1 in our late 20s or early 30s were told we'd just have to take a pill and we'd be fine? Thankfully my incorrect diagnosis only lasted 3 days. Hooray for competent doctors!

I was 31 when Dx'd and no one wanted to test for it - except the EYE Dr. She tested my blood as I sat in the chair, then came the gasp as the numbers came in - 535. Needless to say life has changed, and when I read articles like this it helps me feel so "normal"- it happens to everyone right?! Thanks again Kerri!

Hey Charlie.I love your interview. It was awsome. When did you get diagnosed?

I am type 1 and I race motorcycles. Don't EVER let anyone say you can't do anything!

Very cool! Thanks Charlie, and thank you Kerri for the interview! :-)

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