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Diabetic driver faces new challenge at Indy 500

Thursday, May 26, 2011

(Photo)
Charlie Kimball will be the first diabetic driver to compete in the Indy 500 since Howdy Wilcox in 1933. [Order this photo]
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) -- Charlie Kimball is facing the biggest challenge of his racing career Sunday.

Yes, it's his first Indianapolis 500 start, and for Kimball, it's an opportunity to show the world that diabetics can race, too.

"The main thing is preparation," said Kimball, a California native who will become the first diabetic driver who has knowingly been allowed to race at Indy. "It starts long before the green flag flies."

The 26-year-old is not the first diabetic to compete at Indy.

That distinction is believed to belong to Howdy Wilcox II, the 1932 race runner-up. He hid his condition from race organizers and in 1933, Wilcox II collapsed at the 2.5-mile speedway after drinking some beer with friends. Doctors misdiagnosed it as an epileptic seizure, though his friends knew enough to feed him some candy. Wilcox never raced again at Indy and spent the next several years embroiled in a legal controversy over his condition.

The message to other diabetics was simple: Don't race.

Donald Davidson, Indianapolis Motor Speedway's track historian, said he personally knows of one driver who retired immediately when it became apparent insulin would show up in a blood test. Davidson would not say who it was.

But Kimball, the son of a race car design engineer, will gladly talk about his diabetes, especially now that he is about to start the longest, and perhaps hottest, race of his career. The early forecast calls for sunny skies and temperatures in the mid-80s, which could create dehydration concerns for any driver.

Kimball is convinced he won't have any problems this weekend.

"It was hot at Barber (Alabama), and other than getting out of the car and feeling like I had raced 200 miles, I felt pretty good," he said, referring to that 81-degree day in April. "Diabetes wise, I didn't feel anything."

Kimball watches his diet closely and logs his blood glucose readings frequently. He uses a Velcro strip to attach a monitoring device that runs from his abdomen to the steering wheel. His team will installs two bottles in the car's sidepod, one with regular water and one with sugar water. By flipping a switch he can drink either one during the race.

So far, he's never had a problem.

"It's like anybody else; there are some people who take very good care of themselves and there are other people who don't," IndyCar director of medical services Dr. Michael Olinger said. "There are people who have blindness, kidney failure, that type of thing from diabetes, and there are people like Charlie who takes such good care of his disease that he faces none of those things."

Kimball, of course, has always wanted to race at Indy.

He started in go-karts at age 9 and was winning national championships by age 16.

It wasn't until 2007 that he was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, and he briefly considered changing careers. He missed the final eight races in the World Series by Renault and only made six starts the next year in Formula 3.

But by 2009, Kimball and his doctors had figured out how to make it work. He raced full-time in the Indy Lights Series, earning eight top-10 finishes and a season-best fourth at Watkins Glen. Last year, with Michael Andretti's Indy Lights team, he finished fourth in the points and had eight top-fives.

That was enough to get the attention of one of IndyCar's biggest power brokers, team owner Chip Ganassi, who hired Kimball and Graham Rahal -- two young Americans -- as his future stars.

"We're right on plan, where we want to be, right about where we thought we would be," Ganassi said. "I couldn't be more happy with the kind of May that they are having so far."

Rahal will start from the No. 29 spot, the middle of Row 10, after Ryan Hunter-Reay replaced Bruno Junqueira in the No. 41 car.

Kimball, who is sponsored by Novo Nordisk, an American company that makes insulin pens and other products for diabetics, will start on the inside of Row 10 after posting a four-lap average of 224.499 mph Sunday.

For Kimball, that's good enough to make history.

He just wants the whole world to know what this quest is really all about.

"I'm racing and representing not only the diabetes community but everyone who has had to overcome a challenge," he said. "I'm doing what I love, even with this curve ball that's been thrown at me."



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