TORONTO — Charlie Kimball was born in Britain and raised in California, but hanging on the wall of his living room is a painting of an iconic residence in London, Ont., — the Banting House, alongside the “Flame of Hope.”
The 33-year-old IndyCar driver, who was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in 2007, was given the work by Canadian artist David Harrington at a talk in Mississauga, Ont., a few years ago.
“Just talking about it gives me goosebumps, cause it’s so real,” Kimball said in a phone interview Monday. “It’s a daily reminder that I’m part of this incredible community around the world who live and overcome the challenge of diabetes every day.”
In his own way, Kimball is attempting to carry on the legacy of Canadian scientist Frederick Banting, who won the Nobel Prize in 1923 for co-discovering insulin.
In honour of Banting’s accomplishment, Kimball switched to No. 23 for his eighth season in the IndyCar series. He’ll also unveil a new Canadian car design — in partnership with his sponsor Danish drug company Novo Nordisk and Diabetes Canada — at this weekend’s Toronto Indy.
Kimball, who is the is first licensed IndyCar driver with diabetes, hopes to be an inspiration to the more than 300,000 Canadians and 1.25 million Americans living with Type 1.
The Carlin Motorsport driver was diagnosed at the age of 22 when racing in Europe’s Formula Renault 3.5 series
Between events, Kimball went to see a doctor in England where he was living at the time about a skin rash.
He went into the appointment feeling “10 feet tall” and “bulletproof.” He left questioning his future in auto racing.
“(The doctor) said, ‘I think you have diabetes’ and I went, ‘Great. what’s that?'” Kimball recalled, adding that he had also lost about 24 pounds in the five days since his last race.
“I didn’t know what it was. I didn’t know what it meant. I didn’t know what it would mean for my racing career.”
When he went to a follow-up appointment with an endocrinologist, he received an unexpectedly positive outlook, which he tries to pass on to others facing similar challenges.
“I asked the doctor If I’d ever race again and he said, ‘I don’t see any reason why not. There are incredible people doing amazing things with diabetes all over the world. You may have to change the way you go about it, but it shouldn’t get in the way of your dreams,'” Kimball recalled.
While he was initially forced to drop out of racing, he returned in April 2008 to the F3 Euroseries and made his way to IndyCar in 2011 where he has been since.
And in 2013, he became the first driver with Type-1 diabetes to win a race by taking the checkered flag at Mid-Ohio.
Kimball is now among a number of active athletes competing with the disease — including the likes of former Toronto Blue Jays pitchers Dustin McGowan and Brandon Morrow, as well as Montreal Canadiens winger Max Domi — but managing his blood-sugar levels while strapped into a hot race car for a few hours can be a bit more complicated.
Kimball wears a continuous glucose monitor, which transmits data wirelessly to a display mounted on his steering wheel, so he can see his blood-sugar levels during races.
While all drivers have a drink tube with water hooked up to their helmets, Kimball has a second line that supplies orange juice, should his glucose level fall during a race. He can switch tubes using a valve that was designed by his father, who was an engineer for IndyCar and Formula One, and 3D-printed. However, he has never had to use the orange juice during a race — a fact he takes pride in.
“Honestly, I think I’m a better athlete because of my diabetes, rather than despite it,” said Kimball.
“I look at a little bit like how the mechanics prepare the race car — I’ve got to make sure I’m preparing my body as well.”
Mike Shulman, The Canadian Press