Monitoring diabetes at 225 mph
Just before hitting a sharp turn at 190 miles per hour, IndyCar driver Charlie Kimball quickly checks his dashboard.
Oil pressure gauge: steady.
Blood sugar levels: stable.
Yes, blood sugar.
Kimball — driver of the No. 83 NovoLog FlexPen Chevy for the Chip Ganassi Racing Team — has Type 1 diabetes, which means he has to constantly check his glucose levels.
That can be a tough challenge in races that can last up to three hours as drivers reach top speeds of 225 miles per hour. But Kimball doesn’t let that slow him down. He relies on a continuous glucose monitoring (CGM) sensor to check his blood sugar levels while he’s behind the wheel. Kimball’s lead engineer tracks those numbers just as intently as he notes rpm and tire tread. The wearable attaches to Kimball’s body underneath his fire-resistant racing suit to monitor his glucose numbers during races.
The 30-year-old Kimball is the first licensed driver to race with diabetes in IndyCar history.
His father, Gordon Kimball — a longtime Formula One car designer — also created a special valve so his son can switch between containers filled with water and orange juice. The water keeps Kimball hydrated while the juice boosts his glucose level if it drops too low. Kimball’s principal racing sponsor, Danish pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk, provides the insulin he uses to control his diabetes.
“I thought I was bulletproof,” says Kimball, who was diagnosed while racing in the Formula Renault 3 series in Europe in 2007.
He may not be bulletproof, but he’s doing all right: Kimball finished 12th overall in the 2015 IndyCar season, including a third place finish in the Indianapolis 500.
About 1 in 10 Americans has diabetes, says Dr. Sarah Kim, a clinical endocrinology professor at the University of California at San Francisco. Diabetes occurs when your body doesn’t produce any insulin at all (Type 1) or enough of it (Type 2). Regardless of type, diabetes must be continuously monitored to prevent complications, including heart disease, nerve damage and vision problems.
That’s why glucose-monitoring systems, like the one Kimball uses, are so important.
“Maintenance of my body reminds me a lot of what my mechanics do to my car,” says Kimball, now in his fifth IndyCar season. “You have to make sure the vehicle is full of fluids, the battery is charged and the bolts are tight.”
During practices and races, Kimball’s personal manager, Kim Jackson, becomes part of the pit crew helping him reach the checkered flag. Her head rarely rises from a screen displaying data streaming off his car and his body – lap by lap.
“His glucose levels actually burn off while he’s driving, so we try to make sure he maintains an even level,” Jackson says. “We want that consistency so he can just concentrate on racing.”
Lead engineer Brad Goldberg agrees. “Charlie’s no different than any other race car driver I’ve worked with,” he says. “We kind of live in a world of controlled chaos. We’re all out here to win.”
This story appears in the summer edition of CNET Magazine. For other magazine stories, go here.