IndyCar driver Charlie Kimball found it more than humbling to be honored with a group that included an 11-year-old Texas boy who started a city-wide recycling program and a Baltimore woman who founded a nonprofit program to help the homeless.
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But Kimball earned what’s known as the ”Nobel Prize of Public Service” by choosing not to be modest about his own fight against diabetes.
Kimball, along with NFL Hall of Famer Jim Kelly and former hockey star Pat LaFontaine, was given a Jefferson Award, one of the nation’s top honors for community service and volunteerism, on Tuesday in Washington, D.C.
Kimball, who was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes nearly five years ago, was lauded because of his efforts to raise awareness about the disease.
”It was unreal to be included in a group like that. A group of people that had done so much,” said Kimball, who will run in Saturday night’s IndyCar race in Iowa. ”It was almost embarrassing, in a way that I don’t see what I do as a pure dedication to service because it’s a byproduct of doing what I love. But at the same time, it is very important to me to do that.”
Kimball still remembers the exact day he was diagnosed: Oct. 16, 2007.
Until then, Kimball was just another healthy young driver progressing toward a permanent ride in a major series.
Kimball, a native of California, started his career in open-wheel racing when he was just 17. In 2005, Kimball won five races in British Formula 3 racing, becoming the first American to win even one event in that circuit in 13 years, and finished second in the championship race.
Two years later, Kimball went to the doctor’s office for an unrelated skin rash. He’d also been complaining of constant thirst, and when Kimball jumped on a scale he realized he’d lost 25 pounds in just five days.
Kimball, then 22, skipped the rest of the season in the World Series of Renault after being diagnosed. But he quickly learned that diabetes wouldn’t keep him from pursuing his open-wheel aspirations as long as he took the necessary precautions.
”If he had said, `No, I don’t think you’ll ever drive again,’ I’d have found a different doctor,” Kimball said. ”I spent that winter getting healthy again, regaining the weight, getting stronger and figuring out what diabetes meant.”
Kimball learned how to keep his diabetes in check by constantly checking his blood-sugar levels and managing his insulin doses. By 2009, he was back in the U.S. racing in the Indy Lights series, a feeder system for the IndyCar series.
Diabetes is what led Kimball to his current sponsor.
Kimball’s doctor sent an email to someone she knew at Novo Nordisk, a health care company dedicated to fighting diabetes, explaining how Kimball was using their products to stay healthy.
That eventually led to his current sponsorship in the IndyCar series, as Kimball and Novo Nordisk teamed up with Chip Ganassi Racing and the No. 83 car.
Kimball’s partnership with the company has forced him to be very open about his own struggles with diabetes, and that’s a challenge he’s chosen to embrace.
”If you hide it from the public, you’ll hide it from yourself,” Kimball said. ”Being upfront about it forced me to deal with it, to sort of really pay attention to it. To be proactive about it.”
All the good will Kimball has engendered off the track has yet to help him much in IndyCar.
Kimball, now in his second full season in the series, has yet to score a top-five finish in 25 career races. He did manage to put together three consecutive eighth-place finishes at Sao Paolo, Indianapolis and Belle Isle in Michigan. But Kimball was knocked out at Texas after just 29 laps, and last week he qualified 18th and finished 17th after battling a bronchial infection.
Still, battling diabetes has given Kimball a sense of perspective about his life and his burgeoning career. Kimball even makes it a point to throw a party every Oct. 16 for what he likes to call his ”diabetes-versary.”
”I have the opportunity to do what I love. There’s no place I’d rather be than in a race car. But doing this with the diabetes community means that no matter how good or bad of a day I have on the race track, it’s still a good day if I’m out there competing and proving to just one kid that he can live his dream,” Kimball said.