Monitoring diabetes at 225 mph

From CNET Magazine: IndyCar driver Charlie Kimball's pit crew keeps a close eye on the data streaming off his race car -- and his body -- when he's behind the wheel.

Charlie Kimball is the first licensed driver to race with diabetes in IndyCar history. LAT USA

Just before hitting a sharp turn at 190 miles per hour, IndyCar driver Charlie Kimball quickly checks his dashboard.

Engine: good.

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.

Kimball now relies on a small, continuous glucose-monitoring (CGM) sensor he attaches to his body before every practice and race. Lynzy Stover

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.

Constant vigilance

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). Common symptoms include intense thirst and hunger, fatigue, numbness and tingling in hands and feet. Regardless of type, diabetes must be continuously monitored to prevent complications, including heart disease, nerve damage and vision problems.

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That's why glucose-monitoring systems, like the one Kimball uses, are so important.

"Diabetes is one of the few chronic diseases where its treatment is in the hands of the person who has it," Kim says. "They are the ones who have to do the work, test themselves and maintain a proper diet. It's quite intensive."

Kimball says specialized training and prerace preparation are also keys to his burgeoning success. He finished 12th overall in the 2015 racing season, and claimed third spot at both the Indianapolis 500, held over the Memorial Day weekend, and at last month's GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma in California.

He describes his in-season meals, mostly consisting of plain grilled chicken breasts, pasta, salad and fruit, as "not gourmet," but essential.

"Maintenance of my body reminds me a lot of what my mechanics do to my car," says Kimball. "You have to make sure the vehicle is full of fluids, the battery is charged and the bolts are tight. I need to have the right amount of proteins, carbohydrates and insulin intake to make sure I drive as fast as possible."

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. "This is the hardest we have ever pushed Charlie, as in our minds, this is a very critical season."

Goldberg notes after each race the crew uses technology to dissect Kimball's lap speed, his car's chassis -- and, yes, his glucose levels -- to reach optimal performance.

"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 appeared in the summer edition of CNET Magazine. For other magazine stories, click here.

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