Joe Jennings, IndyCar correspondent
Two years ago, Charlie Kimball was a rising star in the Firestone Indy Lights Series ranks and a driver who aspired to be an established name in the IZOD Indy Car Series. Today, he has not only accomplished that lofty goal but is starting his sophomore season in the premier open-wheel racing series. Riding on a cloud, the young Californian drives for the Novo Nordisk Chip Ganassi Racing organization, one of the top teams in the series.
Like other newcomers Kimball has had a steep learning curve to deal with but he’s handling it well. “Any drivers that are even fully prepared will be surprised with the challenge presented by IndyCar,” Kimball said at Long Beach a few days ago. “The level of competition is higher than it has ever been before – the quality and caliber of the field are very deep – I think there are 15 guys that could win a race this year.”
In 17 races during the 2011 season, Kimball learned a lot while attaining three top-10s. At season’s end, Kimball and his team reviewed his performance, setting the stage for the new season. “I thought last year went well, that I made progress and learned a lot. Seeing the evolution as we moved up the grid in results is the key to progress,” he said. “This year we are trying to keep that momentum and growth going while translating it into better results. We will be putting more emphasis on qualifying, too.”
You have to be in play until the end of the race and be smart, too.
Kimball said he learned a lot in 2011, including that patience is a virtue that cannot be overlooked. “You have to be in play until the end of the race and be smart, too,” he commented. “I have learned to let the guys work on the strategy as there are things going on that I don’t see in the cockpit. And I have learned to believe in them.”
So far in his sophomore season, Kimball has registered a ninth place at St. Petersburg, a 25th at Barber Motorsports Park and did well at Long Beach, running in the top-10 for 68 laps and as high as third before suffering a gearbox failure. He ended up in the 18th spot and is now 20th in points as the series travels to Brazil for its next race
Kimball has the best corps of instructors that a young driver can ask for, notably IndyCar champions and Indianapolis 500 winners Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti along with fellow teammate Graham Rahal. “The four of us go back and forth and pick each other’s brains on set-ups and other things,” the articulate driver said. “This year we have four new cars, and we have gone in four directions, looking for the best combinations. Dario and Scott are sharing their insights with me, and they have been very helpful, especially with my lack of experience. They are helping to shorten my learning curve, which has been steeper than I expected. “Chip (Ganassi) told me I wouldn’t know how steep the learning curve would be until I got into the car. And now I believe it.”
While Kimball wasn’t the star attraction at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, you wouldn’t know it if you stopped by his team’s area in the paddock or if you were seated in grandstand six. Being from California, Kimball had more than 70 guests on hand, including his proud parents, Gordon and Nancy Kimball. Throughout the weekend, Kimball was seen posing for pictures and signing autographs for extended periods. And regardless of the demands on his time, he flashed a winning smile and a kind word for everyone that greeted him.
“I am as excited about racing at Long Beach as I am about racing at Milwaukee and Indianapolis,” he commented, letting it be known he doesn’t have a favorite type of track. “I do have a love for certain events with the Indianapolis 500 being the major one. The coolest moment in sports for an athlete is with driver introductions at Indy. It is like nothing else in the sports world, and I had to pinch myself a couple of times a year ago. One of my Novo Nordisk sponsors told me to take a moment and let it soak in. He said, ‘Remember it as you will have only one first time.’ And I am looking forward to doing it again next month.”
A year ago, Kimball finished 13th at Indianapolis and he’s looking for a top-10 in the 2012 edition.
As race fans and television viewers know, Kimball is a diabetic (Type 1) with his condition under control. (Note: He races with a continuous glucose monitor that wirelessly transmits data, so if his level falls he can drink on-board sugar water.) Sponsor Novo Nordisk has produced commercials that feature Kimball and place emphasis on taking appropriate steps to keep diabetes under control. “My diabetes is under control, and I am very healthy,” Kimball said. “Making these commercials has been a big deal for me, my sponsor and IndyCar racing. For me to be able to reach the diabetes community across the country is a dream come true.”
Novo Nordisk will be running videos about NovoLog FlexPen featuring Kimball and his team at trackside events throughout the season.
Nancy Kimball, the young driver’s mother, credits Novo Nordisk for assisting her son with his racing career. “We can’t thank Novo Nordisk enough for helping him realize his dream. Without them, Charlie wouldn’t be alive, and this platform gives him an opportunity to give back,” she said.
Mrs. Kimball beams while discussing her son and his racing. “I always thought he would be in motor racing but wouldn’t have thought the platform would be as great as it is today,” she said. “I always enjoy being at the races and get very excited at each one. It doesn’t get any better than this, unless it is in victory lane.”
Kimball is realistic about his chances for victory, but he is focused on preparing himself for the day when he’s in a position to win a major league race or two. And when he does, the excitement will be at an elevated level.
If enthusiasm and determination can be combined into producing notable race results, Kimball will move up the ladder in no time, and he may well make it happen during his sophomore season with the highly competitive IndyCar Racing series.