Changing My Opinion On Charlie Kimball

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Those that know me well know how much I absolutely hate to admit that I am wrong. My family will say that I was hard-headed growing up and they probably don’t think much has changed to this day. Susan, my wife, might say I am less than humble. My ex-wife would probably say…well, there’s no telling what she might say and chances are it wouldn’t be true anyway. Whatever the case, suffice it to say that I don’t usually admit when I’m wrong – even if I am.

Surprisingly, this time – I’m glad to say that I may have been wrong on one item. By the end of the 2011 IZOD IndyCar Series season, I was convinced that Charlie Kimball had no business being in a race car and didn’t mind saying so. I thought he lacked the passion and aggressiveness it took to drive a car and that he was squandering a plum ride with Chip Ganassi, even if it was in the G2 side of the team. When he was nothing more than a rolling chicane that JR Hildebrand couldn’t navigate on the last turn of the Indianapolis 500, I thought that pretty well summed up his driving ability – regardless of the fact he may or may not have been running out of fuel.

His best finish that rookie year was a ninth at New Hampshire. He also finished tenth at Barber that season. Other than that, his rookie campaign of 2011 was a very underwhelming collection of races that saw him place twentieth or worse an unimpressive nine times en route to a nineteenth place finish in the final point standings.

Last season was better. He finished second at Toronto and had a string of three straight eighth place finishes at São Paulo, Indianapolis and Belle Isle. But a broken hand took him out of the car at Mid-Ohio and he finished twenty-first his first race back at Sonoma. He did finish tenth in the season finale at Fontana, but a DNS and seven races finishing seventeenth or worse led Kimball to another nineteenth place finish for 2012.

Heading into this season, there was no reason to expect great things from Charlie Kimball. He was losing his G2 teammate, Graham Rahal, without a replacement. In essence, he was flying solo on Chip Ganassi’s satellite team. Kimball was also driving with a Honda engine that didn’t look so promising in pre-season testing or especially the first race at St. Petersburg. But he had a decent showing at St. Pete by finishing twelfth.

Last week, Charlie Kimball drove a very solid race at Barber Motorsports Park. He qualified fifth and finished fourth. He led three laps but ran up front all day. Kimball also had what was probably the move of the race, when he passed Will Power for fourth place late in the race. Even Power commented what a great move it was in post-race interviews.

So, I now have to reassess my initial opinion of Mr. Kimball. His run at Barber was no fluke. He drove a very heads-up race and was extremely competitive all day. I remarked to someone immediately after the race at Barber that “Charlie Kimball may not be the chump I thought he was”. They agreed.

Chip Ganassi has made it clear publicly that with Kimball in his third year, he is expecting results. To Ganassi, results mean wins – not the occasional podium finish. Graham Rahal felt that the G2 cars were never on the same level as the Target cars. I’m not sure why he was surprised at that – most fans could predict that as soon as the two satellite teams were announced. Now Charlie Kimball finds himself essentially on a one-car team. For a driver that showed little in the way of results for his first two seasons and driving for a team that is operating on an island, I’m not sure how realistic Ganassi’s expectations are, even though Kimball does have Mitch Davis on his pit box.

Charlie Kimball’s bout with diabetes has been well-documented. He was diagnosed in 2007 at the age of twenty-two while in the middle of the Formula Renault 3.5 Series season. His diagnosis required hospitalization and he had to sit out the remainder of the season. He came to Firestone Indy Lights in 2009 before moving up to the IZOD IndyCar Series in 2011 with Ganassi.

For the third year in a row, Kimball carries sponsorship from Novo-Nordisk – a brand that specializes in diabetes care and management. It helps when a pharmaceutical giant flexes its muscle and gets fully on board with a driver. They had a huge presence at Barber last weekend. Other companies involved with the series could take a few lessons from them on sponsor activation, instead of just writing a check.

Not only does Kimball serve as a corporate spokesperson for his sponsor, he is increasing awareness for the disease and has become a role-model on how you can still lead a normal and productive life when afflicted with this disease. My daughter turned twenty-five yesterday. She was diagnosed with Type I diabetes in 1995 at age seven. Since then, I have paid particular attention when someone famous demonstrates the ability to succeed in spite of this condition.

His message correctly states that he is the first “licensed” driver to drive in the Indianapolis 500. Howdy Wilcox II, who was no relation to the 1919 winner of the same name, suffered from diabetes but kept it a secret from race officials. He finished second in the 1932 Indianapolis 500. Just before the 1933 race, his condition became public when he fainted one day after already qualifying. He was disqualified from the race. His fellow drivers threatened to stage a boycott on the morning of the race. Track owner Eddie Rickenbacker informed the drivers that there would be a race that day with or without them, even if it meant he drove the pace car alone for two-hundred laps. The drivers raced, and Howdy Wilcox II never raced at the Speedway again.

While we all praise drivers like James Hinchcliffe and Pippa Mann for their ability and willingness to interact well with fans, Charlie Kimball should be put in that category as well. Throughout the weekend at Barber, we saw him out chatting it up with all sorts of fans – especially those that were sporting the “Race with Insulin” shirts that were seemingly everywhere. There are many children that have been stricken with this disease that are becoming instant IndyCar fans because of the bond they share with Kimball. It doesn’t hurt that he is now starting to produce on race weekends, so that these new fans can continue to pull for him.

I’ve met Charlie Kimball one time, a brief thirty-second chat in the garage area during qualifying weekend last year at Indianapolis. It was not long after he had crashed his car between Turns One & Two. You would think he would not want to speak to anyone, but when we offered our condolences after his crash – he stepped up with a smile and said he’d be back. He ended up qualifying in the middle of the fifth row and finished eighth in the race.

You can’t help but pull for Charlie Kimball for several reasons. Not only has he overcome the limitations of his disease, he also has the added pressure of driving for a very impatient owner who doesn’t listen to excuses. He was pretty much considered the goat in preventing Hildebrand from winning the Indianapolis 500 in 2011, but you never heard a defensive word from him. On top of all that, he is an American driver, which is important to a lot of people – and seems to be a genuinely nice guy. What’s not to like?

So, as painful as it can sometimes be for me, I’m conceding that I may have been wrong on Charlie Kimball. Heading into Long Beach this weekend, Charlie Kimball currently sits sixth in the point standings. He finished twenty-fourth at Long Beach in 2011 and eighteenth last season. Maybe I’m jumping the gun by saying Charlie Kimball is now coming of age – but his last three races, including last year’s season finale, have been a nice trend. If he has a good showing at Long Beach this week, I’ll bet a lot of people will be jumping aboard the Charlie Kimball bandwagon. I’m getting on board while there’s still plenty of room.

George Phillips

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7 Responses to “Changing My Opinion On Charlie Kimball”

  1. Jim Gray Says:

    I am just not convinced he can hold up his pace throughout the season. I hope I am wrong, Charlie is a great guy who has worked extremely hard in and out of the car to improve. While two nice races makes for a good start, I am holding off declaring this to be his break out year. That being said, he is leading a lot of really good drivers in the points standings.

  2. I like Charlie and I think he is a very good driver who deserves to be in the series. I also like that, like Ron Santo and Jay Cutler he is out front with being a diabetic and giving encouragement to the folks (especially the kids) who are as well.

  3. billytheskink Says:

    While drivers should get better and better as they become more experienced, not all of them do. Credit to Charlie for his improvements, he seems to be on his way to making the most of the opportunity that Novo Nordisk and Chip Ganassi have given him.

    Kimball’s case reminds me of Ed Carpenter, who did not record a podium finish until his 93rd race and was given a less than politically correct nickname during his early career. I’d say that most Indycar fans are comfortbale with Ed in the series now.

  4. Carburetor Says:

    ABC’s driver interest story on Charlie and the family of one of his young fans during the broadcast of last year’s 500 was excellent. It seems he is quietly building his own fan base and doing more than his share of trying to lure new fans to the series. He has shown progress and development each year in the series.

    Though certainly Charlie’s faltering car played a role in the outcome, JR Hildebrand has no one but himself to blame for losing the 2011 500. He could have–and should have–adjusted in order to make a relatively easy pass and then cruise to victory with a sizeable enough lead to have done so.

  5. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by Charlie’s speed the last 10 months or so. I’ve always figured he’d be at least competent in an IndyCar (4th in Lights points in 2010 with 8 top-5s out of 13 races would indicate that), though I never figured he’d have race-winning pace (zero wins during that 2010 Lights season would indicate that). I remember telling a buddy back in 2011 that I thought that year’s rookie crop was the best in years, with my comparison being the 1994 CART season. In that comp, I saw J.R. as the Bryan Herta (great in junior formula, capable of winning on the right day, and a possible top-5 in points candidate), Hinch as the Jacques Villeneuve (future Canadian star and probable future champion) and Kimball as the Scott Sharp (solid mid-fielder, with a ceiling of around 8th to 10th in points, which, in this company, is no small feat). Still feels about right. I’ll stand by it. My only regret is that there was no 2011 analogue to Franck Freon and Alessandro Zampedri…

  6. Way back when the A1GP series was still running, the “world cup of motorsport”, there were quite a few then-present and future IndyCar drivers competing there, on international road and street circuits. Jonathan Summerton turned out to be the best driver on Team USA, a lot better in fact than 2004 Indy 500 winner Buddy Rice. But when Michael Andretti acquired the rights to the Team USA lease, he was out of a ride because Michael wanted to use this series to give his own proteges some more practise in European style racing. However, Danica Patrick never even made an attempt to run A1GP and Marco Andretti was not ready to race in the first two rounds of that season. So the replacement driver on that team, Charlie Kimball, got those two starts and from those, I considered him the 2nd best driver Team USA ever had in A1GP.

    I was happy to see him get his IndyCar ride with the G2 team, believing he fully deserved it, but then, I was pretty surprised when he seemed rather out of his depth in his rookie season.

    I guess we have only seen the real Charlie Kimball once so far, in the most recent race at Alabama.

    However, given the other drivers results in A1GP, the question must be asked: what happened to Jonathan Summerton after having been the prime candidate for the 1st drivers seat at the aborted USF1 Team of Ken Anderson?

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