Changing My Opinion On Charlie Kimball
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.