LEXINGTON, Ohio – For Charlie Kimball, Sunday’s victory in the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio was all about “the journey.”
Diagnosed with diabetes in 2007, Kimball never let that physical condition keep him from his dream of competing in racing. After a solid but unspectacular career in the Firestone Indy Lights Series he earned a ride in the IZOD IndyCar Series when team owner Chip Ganassi decided to expand from a two-car team to four-car operation in 2011.
Graham Rahal was the star attraction of the second team and Kimball was considered an after-thought – overlooked by many race fans. With Novo Nordisk Flex-Pens as his sponsor – an insulin delivery system – Kimball was considered a spokesperson for diabetes that happened to drive an IndyCar.
On Sunday, he became an IndyCar winner who happens to have diabetes.
Kimball’s team came up with a brilliant strategy for the race, thanks to team engineer Brad Goldberg of making it a three-stop race but getting out in front of the field far enough to maintain the lead. The other Ganassi drivers – four-time Mid-Ohio winner Scott Dixon and 2010 Mid-Ohio winner Dario Franchitti – also attempted the same strategy.
It worked for Kimball but not for the others. Dixon finished outside of the top-five at Mid-Ohio for the first time in his IndyCar career in seventh place. Franchitti’s team got out of the fuel-saving strategy and that allowed him to finally race with speed rather than trying to save fuel.
Goldberg saw the frontrunners going slow, waited to see gap on timing and scoring that would allow Kimball to get out to a gap.
“Then I called it,” Goldberg said of Kimball’s first pit stop on lap 19. “And the guy behind the wheel, that’s the end. I know he has taken some criticism in the past, but today he showed what he can really do.”
Kimball was able to make the strategy work by building large leads before pitting again on Lap 42, which got him just behind the leader, Simon Pagenaud. When Kimball made his final pit stop on lap 65, he put on the Firestone Reds (faster compound tires that are less durable) and once again returned to the race behind Pagenaud.
Not for long, however.
Pagenaud would pit for the final time on lap 72 for four red tires and fuel and he returned to the track just in front of Kimball.
Kimball went wide in turn one but was unable to make the pass but his dogged determination persevered when he passed Pagenaud in the Esses between turns four and five.
Kimball sped away to score his first career win after leading a career high 46 laps. Victory No. 1 came in his 45th career IndyCar Series start.
“We were pretty clear in the race meeting, and I was maybe getting a little frustrated because I knew that if it came down to fuel mileage, I don’t know that there’s anyone better in the business than Mr. Dixon at saving fuel and running fast laps, and I don’t think I could have hit the fuel numbers he was hitting and do the lap times he was doing,” Kimball said. “So when they said, all right, we are going to a three‑stop, get us while you can, I immediately came back on the switches and from running lean to sort of drop the hammer, get right up behind Scott, our window open, and they pitted. I knew when they came out, came out in clean air, I had to run qualifying laps that whole stint. They were giving me lap time targets and I was doing everything I can to be better than that, because I knew the car was that good.
“They could start to see that I think during the middle of that second stint, but the car was just so good, they were giving me a lap time number, and I just had to keep it clean. I had a couple of moments I tried to throw it away, a couple of mistakes, but some of that was in traffic, some of that was just running on the ragged edge to get the gaps I needed to.”
Because the early pace of the race was not as fast as Kimball’s crew anticipated, that is when the early pit stop strategy which allowed Kimball to race full throttle while the others attempted to conserve fuel was the path to victory.
“We sort of talked about it, we thought we were probably going to go that way depending on how the other guys ‑‑ what the other guys looked like,” Kimball recalled. “We actually expected the Top‑five or six to run like rabbits, run out hard, and then if they got a yellow, back into a two‑stop strategy. But then when it looked like everyone was trying to make the mileage for a two‑stop race, we thought, all right, we’ve got the pace here. And on the stand I could run with Dixon pretty decently, getting decent mileage, but not good enough.
“So that I that we knew if we could get clean air ‑‑ and I think that’s kind of what they were waiting for on the stand. We were not committed to it, until he saw what the guys up front were doing and where that first stop would put us. If it put us in clean air, he was going to commit to it and we were going to get after it.”
In Saturday morning’s practice session, Kimball crashed the car but his team was able to prepare a car that qualified fifth and capable of winning on race day.
Kimball finished 5.533 seconds ahead of Pagenaud and won at an average speed of 117.825 miles per hour. Franchitti finished third to give Honda a Podium Sweep with the top three positions.