Charlie Kimball basked in the sunshine of the Golden State for a milestone homecoming in his 100th career Verizon Indy Car Series race.
“Best coast, West Coast,” he said at the season-ending GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma on Sept. 18.
The son of a Formula One and Indy car designer grew up in California with dreams of a long, successful racing career. At 31, after concluding his sixth season in such a competitive series where drivers often come and go, he’s modestly established himself in terms of longevity.
Now Kimball just hopes he can win more races if he makes another 100 starts. The Novo Nordisk Chip Ganassi Racing driver’s lone series victory came in 2013 at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.
“It’s been way too long,” he said. “You get antsy. There’s times when it’s harder to keep the faith internally that, yeah, I’m still a winner, I can still do this. At the same time, when you’ve got a good team, you know you have it. You know you’re going to be successful. It’s just a question of when.”
His No. 83 Tresiba Chevrolet finished ninth at Sonoma, the same place he ended up in the series points, tying his previous best standing in 2013. His point total actually tied Team Penske’s Juan Pablo Montoya, who earned eighth based on one series win this season.
“You always look back on 100 starts and you want more,” Kimball said. “Any competitor would want more. From my side, you definitely do. We’ve missed a few opportunities this year to break through. We’ve been rock solid at times, and the yellows have just kind of broken the wrong way.
“We fought back from terrible qualifying in Toronto, we’re probably close to a top five and the yellow broke the wrong way and we ended up around a top 10. Those are harder pills to swallow, but at the same time, we’ve had the speed and my qualifying times have taken a huge step forward. It means we’re not fighting out of a hole to start with, you don’t start behind too far.”
Kimball’s best 2016 results came at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in May, where he finished fifth in the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis as well as the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.
Kimball and Ganassi have agreed on a 2017 contract, which means more opportunities to prove himself as a series contender. Sometimes, Kimball is unconvinced he’s earned the respect he deserves from other drivers.
“It depends upon who you ask, especially after The Glen,” he said of run-ins with points runner-up Will Power and Graham Rahal in the Sept. 4 INDYCAR Grand Prix at The Glen. “I’m still building as far as the respect. The fact that I’ve done 100 starts and almost done it quietly is good. You look at that rookie class of 2011, James Hinchcliffe and I are the only ones still around.”
Kimball insisted he gave Power and Rahal enough room before the incidents, which were reviewed with no penalties assessed. A miffed Rahal referred to Kimball as “a character.” Perhaps most importantly, Kimball’s boss thought his driver showed his competitors something at Watkins Glen International.
“Some of the guys that he thinks might look down on him might just be using him as an easy target to look down at,” Ganassi said. “I can tell you this, Graham Rahal and Will Power are going to be a lot more careful when they’re around him next time, and that’s a sign of respect right there. They can’t just move over on him.”
Kimball arrived in the series with distinction as he became the first licensed driver with type 1 diabetes to qualify and compete in the Indianapolis 500. Novo Nordisk, a world leader in diabetes care, has been his primary sponsor.
Offseason changes sent his engineer, Brad Goldberg, to work with Ganassi’s Ford GT program in sports cars. Eric Cowdin, who worked on Sage Karam’s car in 2015, became Kimball’s new engineer. Longtime Ganassi spotter Scott Harner was named Kimball’s strategist.
“Overall, I think it’s been a good year and we as a team have evolved well, the No. 83 crew,” Kimball said. “I really enjoy working with Eric. I miss Brad, but if you brought Brad back and took Eric away, I’d miss Eric, too, for different reasons. They’re just different engineers. Having Scott Harner on the stand this year has been really nice.
“The momentum is there. Wins and podiums are important. Consistent wins and consistent podiums, I really feel like we’ve been around and we’ve finished consistently fifth to 10th this year, and with a little luck, we finish first to fifth in four or five races and the championship conversation is different. Then we’re in the top five, not ninth fighting for seventh.”
Kimball expressed confidence about when he will break through, not if.
“The preparation we have done means when we do break through, when we do get to that plateau, it’s not going to be a flash in the pan,” he said.
Sometimes series success is gradual. Kimball mentioned how Rahal won one race in his first 100 starts, but the Rahal Letterman Lanigan racer has since added three more victories in the past two years.
“It’s experience. It’s age. It’s all of that,” Kimball said. “And it’s guys you’re racing against who are retiring.
“With the amount of miles you get in INDYCAR and testing now, the bell curve of age of drivers is shifting older because experience makes up for age or slowing reaction times or injury recovery – all of that, physical fitness, too – more than it has in years past. So the guys who were retiring in their late 30s or early 40s, now those guys are still running strong and fighting for championships in their 40s.”
Three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves of Team Penske is 41 and just finished third in the series points. Ganassi teammate Tony Kanaan, a 2004 series champion and 2013 Indy 500 winner, is also 41 and finished seventh in the points. Montoya is also 41.
Another Ganassi teammate, four-time series champion Scott Dixon, is 36. He finished sixth in the points. Sebastien Bourdais of KVSH Racing, who won his 35th career race this season, is 37.
“My advice to Indy Lights drivers is not getting to INDYCAR, but getting to INDYCAR with a way to stay in INDYCAR,” Kimball said. “I don’t think the first five races or the first two seasons as an INDYCAR driver are the hardest part. I think it’s Year 3, Year 4, Year 5. Each year just gets harder and harder.
“There’s times this year when I was frustrated. I didn’t know what we needed to do to get luck, what Ouija board did we need to burn or whatever it is. There’s times that frustration sneaks in.”
But self-confidence and optimism eventually remind him to stay the course. He still has a ride with one of the strongest teams in a series he considers the best racing on the planet.
“I’m going to work as hard as I can, kick and scratch for 100 more, as many as they let me,” Kimball said.