At a time when auto racing is struggling to prove value and attract new sponsors, race teams have to show that they can do more than produce a race-winning 200 mph billboard.
It means that a driver’s role as a spokesperson goes beyond just being able to remember to properly thank the sponsor on camera.
Today, a driver’s every move is chronicled, either on social media or by the racing media. Often what a driver does outside his or her race car can be as important as what he does while being strapped inside it.
Case in point is 20-year-old Ryan Reed, who drives the No. 16 Ford Mustang in the NASCAR Nationwide Series for Roush Fenway Racing.
Reed was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in March of 2011. His story has been well documented by several news outlets, including a wonderfully detailed account of his discovery and eventual management of this chronic disease by Stanley Kay of Sports Illustrated.
Reed is a brilliant spokesperson for the millions of Americans who deal with the disease on a daily basis, as this writer can attest, having met and talked to Reed last year at Bristol Motor Speedway and, more recently, interviewed him for this column.
The young Californian is sponsored by one of the world’s leading pharmaceutical companies, Eli Lilly and Company, as well as the American Diabetes Association (ADA). The ADA mission statement is to prevent and cure diabetes and improve the lives of all people affected by diabetes.
According to the ADA website, in 2012 nearly 30 million Americans or 9.3 percent of the population had diabetes. Many cases go undiagnosed. Reed’s was discovered when he developed a thirst that went unabated and he lost weight, among other symptoms.
As a big-time professional race car driver, Reed’s career is just beginning. While many young drivers struggle to put together the financial wherewithal to race, Reed is fortunate to be the beneficiary of the money and marketing clout of a large company, as well as the support of one of the largest nonprofits in the country. Both see the value in having their names on the side of a race car seen on a regular basis by millions across the country, both in person and on television.
His story of perseverance and a determination to succeed, despite the difficulties of management of his disease while in the harsh environment of a NASCAR race car, is an automatic for attracting media attention, as we'll see next weekend when the NASCAR Nationwide Series (NNS) race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is called “The Lilly Diabetes 250.”
After 18 NNS races this season, Reed has only one top-five and one top-10. His best finish so far this season was a fourth at Daytona just a few weeks ago. This past weekend, he started 14th and finished 15th. But where he finished in the race on Saturday night didn’t really matter. It’s what he did before he climbed in his Mustang that does.
Reed has yet to show the kind of consistency needed to win races and move forward in the sport, but if success in racing is measured by things other than laps led and who takes the checkered flag first, Reed has been a success in representing the millions of Americans who deal with diabetes on a daily basis.
NASCAR is not unique to having a full-time driver with Type 1 diabetes.
Charlie Kimball is a driver in the Verizon IndyCar Series who also has Type 1 diabetes that was first diagnosed in 2007. While competing in his high-tech IndyCar ride, Kimball also is having his blood sugar monitored via an electronic device. Kimball’s sponsor is Novo Nordisk, the maker of the insulin he uses.
Kimball has raced in the Indianapolis 500 four times, with his best finish of eighth place in 2012. He has one win in the IndyCar Series at Mid-Ohio last season. Kimball was racing in Toronto, Canada, this weekend, running in two races on the same day, a unique doubleheader even for the open-wheel series. In the morning race, Kimball finished seventh. In the afternoon event, he was fourth.
Both of these young men with diabetes have shown remarkable courage and a determination to succeed in doing something that requires that they be in excellent physical condition as well as possess skills that go beyond what most of us display.
Every NASCAR fan knows Brian Vickers. The 2003 Nationwide Series champion first gained notoriety early in his Sprint Cup career while winning his first race at Talladega in 2006.
After blood clots were discovered in his left leg and lungs in 2010, Vickers had to leave the sport temporarily to receive medical care. He was diagnosed with both a small hole in his heart and a rare condition called May-Thurner Syndrome, which puts patients at risk for blood clots and a possible stroke.
Vickers missed 25 races that season and returned to racing the following year. Last season, he once again found himself hampered by a medical issue that forced him to miss the final five races after it was discovered he had blood clots in his left leg.
Vickers faces the constant threat of those clots returning.
“Certainly it's something that crosses my mind,” said Vickers before the Sprint Cup race last weekend at New Hampshire. “I wouldn’t say that I linger on it or I let it kind of affect my daily life. You just kind of have to move on. I certainly am conscious of it and I make decisions based upon the fact that I could have another clot.”
Vickers appears in television commercials for the drug Xarelto, a prescription medicine that is prescribed by physicians to reduce the risk of stroke and blood clots. It is not a sponsor on his race car.
All three of these men have not allowed serious medical challenges to prevent them from living their dream, even if that dream involves the risky business of being a professional race car driver.
Their powerful combination of courage and the determination to succeed offers far more to a race fan than just being a part of a 200 mph billboard.
None have asked for special treatment, although they could not survive in the job they perform without some kind of special treatment. They are determined to show to the world that despite its challenges, life has more to offer than a blood sugar that needs to be monitored or a pill that may help them from encountering a future medical crisis.
Before the Sprint Cup race at New Hampshire, Vickers explained it this way.
“I could have another clot just as easy as someone else could have another medical problem,” he said. “We’re all kind of fragile in our own ways, and I think you just learn to live in the moment of every day and just appreciate all of it and focus on the task at hand, do your best, try to make good decisions with your health and just keep charging forward.”
For each of these men, their challenge to win continues long after the checkered flag has fallen.
Bob Margolis has covered NASCAR, IndyCar, NHRA and Sports Cars for more than two decades as a writer, television producer and on-air talent. All quotes are taken from official NASCAR, team and manufacturer media releases unless otherwise stated.
Follow Bob on Twitter: @BobMargolis