Charlie Kimball’s been busy fighting to regain what he’s lost and appears to have been successful in raising the money to return to full-time status, likely with A.J. Foyt Racing.
Provided he’s confirmed by the team owned by the four-time Indy 500 winner, Kimball’s rebound from a part-time role in 2019 will come as a byproduct of intensive work during the offseason to secure increased funding.
A full-timer through the end of the 2018 championship with Carlin Racing, Kimball was hit by a heavy downturn in sponsorship that saw a 17-race calendar in the No. 23 Chevy reduced to a five-race schedule, which grew slightly when teammate Max Chilton opted out of IndyCar’s oval rounds and Patricio O’Ward left for Japan.
Going from 17 rounds to seven, Kimball’s career coughed and sputtered at the wrong time. At 34, and with almost a decade of Indy 500s and that 2013 win at Mid-Ohio with Chip Ganassi Racing to look back on, he could have taken the hint and headed to sports cars. And at the dawn of his 10th IndyCar season, driven by an endless well of self-confidence, Kimball chose to fight for a comeback. One season as a part-timer was enough.
“Goal number one is to be a full-time driver, and I think that’s not just because that’s what I want — and this year was miserable watching other people drive the car — but with a little time and a little space and perspective at the end of the season, I’ve realized how much of an impact on results [that] not being in the car full-time has,” he said.
“Last year, we saw big progress, and this year it flattened a little bit. It was almost kind of stagnant. Part of that, from me as a driver, at least, was it takes a little bit of time to get back in the swing of things when you’ve been out of the car for a month. And the guys you’re racing have been in the car every weekend and they’re bouncing back and forth from road courses, to street circuits, to short ovals, to superspeedways… And as tight as IndyCar is, being the crème de la crème, if it takes you an outing or two to re-find that rhythm and that routine, you’re an outing or two behind the rest of the field. And the series is so competitive, you almost can’t make that up during the course of the weekend.”
At Foyt, he’d play a central role in helping the team in a restoration project of its own.
The loss of ABC Supply as the sponsor of both entries has weighed heavily on the organization’s finances, and while the company will be back with the team on one car at the Indy 500, budget-wielding drivers are a necessity. Enter Kimball, whose long business relationship with Novo Nordisk, and new partnerships with a variety of companies, have played a crucial part in getting to a 10th season.
Part businessman, part racer, Kimball and his wife Kathleen have become a powerful combination in the sport. Together, they develop corporate leads, build marketing plans, and create opportunities to hire teams for the son of IndyCar designer and engineer Gordon Kimball to ply his trade.
“It’s going really well and I think a big part of that is down to the team around me,” he said. “Kathleen has spent a lot of her life in sales, and while jewelry is not selling partnerships in racing, she’s been great at knowing how to extol my value and personalize my value for partners that need different things. I’ve worked with Novo Nordisk for 11 seasons now, and being able to continually refresh the value I provide them, as their landscape and their business model changes and dynamically evolves, is important.
“But [it’s] also looking at how to capitalize on new partnerships, on existing relationships that were maybe friendships or business contacts, and as a business, they change, they evolve. They go from looking at not needing any marketing value, or not seeing any value in people knowing their name to saying, ‘OK, our next step to grow is we need brand recognition, and IndyCar is one of the only live sports out there with viewership growth. And we have a personal story with Charlie that we can leverage.’”
Kimball gives the impression he enjoys the off-track challenges almost as much as driving.
“It’s like a 3D puzzle [where] the pieces keep moving and changing as you’re trying to put them together,” he adds. “I mean, it is very challenging; it’s also a lot of fun. It’s a lot of up and down. Some days I think it’s four, five steps back. Some days I think it’s a mile forward and no backslide, and so it’s hard because on the racetrack, in the race car — what I live for — it’s very quantitative.
“It’s one of the reasons why I think working in racing is a little like cheating at life because you can get out of the race car, look at the time sheet, and say, ‘OK, I’m two-tenths off,’ or, ‘In this corner, I’m missing half a tenth of a second. OK, that’s how I compare.’
“In this part of the business and this time of the year, it’s a lot qualitative — it’s a lot, ‘Oh, that sounds great! We’re really interested.’ OK, is that you’re really interested, you want to write a check tomorrow? Or is that you’re really interested, we just don’t have the money, but we love the idea of working with you?”
While many of his rivals are focused on fitness training and all the other aspects of being a full-time athlete, Kimball’s offseason will continue to tax both hemispheres of his brain. Lifting weights and cardiovascular exercises are on the docket as he’s expected to be the lone full-time driver at Foyt, but don’t overlook the rest of the equation — a race to build the financial foundation beneath that Chevy-powered Indy car — that’s happening in parallel.
“In being the son of an engineer, I’ve always been very quantitative,” he said. “I had an English teacher in high school, and I will never forget this — it’s one of the reasons why I excelled at math and struggled in English class — he said, ‘In math, one plus one equals two. In English, we evaluate how the equal sign feels about being between the two and the two ones. How the two ones feel about being the same. And if the plus sign feels like, while he has the same number of hashes as the equal, he doesn’t get to be the mediator, how does that relate?’
“It’s harder to look at and say, ‘This is progress,’ look at and say, ‘This is a result,’ until you put all those moving, evolving pieces together and are able to make an announcement, or able to talk about a partnership, or finally put pen to paper on partnership agreements, on ambassador deals, on driving contracts, on X Y and Z contacts. And so it’s tough, but it’s also kind of a fun, different challenge than I get from March to September.”