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Larry Ott: Alexander Popiel shares special bond with Kimball

WATKINS GLEN -- For 10-year-old Alexander Popiel of Clarence, Verizon IndyCar Series driver Charlie Kimball is a bigger then life hero. Popiel's admiration for Kimball, however, is not just for the way that Kimball drove his car around Watkins Glen International's road course this weekend in the IndyCar Grand Prix at The Glen. It goes far beyond that and involves a very important bond.

Kimball is a Type 1 Diabetic but that has not kept him from realizing his dream of racing in the IndyCar Series. Kimball placed a very solid seventh in Sunday's 60-lap race after qualifying fifth on Saturday. For Popiel, his inspiration to follow the high-speed exploits of Kimball is not so much about results and qualifying speeds as much as it the fact that Popiel also is a Type 1 Diabetic and has received much motivation and inspiration from Kimball.

Kimball, of Camarillo, Calf., drives the No. 83 Tresiba Honda-powered entry on the IndyCar Series circuit for Chip Ganassi Racing.

Popiel and his family were at The Glen this weekend, sharing time with Kimball. Popiel first met Kimball at the IndyCar Series event at Pocono in 2015. The two formed an immediate relationship based on their common health issues that continues to this day.

Popiel was diagnosed with his diabetes in January 2013 at age five while Kimball was diagnosed much later in his life, in 2007, at age 22. Popiel was accompanied to The Glen this weekend by his parents Mark and Melissa as well as his 14 year old sister Anabella. All enjoyed their time with Kimball.

"I love Indy cars and how they go so fast," Alexander said. "Charlie inspires me to follow my dreams. He's a perfect role model for everybody and he just brightens everybody's day when they see him. I'm never going to drive someday but I will always follow racing."

Kimball was touched by his visit with the Popiel family.

"It's great for me to see his whole family's support," Kimball said. "Not just for my racing but for the whole diabetes community. I say that kids with Type 1 diabetes are part of my cool kid's club. That connection is so strong within the diabetes community around the world. To have that personal connection and that inspiration really helps me on the race track. It helps that balance when I have good days and when I have bad days. I know that just being out there racing and competing means so much to so many people that it's far more than where I finish on the timetable."

Kimball has specialized equipment in the cockpit to aid him during each race.

"My Indy car is different than everyone else's because my body's different," Kimball said. "I wear a continuous glucose monitor so I get a sensor in my stomach that transmits to a display that plugs into the car's data system and shows my blood sugar on my dash. The team can see my blood sugar in pit lane. The other cool thing is that I've got a drink bottle during the race to stay hydrated with water and a second one with orange juice and there's a valve that my dad who is a mechanical engineer designed that mounts right on my seat belt and I can switch back and forth depending on what I need during the race."

Mark is overjoyed with the special relationship that his young son has with Kimball.

"It's amazing," Mark said. "Charlie's been a great role model for Alexander and for us. He gave us a lot of inspiration. He's had a lot of influence on our family. I've been following IndyCar since the 1980's. Alexander would watch races on TV with me. When he was diagnosed he was the only boy in school that actually had diabetes so he felt very isolated and alone. I said by the way, Charlie has diabetes. Alexander was initially quite surprised and amazed. It was a turning point. As a 5-year-old you're an active child, and all of sudden you have to take needles. It was a little difficult to explain to him. All of a sudden why does he have to have needles every single time he eats. Charlie's definitely has had a great impact on our family.

"We met Charlie in the Poconos and we've been attached to him ever since. But, frankly, aside from diabetes he's an amazing guy. If he didn't have diabetes tomorrow we'd still support him just as much as we support him now. Charlie's been an amazing ambassador for the entire diabetes community. "

Melissa was understandably enjoying the weekend as well.

"You tell your kids when they're growing up you can be anything you want to be and do anything and we get diagnoses like diabetes and you go, oh boy what are we going to do next," Melissa said. "But when you see Charlie driving then you realize that anything's possible. That's what we try to inspire in our children is that they can follow their dreams and do what they want."

Anabella, who attends Williamsville East, admires the way her younger brother has carried on well in his life despite his diagnosis.

"My little brother deals with a lot more than I do," Anabella said. "My dramas look simple compared to his. He's a good kid. I'm proud of him."

Kimball truly was pumped up during his meeting Saturday with the Popiel family.

"From my side, the Popiels have been so great and have become friends," Kimball said. "I think that's something that is so special. I've made so many different connections with people everywhere because of something that has absolutely nothing to do with driving a race car. It's been so fulfilling. It's such a change in perspective that transcends sports and racing."

Alexander offered some timely inspiration to Kimball as well as he negotiated the twist and turns of The Glen's difficult circuit.

"He's doing great already," Alexander said."I'm going to follow Charlie for the rest of his career. That's for sure."

Now that the IndyCar Series weekend is over, Alexander will return for the new school year that commences for him  this Tuesday at the Transit Middle School. Somehow it will not be surprising at all when in fine fashion Alexander carries the latest dose of inspiration that he received this weekend from Kimball and takes it home from the race track and straight into the classroom. Inspiration after all is infectious. Alexander and Kimball are living proof.

 

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