As a kid growing up in a California sports-crazy family, Charlie Kimball heard tales of the Astrodome, home of the famed "Battle of the Sexes" tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, and other iconic sports events in the world's first indoor stadium.
Now, he's going to be racing around it at speeds up to 180 miles per hour — and he can't wait.
"It kind of blows my mind to be able to set up a race course big enough for us in a parking lot."
Fresh from his first-ever IndyCar win, Kimball will be behind the wheel for the Shell Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston this weekend, driving around the 1.7 mile track that winds around Reliant Park in separate races, dubbed the "H-Town Double Down," on Saturday and Sunday.
"Coming to a new venue, to race in the streets of Houston and around the iconic elements of Reliant Park, is fantastic," Kimball said recently while in town to promote the races. "It kind of blows my mind to be able to set up a race course big enough for us in a parking lot."
The 28-year-old Kimball has faced some challenges others drivers haven't. Six years ago he was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes and thought it might be the end of his racing career. But he came back stronger than ever.
"I think I'm a better athlete because of diabetes rather than despite it," he said. "Yes, it's an additional element the other drivers don't have to think about. But it forces me to be better prepared physically and therefore mentally for competition."
Here are some excerpts from our conversation:
CultureMap: What's the best thing about racing?
Charlie Kimball: I love the speed and I love the the opportunity to be better than everyone else on that day in that moment. Once you've done that no one can take that away from you. It's very raw. There's not a lot of complication to it. Two guys head to head, you beat 'em, you're better.
CM: What did it feel like to win the mid-Ohio Indy race in August?
CK: It's still sinking in. Now people say, "Charlie Kimball, Indy race car winner." It makes me stop because it is such a great feeling. It was such a great day for the team. To see their enthusiasm and excitement was pretty neat.
CM: What did you do to celebrate?
CK: Just had dinner with five or six friends at a foodie restaurant in Indianapolis. When I was in Indy Lights (a racing series for up-and-comers), we had a saying, "Winner, winner, chicken dinner." We always celebrated all of our victories as a group. I've tried to continue that tradition as much as possible with celebratory dinners with friends because, while I hope it's not the last (win), you only ever have one first, so you need to remember it.
"I think I'm a better athlete because of diabetes rather than despite it."
CM: What was your reaction when you were diagnosed with diabetes?
CK: I was worried. I asked the doctor if I would ever drive again. He looked me in the eye and said, "There are people doing amazing things all over the world with diabetes. Driving a race car shouldn't be any different. You may have to make some adjustments, but it shouldn't slow you down."
CM: How long did it take for you to feel comfortable racing again?
CK: My first race was six months later, I placed second. To do that well initially was incredible. As far as being comfortable with (diabetes) management, it's always a learning process. I think the day I stop learning is the day I fall behind.
CM: What words would you use to describe what it's like to be behind the wheel of a race car?
CK: "Restrained ferocity" because when you're driving, it's this raw, aggressive emotion of competition and yet it has to be restrained within the parameters of the race track, the time, the weather and all these things. It's almost like having a lion on a leash. You're just kind of holding on and doing everything you can not to get bitten, but at the same time to walk your lion. It's this interesting contrast.
CM: How to you feel about racing around the Astrodome?
CK: Race tracks always have an iconic piece to make them special. At Long Beach, it's the fountain by the aquarium, at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway it's the Yard of Bricks, at Sonoma it's the carousel down the hill. Certain racetracks all have a character. In Baltimore, the street race ran around Camden Yard.
To be able to race around the Astrodome, to me, it adds that element of sporting history to our event. It's going to be really cool.
The Shell Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston starts Friday with activities, including race preparation and a concert by Creedence Clearwater Revisited, and races Saturday and Sunday. Details are available on the Grand Prix website.