An inside look at IndyCar driver Charlie Kimball’s love of food

Watching IndyCar driver Charlie Kimball carefully slice an avocado, it’s hard to imagine this is the same guy who’s built a career zipping around race tracks throughout the world at more than 200 miles per hour. Then again, there are a lot of things that might not be immediately apparent when you first meet the 33-year-old from Ventura County, California.

For instance, Kimball is about to be a dad for the first time. He and wife, Kathleen, are expecting a child in November. The “dad jokes,” which Kathleen teases him about, “will just be jokes” when the baby arrives, he says.

Kimball finished 18th in this year’s Indianapolis 500 as a member of the Carlin team. He is the first licensed IndyCar driver with Type 1 diabetes. Diagnosed in 2007, he returned to racing in 2008 and has been sponsored by Novo Nordisk, which produces his insulin, since 2009.

Kimball’s 6-year-old black Lab, Lilah, has been trained as a service dog and helps Kimball manage his disease by identifying and alerting him to low blood sugar levels and by getting help when Kimball needs it. Lilah also does an impressive downward dog in response to Kimball’s command to “kiss the bricks.”

A Legacy of Avocados

Then there are the avocados, which Kimball sliced and mashed on the counter during our interview, while Kathleen whipped up a summer flatbread. Kimball’s adeptness with the fruit isn’t part of the recent craze for avocado toast and all things green and mushy, though. His family has farmed citrus and avocados for the past six generations, including his grandmother Dorcas Thille and his father, Gordon Kimball, who continue to own and operate avocado farms tucked between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara.

The family grows mostly Hass avocados, which Kimball says develop a bumpy exterior as the fruit ripens. In fact, bumpy might be the right word to describe the whole operation of growing avocados, which prefer rocky hillsides with well-drained soil, in places where the climate can grow hot and dry for long stretches at a time.

Unfortunately, ideal avocado-growing conditions are also ideal for the massive forest fires that perennially plague California. When the winds turned just right in December 2017, more than 60% of the Kimball avocado orchard, along with the house, barns and irrigation system for the remaining trees, was destroyed in a day by what was known as the Thomas Fire. But for Kimball, at least the worst was avoided.

“We were able to get everybody off the hill safely. People were all safe, the ranch hands who had been working for days to keep everything protected got all their cars and personal belongings out,” says Kimball, who, along with Kathleen, rushed to California from their Indianapolis home to help out during the fires and in the initial recovery period.

The US Forest Service estimated that nearly 282,000 acres were affected in the Thomas Fire overall, with 1,063 structures destroyed and 280 damaged. For the Kimballs, rebuilding will be slow. In fact, Kimball said his family doesn’t expect to be back to 100% production for about 10 years. Part of the reason is a shortage of tree stock in a high-demand avocado market. This year, they hope to purchase and plant 1,000 of the 12,000 trees they need. But the trees also take five to seven years to mature, and the growing season for an avocado is 18 months.

“Even so, the outreach from the community has been amazing. Everyone, all the suppliers, have really come together,” Kimball says.

IndyCar driver Charlie Kimball with his wife, Kathleen, in their home  kitchen in Indianapolis
IndyCar driver Charlie Kimball with his wife, Kathleen, in their home kitchen in Indianapolis

Californian Hoosiers

Just as Kimball sees no tension between the fast and slow interests of his professional life, he’s also comfortable being what he calls a “California Hoosier,” having moved with Kathleen to the Indianapolis area around 2011, the same year he became the first licensed driver with diabetes to qualify for and complete in the Indy 500.

“I feel like California is where we’re supposed to be from, but Indiana is where we’re supposed to be now,” says Kathleen, who supports Kimball’s racing career by traveling with him to races and helping him manage his diabetes through food and nutrition.

Having grown up in America’s largest agriculture-producing state, the Kimballs both love to cook, especially fresh and local foods. But living in the Midwest has given them an appreciation for a more seasonal approach to cooking and eating that changes with the weather.

Kathleen describes the experience of eating a garden-fresh tomato after months without one, and when the weather turns cool Kimball says he craves stews and chili.

“We like to be local about food, food prep. We like to support local restaurants and suppliers,” Kimball says, pointing out that the knife he used to slice the avocado is by local knife maker Ash Blaed, which he purchased for Kathleen as a gift.

“We build our meals around what’s available,” Kathleen adds, though admittedly it took her a while to get used to not having her own lemon tree in the backyard, a California staple.

Welcome and Nourished

They’ve also built a life the same way, gathering friends and neighbors together for holidays and vacations, since, until recently when Kathleen’s mom and brother moved into the area, they were far away from family.

“Because we travel so much, when we’re home we like to ‘be home.’ So our house tends to be the one that people gather at,” Kathleen says. “Our friends tend to come over here a lot, and that’s what we want our home to be. Somewhere where people come over and feel welcome and leave nourished.”

Often Charlie grills or smokes something on his Big Green Egg in the couple’s three-season outdoor kitchen. His favorite is ribs, made with Chef JJ’s rib rub recipe. Inside, Kathleen tries out new recipes on the black granite countertop, or whips up one of her “famous” well-requested desserts, like pumpkin cheesecake.

In the future, when the Kimballs retire from the speed of racing, the California Hoosiers will return to the slower pace of their family’s avocado ranch. Charlie plans to join his sister to help carry on the farming tradition.

But even when the Kimballs leave the Midwest, I suspect the Midwest will never really leave them. Instead, they’ll take the “Hoosier” in them back to California, importing vine-ripe Hoosier tomatoes and Indiana-raised baby back ribs to go with the avocados and lemons they once again pluck from their own backyard.

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