Charlie Kimball drives into the first turn during practice for the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Aug. 12. (Photo: MICHAEL CONROY/AP)
A decade of Indianapolis 500s hasn’t just brought Charlie Kimball to Indiana.
The Camarillo native, who will drive in his 10th Indy 500 on Sunday, has been jetted off to other cities to promote the event.
He has spent time in Dallas, St. Louis, Milwaukee or Columbus early in previous race weeks, which is usually packed with off-track and track adjacent events to celebrate the teams, the series and the sport itself.
It’s all part of the so-called “Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”
But this week, ahead of the most abnormal race in the event’s more than 100-year history — a race in the heat of summer without the hundreds of thousands of fans who typically flock to Indianapolis Motor Speedway — Kimball has been doing his best to ground himself in normality.
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“It’s a strange week for sure, from what I’m used to,” Kimball said. “For me, I’m trying to make it as normal as possible. So that all of the abnormality — the no fans, the lack of travel, the lack of community outreach and commitments — don’t weigh on me as much. I’m still going to the gym and training, going to the track and meeting with my engineer and my mechanics.
“It’s so important for us as teams and drivers to do as much preparation and homework as possible so that on race day, we show ourselves as best as possible.”
He’s been able to substitute autograph sessions and sponsor events with extra workouts and rest. Which helps, considering the most important race of the NTT Indy Car series has thrown him for a metaphorical spin this week.
Kimball thinks there’s a gremlin in his No. 4 Tresiba Chevrolet.
“It’s something I’ve never experienced before at Indy, in my decade of experience,” Kimball said. “We think we’ve got a gremlin somewhere in the car, mechanically. We haven’t found it yet, we’re still looking.”
In what he termed “a very active steering moment,” Kimball nearly crashed into Turn 4 of the fourth lap in qualifying last weekend.
“The car tried to spin and put me in the wall,” Kimball said.
He sent video of the moment to a friend, who told him, “You crashed. You just didn’t hit anything.”
The upside? Kimball didn’t set himself further back by damaging the car.
“I’m really proud to have saved the car and not crashed the car,” Kimball said. “Anytime you hit the wall at Indy, it puts you some level behind. I was pleased not to do that, to keep it off the wall, but it was not what I was expecting from the car itself.”
The downside? The Rio Mesa High graduate, who is currently No. 18 in the NTT IndyCar Series points standings, qualified No. 29 with an average speed of 227.758 MPH over his four qualifying laps.
Which means that, after consistently competing in the top half of the field during last week’s practices, Kimball will start Sunday at the Brickyard on Row 10 between Helio Castroneves and Max Chilton. The race will be broadcast by NBC on Sunday, beginning locally at 10 a.m.
“Would I rather be starting in the front row? It’s a lot easier when you start up front,” Kimball said. “When you start a little further back, it almost forces you to be a little more creative on Sunday.
“The opportunity is there. Is it harder? Yes. It would be harder if it was a 200-mile race. With five or six pit stops (in a 500-mile race), there’s the opportunity to continue to make our car better during the course of the race and use some strategy to move through the field.”
AJ Foyt racing teammates Dalton Kellett and Tony Kaanan aren’t having the same issues this week.
“When we try to match their setup, my car is a lot looser,” Kimball said. “It wants to turn a lot more.”
So Kimball and his team faced a race against the clock this week to diagnose and fix the issue.
“I have total confidence in the AJ Foyt crew to fix it,” Kimball said.
Whatever happens Sunday, it won’t be the same without the mass of humanity that normally fills the grandstand at IMS.
“It’s just weird,” Kimball said. “And it’s heartbreaking … to not have the best fans in the world to come out to the race track.”
Last Sunday, as Marco Andretti earned his famous family’s first Indy 500 pole since 1987, Kimball noticed fans tailgating across the street from the speedway, positioned so they could watch qualifying on the big screen.
“They couldn’t be in the track,” Kimball said, “but they wanted to be here to just hear the cars run.”
Of course, Kimball will also be missing his family, including his father Gordon, who helped design so many cars for Indianapolis.
Gordon Kimball, who now manages the family avocado farm outside Santa Paula, will be watching from home for the first time since his son’s career took off more than a decade ago.
The Kimball friends and family section, typically somewhere between 30 to 60 people, will be empty.
“We usually host a dinner for some of the out-of-town people on Friday night after Carb day and the pit stop competition,” Kimball said. “I get to see all of them… so it’s going to be really strange.”
Kimball has found himself calling his father more often than usual this month, sitting in the RV the race team has rented for the month.
“For me, he’s always been such a great mentor and had such a great perspective,” said Kimball. “I call him and use him as a sanity check, just to make sure I’m thinking about things the right way.”
Despite the pandemic and the potential gremlin and everything else that makes this week unique and dramatic, Kimball is intent on not taking his 10th Indy 500 for granted.
“It is neat,” Kimball said. “Qualifying for my first Indy 500 was special. Each year has only gotten more and more special. I know that sounds kind of crazy. Every year, you do this race and this event, it becomes more and more important to come back for me.
“It’s one of those races that just gets further and further into your blood each time you do it. The stress. The adrenaline. The pressure. The sense of accomplishment. Not only qualifying for it, but racing in it and completing in it.”
Joe Curley covers sports for The Star. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @vcsjoecurley.