Ryan Reed rises in NASCAR while managing Type 1 diabetes
Ryan Reed signs autographs following a meet and greet in his car hauler on Saturday, July 12, 2014. (Alan MacRae/for the Monitor)
A wireless glucometer (black box), mounted on the dashboard of Ryan Reed's Nationwide series race car, allows him to monitor his blood sugar levels as he is racing. (Alan MacRae/for the Monitor)
Ryan Reed gets ready to make his qualifying run for the Nationwide Sta Green 200 on Saturday, July 12, 2014. (Alan MacRae/for the Monitor)
Ryan Reed speeds down the front stretch in his #16 Ford as his team looks at the scoreboard to see what his lap speed is during qualifying for the Nationwide Sta Green 200 on Saturday, July 12, 2014. (Alan MacRae/for the Monitor)
At the edge of the Loudon track yesterday morning, Ryan Reed grabbed a small black device –about the size of an iPod – and mounted it next to his steering wheel.
He’d check it every few laps during the NASCAR Nationwide Series qualifying laps at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway, as he does every time he races. While most of the meters on his dashboard give him feedback about his car’s performance, this one monitors his body. It’s wirelessly connected to a sensor on his stomach that measures his blood glucose levels, and it’s one of the main reasons the 20-year-old driver is one of NASCAR’s rising stars today.
Reed has Type 1 diabetes and, at first, was told he would have to give up his pursuit of a career in professional racing. Thanks to modifications to his racing routine, he’s now flourishing in the world of NASCAR. The Bakersfield, Calif., resident finished 11th in yesterday’s race, coming off of a fourth-place finish in the Subway Firecracker 250 at Daytona International Speedway earlier this month.
Along the way, he’s also establishing himself as an important voice for the diabetes community, proving to others that a diagnosis doesn’t have to derail their dreams, either.
Staying in the race
Reed’s been racing practically his whole life. He drove go-karts as a 4-year-old, he said, and his dad, Mark, is a former NASCAR driver. When he received his diagnosis at age 17, giving up wasn’t an option.
Today, his racing career continues because of close consultation with his medical team – an endocrinologist, a nurse and a nutritionist – and careful coordination with his racing team, Roush Fenway Racing. On race days, Reed’s team gets special permission from NASCAR to have an extra person “over the wall” for him during pit stops.
One of those men is Craig Herrmann, and his official title is “engine tuner.” But Herrmann also keeps an insulin pen in his toolbox – or his pocket, or wherever else he has the space – and stands ready to inject a shot during a pit stop if Reed’s glucose levels require it. A bullseye on the left thigh of Reed’s racing suit shows Herrmann where he should aim.
So far, Herrmann’s never needed to spring into action during a race, though the pair have practiced the routine plenty of times in case of an emergency. Herrmann’s wife had gestational diabetes, so when the racing team learned that Reed might need someone to be on insulin shot duty, he volunteered.
“It’s the only team where you get to have this kind of role,” Herrmann said, adding that the racing team’s grown closer through their efforts to help Reed manage his condition.
Others chip in, too. Team members kept a bottle of orange Powerade and a bottle of cherry-flavored glucose tablets close by during the qualifying laps yesterday morning. The American Diabetes Association sent Roush Fenway Racing some diabetes-friendly cookbooks to consult for their team meals.
Reed also credits other professional athletes who have diabetes – swimmer Gary Hall Jr., skier Kris Freeman and fellow driver Charlie Kimball – with showing him it was possible to stick with his sport.
“Those were the guys who inspired me when I was diagnosed,” he said.
Managing a diagnosis
Managing Reed’s diabetes is kind of like managing the vehicle he drives.
“If Ryan’s blood sugars are very low, it’s just like his car running out of gas – he’s not going anywhere, and he hasn’t got the fuel to be able to do what he needs to do,” said Robert Ratner, chief scientific and medical officer for the American Diabetes Association. “On the other hand, if his blood sugar is too high, it’s analogous to a car with a full tank of gas – but the spark plug’s disconnected, and he can’t burn it.”
Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease involving an inability to produce insulin, which is required to process glucose, Ratner said. People with Type 2 diabetes are able to make insulin, Ratner said, but their bodies aren’t able to “keep up with the demand for insulin.”
About 29 million people in the United States have diabetes, Ratner said, while the count is up to more than 300 million worldwide – and both of those figures are steadily increasing. (Most of those are Type 2 diabetes cases, while Type 1 diabetes accounts for about 5 percent of diagnoses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)
The increase is partially because people with diabetes are living longer and add to those totals, Ratner said, but lots of people are also being newly diagnosed. But when it comes to Type 2 diabetes, he said, people tend to be getting less physical activity and eating less healthily – putting them at greater risk.
Technological advancements like Reed’s in-car glucose monitor have made it more possible for athletes with diabetes to stay in the game. The routines vary, though: While Reed’s able to keep a close eye on his glucose levels while he’s racing, a swimmer wouldn’t be as easily able to check his or her numbers. Instead, Ratner said, “you essentially learn how much glucose you burn for a particular activity” and modify your game day routine accordingly.
Still, Ratner said, barriers persist in athletics and elsewhere: People who are diagnosed with diabetes continue be told “No” in the face of their dreams. Ratner and those at the American Diabetes Association are working to change that.
Reed and other high-profile figures with diabetes are “absolutely pivotal” to getting that message across, he added.
Beyond the track
When he’s not in the driver’s seat, Reed’s moments of downtime are few and far between.
He’s teamed up on and off the track with others fighting diabetes – Reed’s vehicle, the No. 16 American Diabetes Association Drive to Stop Diabetes Ford Mustang, is co-sponsored by Lilly Diabetes – and he’s frequently asked to speak about his condition.
Before yesterday’s race, he hosted a group from Lilly Diabetes and the American Diabetes Association for an interview and a quick tour of his hauler (or trailer).
He also gets stopped “at least a couple of times a week” by people who either have diabetes or know someone who does. It’s a nice reminder that his racing career isn’t just about him, he said.
“I think it just shows how prevalent it is,” he said, of his condition.
Yesterday, it happened minutes after he wrapped up the qualifying laps. He’d just finished lower than he had hoped, but this would have to do for now – and he was walking back from the track to his hauler when a woman stopped him. She wanted to relay how much his racing career meant to a colleague who had diabetes.
Smiling, she called Reed “an inspiration.” She didn’t seem to care how fast he drove.
(Casey McDermott can be reached at 369-3306 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @caseymcdermott.)