Novo Nordisk and Indy driver Charlie Kimball drive partnership to 100-race mark and counting

Every race car driver has sponsors. But not every driver depends on its car sponsor the way Charlie Kimball does: He has Type 1 diabetes and uses Novo Nordisk ($NVO) meds daily. And not every sponsor gets the articulate marketing backup that Kimball provides.

Last weekend, Kimball finished his 100th race in the Novo Nordisk IndyCar with no signs of slowing down the successful partnership. He finished 9th in the race, and ended in 9th place for the IndyCar 2016 season--a season in which Tresiba, Novo's new basal insulin, took the prime spot on the hood of Kimball's car.

Kimball first met with Novo Nordisk in 2008, introduced by his endocrinologist a year after finding out at that he had Type 1 diabetes. He was already using Novo treatments, and so his doctor thought the pharma might be interested in the young race car driver's story. The company was. Novo Nordisk and Kimball struck a partnership in 2009, starting with the brand on his racing suit and a few speaking engagements.

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Like many race car drivers who depend on partner sponsorships, Kimball is as knowledgeable about marketing as he is mechanics. He worked to make sure Novo Nordisk grew comfortable with him as a brand ambassador--and with the idea that motor sports could be an effective marketing tool.

“I love racing. There is nowhere I feel more alive than in a race car," Kimball told FiercePharma in an interview. "Diabetes is along for the ride with me every time I climb into the cockpit. So talking about racing means that I talk about diabetes, and talking about diabetes means I get to talk about racing, too."

Novo first signed on as Kimball's primary car sponsor in 2011 under the Chip Ganassi Racing team. While details of that deal aren't public, Bloomberg estimates that the cost of a primary Indy car sponsorship starts at $5 million to $9 million for the side pod, another $1 million to $2 million for the front wind and $300,000-$900,000 for the cockpit and tail.

But the team-up soon expanded beyond paint colors and car logos. Impressed with Kimball's combination of driving grit and genuine dedication to fans and diabetes awareness, Novo rolled out the “Race With Insulin” education campaign in 2013. That same year, Kimball became the first driver with Type 1 diabetes to win a major IndyCar race.

Novo Nordisk highlighted the uniqueness of their relationship with Kimball, noting that at the final IndyCar race at Sonoma this year was the first time in history a driver has had the same sponsor for 100 starts with the same team, adding, "We think that’s pretty special and underscores the power of our relationship together,” in an email to FiercePharma.

Celebrity endorsements are not always so cohesive and effective. Brands can run into issues that cause celebs to disavow them, as Sarah Jessica Parker recently did with Mylan's ($MYL) EpiPen amid the company's pricing debacle. Other times, as Novo knows, celebrities' behavior can cause a rift: The Danish drugmaker faced negative publicity and a split with Paula Deen after she admitted to using racist language.

Meanwhile, November is Diabetes Awareness Month, coming just after the season ends, and Kimball will spend the month traveling with Novo Nordisk and other ambassadors, including basketball player Dominque Wilkins, country music singer RaeLynn, actor Ben Vereen and rapper Rev Run, sharing their stories at speaking engagements and events.   

“I hope I’ve made an impact in the diabetes community. What is often overlooked is how much support the diabetes community gives to me," Kimball said. "When I’m struggling with my (disease) management or I’ve had a bad race, having that support from more than just race fans, but fans who have diabetes and live with it every day as well, is really valuable to me."

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