When he’s racing in NASCAR’s Xfinity Series, driver Ryan Reed keeps a close eye on his dashboard monitors, which track his blood sugar along with his car’s tire pressure, RPMs and water temperature.
Reed was told his racing career was over when he was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at age 17, that it was too dangerous to risk the disorientation of hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) at 200 mph.
Thanks to advances in diabetes-monitoring technology, however, the 22-year-old is not only living his dream but inspiring others with the Drive to Stop Diabetes campaign.
The son of former NASCAR driver Mark Reed, Ryan began racing go-karts at age 4. As a teenager growing up in California, he would grab some fast food after school, go work on race cars until 10 p.m., “then grab a sugary energy drink and get home to do some homework so my mom wouldn’t be mad at me.”
Reed was in the process of moving to North Carolina to begin his own NASCAR career when he began losing weight and “drinking tons of water.” Devastated by his diagnosis, he googled “athletes with diabetes” and came across the story of IndyCar driver Charlie Kimball. Kimball’s doctor, Anne Peters, had a practice just two hours from Reed’s parents’ home. He talked the receptionist into an appointment the very next day.
Peters got Reed a Dexcom continuous glucose monitor to mount on his dashboard. She also insisted he adopt the mindset of a professional athlete who fuels his body for optimum performance. He hired a personal trainer and switched from a “typical teenage diet” to one that includes “a decent amount of healthy carbs” such as whole grains, along with lean protein and healthy fats such as avocado.
“Every NASCAR driver has to go through a health screening,” Reed said. “Ann worked closely with NASCAR on all of that. She told me to focus on learning to manage my diabetes and driving my race car.”
Other drivers had lots of questions for him at first. They weren’t suspicious or unfriendly, he says, “just curious about my situation.” They’ve since gotten used to the No. 16 car emblazoned with the word diabetes in giant letters, reflecting the support of Eli Lilly and the American Diabetes Association. Dexcom has also been “a huge supporter” of his foundation, Ryan’s Mission, along with the Drive to Stop Diabetes.
Reed now serves as a diabetes advocate both on and off the track, visiting children’s hospitals, support groups and summer camps. The passenger door of his race car bears the name of a different diabetes patient every month.
“Sometimes they’ll come out to the race track and get their picture taken beside their name on the door,” he says. “The idea is to let the racing be a part of someone else’s life, too.”
While Reed would rather not have diabetes, there have been many positives along the way.
“I understand my body so much more now because of diabetes,” he said, noting that he runs and bikes and recently completed his first 5K. “That was my first race that wasn’t in a race car.”
Reed especially appreciates his strong connection with the diabetes community. Around three-fourths of all NASCAR fans either have diabetes themselves or a family member who does, according to www.drivetostopdiabetes.com.
“Probably the most rewarding thing is the time I spend with kids, seeing how much it means to them,” he said.
Through his racing, he hopes to show kids that they, too, can achieve their dreams.