Dustin Mitchell has always loved racing.
At the tender age of 8, he could rattle off the names and car numbers of every driver in NASCAR.
He spent countless hours in the stands at Kalispell’s Montana Raceway Park watching his dad, Bill, dart around the banked loop in his compact car.
Dustin would sit on the top row of the bleachers alongside his mother conducting a race of his own with Hot Wheels.
As Dustin was enmeshed in the racing world at a young age, it was perhaps no surprise to his family that he wanted to try his own hand behind the wheel.
What they didn’t expect were the speed bumps that came long before Dustin got to the starting line.
The symptoms started in December of 2012 when Dustin was 9.
They came on suddenly and seemingly out of nowhere.
Breakfast was followed with bouts of nausea and vomiting, and Dustin became increasingly sensitive to sunlight.
Six days before Christmas, his parents took him to Community Medical Center in Missoula. He spent three days in the ICU before doctors delivered his diagnosis: Dustin had Type 1 diabetes.
Type I diabetes is a condition that occurs when the pancreas produces little to no insulin — a hormone that allows sugar to enter cells. Left untreated, the sugar remains in the bloodstream, and can spike to unhealthy levels that may be life-threatening.
“It was scary because I didn’t know anything about it,” Bill said. “You don’t know what their limitations are ... come to find out, there are none. How many pro athletes are there with Type 1? Lots.”
Shortly after his son’s diagnosis, Bill and Jennifer decided the time was right to get him his first racecar. The St. Ignatius residents wanted to show their son that diabetes didn’t mean an end to his dreams.
Jennifer and Bill purchased a used bandolero for $4,500 to get Dustin’s career off the ground.
Bandoleros are entry-level racecars that top out at approximately 55 mph and are raced by drivers between 8 and 15 years old.
Dustin was determined not to let his diabetes slow him down.
He could still race, and win — he just needed a few extra parts.
Each day especially on race days, Dustin wears an insulin pump and a continuous glucose monitor that measures his blood sugar every five minutes.
“In the race, when we can’t be there to physically poke his finger, this continuous glucose monitor sends a message to our phones and I can look on my cell phone and see what his sugar’s doing,” Jennifer said.
Although the digital connection helps keep her mind at ease, she doesn’t let her son on the track without a preliminary sugar check.
“That’s one of the dangerous things — if they’re too high or too low, you can get other people in a wreck,” she said. “If you’re low, you sometimes don’t know what the heck you’re doing.”
Thus far, Dustin hasn’t had any issues with his diabetes on the track.
He knows his body pretty well, his mom said, and keeps an eye on what he eats.
This year, Dustin, now 14 years old, made a new addition to his car.
The black bandolero bears the phrase “Hope for a cure” on the hood. It’s Dustin’s way of raising awareness for diabetes and making it known that yes, it is possible to race with a chronic condition.
The family hopes to gain sponsors and raise funds for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, one of the leading funders of research on Type 1 diabetes.
“We put that on our cars to show that we’re raising awareness for, not just me, but other Type 1’s,” Dustin said.
Going into the Montana 200, Dustin holds the No. 2 spot in the bandolero rankings with 247 points, second only to his sister, Courtney, by a margin of four.
“When we got the car for Dustin, she said what about me?” Jennifer said. “We had no clue she was interested at all.”
The sibling rivalry helps motivate Dustin.
Some of his favorite moments in racing are when it’s just he and his sister up front, leading the pack. The pair will go head to head Friday at the Coors Light Montana 200 in qualifying, heat and final races.
But this year, he wants to come out on top.
Dustin said his goal for the season, which ends in September, is “to win everything — and beat my sister.”
He’s racing for points in Pablo’s Mission Valley Speedway, too. Racers are eligible for points for each qualifying run, heat race and final race. At the end of the season, the points are tallied and the top racer in each category goes home with a championship trophy. Now at the midpoint in the season, Dustin said he currently holds first there.
But it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. Diabetes or not, the sport comes with risks.
Two weeks ago Dustin went off the track, flying off a hill into “an explosion of dirt,” Jennifer said.
“My friend and I were racing up front with two other people and we came around turn one, my steering wheel popped up,” Dustin said. “I went straight toward a dirt hill and went right over it.”
The young racer escaped unscathed — even exiting his vehicle shortly after the crash to show the crowd he was OK.
The family pieced his car together and Dustin was able to race again that night.
He’s not one to give up easily or let anything, even diabetes, slow him down.