Paul O’Neill: Racing with diabetes
Paul O’Neill was a leading touring car driver when he was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in 2004. Despite his condition, O’Neill returned to racing two years later and didn’t retire until 2013. He now tells Luke Barry about how he made his comeback and what it was like to balance a racing career with diabetes.
When you have the phone number of a man who’s a race winner in the British Touring Car Championship, an ITV4 television pundit and a Spice Girl’s half-brother, what would you talk to him about?
Paul O’Neill was diagnosed with diabetes in 2004, just months after he secured fourth in the BTCC behind the wheel of a Vauxhall Astra Coupe.
While the story of how he dealt with diabetes is both fascinating and largely untold, it acts as a fine demonstration that this condition should never hold you back from living a normal life and fulfilling your dreams.
Just ask me. I am also a type 1 diabetic.
“When I found out I was diabetic I knew I was going to lose my race license,” said O’Neill.
“I had done really well in the 2003 championship and had finished fourth but at the end of the season I wasn’t feeling well. I found out I was a diabetic soon after.
“My head was absolutely fried – it did me in mentally to be honest. It obviously wasn’t a great thing but I just had to turn that negative into a positive so I turned all my attentions into getting as fit as I possibly could.
“I kind of got too focused on it and ended up becoming so fit and longing to get back into racing. I used exercise as a launch pad to do that and a way to combat my frustrations I guess.”
Despite his diagnosis, O’Neill proved he was stable enough to compete and was back racing just two years later in 2006.
But there were more challenges to overcome, with those in the BTCC paddock struggling to understand at first just what it was O’Neill was dealing with.
“Well because of the nature of it, there was concern for me,” O’Neill recalls.
“Everyone was brilliant with me, but people didn’t know enough about it to be honest. Some of them were like ‘aw well you’ll be back next week’ and then at the other end of the scale there were people that thought I would never come back again.
“People didn’t really know, some people didn’t want to ask. When I got a drive it caused me some problems because people didn’t know what diabetes really was. They just thought I walked round with an epi pen when it’s not, it’s an insulin pen.
“They aren’t being ignorant. I’ll be honest, I knew nothing about diabetes before I had to deal with it; I had to find out quick so I didn’t do the wrong thing. I don’t blame people for the way they perceived it, but it wasn’t easy. I just try and educate as many people as I can when they ask.”
Medical advances over the last few decades mean that diabetes is now a lot easier to treat than it was in the past, but managing it while also trying to manage your tyres and protect your position on the track is quite another matter.
O’Neill had to adapt his management on race day, but it often works as he knows he will be working hard and using up energy in every race he starts.
“If I’m racing, I’ll take the insulin in stages rather than in one go,” he says.
“For example if I was taking eight units of insulin on a normal day, I would take four units just before the race whilst I’m eating; then I’d race, check my blood afterwards and would then more than likely have to take the other four units.
“I’ll be taking on more carbs than usual such as pasta because I know I’ll burn it off while I’m driving.
“I don’t mind running a bit higher than usual as long as it doesn’t get into the teens. I’d rather that than go low because you can deal with a high.
“I have Lucozade in the car through a water bottle pipe with a one-way valve on it, and it’s like a placebo. I know I’m probably not going to have to use it because it really does spike your blood sugars drinking Lucozade, but it’s a great placebo because as you can have a phantom hypo if you don’t have the drink with you in the car. You’ll think ‘**** am I having a hypo’ when really you’re not, you just feel like you are.”
Personally, my biggest issue with managing my diabetes has always been hypos – when your blood sugar drops to a dangerously low level. The fear of rapidly running out of energy is always on the back of my mind.
Luckily for O’Neill, this has only happened once when behind the wheel of a racing car.
“I’ve always been alright when racing,” he says.
“I’ve had a few highs, but they’ve never caused me any problems. I have had a low before when I was in qualifying for touring cars [BTCC] and I had to come into the pits before starting my new tyre run because I just didn’t feel right. I had to take some Lucozade onboard, wait a few minutes, and then go again but apart from that I’ve always been fine.”
It’s not something that would play on his mind either when in a touring car race. This wasn’t always the case in longer races though.
“I’ve done a couple of 24 hour endurance races, and because sometimes you’re going at 80% rather than 100% like in a sprint race, you have a bit more time to think and it does cross your mind sometimes.
“You can be out racing when you should be in bed, so you think ‘will my sugars be dropping; will they be doing this or that; have I eaten enough to cover it?’ When you’re in touring cars or sprint races you’re just battling with other drivers so you don’t think about it at all.”
Having retired from the BTCC in 2013, O’Neill is now a pundit for ITV4’s television coverage of the series, among his many other ambassadorial and instructing roles.
Perhaps surprisingly, this has caused him more problems than he incurred while out there competing.
“Because racing is more controlled and you know exactly what time you are going to be doing things, you eat at a certain time.
“TV is a lot different, you’re lucky if you get a sandwich at a random time and you’ll then be delayed with an interview or something if a race is running late so you’ll find yourself running upstairs on a break sweating and having a hypo.
“It’s easier to get sorted than in a race but it’s more obvious, you don’t have the adrenalin there to distract you or anything like that.”
I find myself awe-struck by these words. Those around me have often complimented the way I deal with diabetes without making a fuss; I reckon a lot of people in my life probably aren’t even aware I have it.
But I was lucky. I was 10 years old when I was diagnosed which meant I was old enough to have a vague understand of what was happening to me but young enough to not be naive and try and ignore it.
To be at the peak of your powers in the highest profile racing series in the UK and to then be hit with something like this must’ve been utterly bewildering.
To deal with it with such ease shows a true mark of Paul O’Neill’s character, and I hope you’ve read this today and feel content that no matter what life throws at you, there’s always a way to overcome it.
He’s certainly inspired me.