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Baranek: Billy Knippenberg fights diabetes on, off track

Billy Knippenberg Plainfield with stock car he drives for owners Charles MartEd Patrone his garage Joliet. | Brett Roseman~Sun-Times Media

Billy Knippenberg, of Plainfield, with the stock car he drives for owners Charles Martin and Ed Patrone, at his garage in Joliet. | Brett Roseman~Sun-Times Media

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Track Results

Grundy County Speedway

July 27

Late-Model

Trophy dash: 1. Chris Cooling. 1st heat: 1. Brandon Clubb. 2nd heat: 1. Cooling. 30-lap feature: 1. Larry Schuler, 2. Ricky Baker, 3. Cooling, 4. P.J. Polcyn.

Mid-American

40-lap feature: 1. Billy Knippenberg, 2. Jeremy Spoonmore, 3. Ryan Farrell, 4. Frank Slabenak.

Street stock

1st heat: 1. Darrell Gay. 2nd heat: 1. John Senerchia. 25-lap feature: 1. Senerchia, 2. Logan Love, 3. Nathan Kelly, 4. Randy Weese.

Illiana Speedway

July 28

Late-model

1st heat: 1. John Nutley. 2nd heat: 1. Paul Zolodz. 30-lap feature: 1. Eddie Hoffman, 2. Mike White, 3. Nutley, 4. Paul Shafer Jr.

Turbo stox

1st heat: 1. Shawn Wiltjer. 2nd heat: 1. Rob Scamen. 25-lap feature: 1. Chris Woodall, 2. Eddie Wolf, 3. Jack McKown, 4. Pat Ligue.

Legends

1st heat: 1. Matt O’Leary. 2nd heat: 1. Chris Hacker. 20-lap feature: 1. O’Leary, 2. Alex Arelano, 3. Garrett Harris.

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Updated: September 2, 2012 6:09AM



Billy Knippenberg stood in the winners circle with a big smile on his face after capturing Friday night’s special Mid-American Stock Car Series event at Grundy County Speedway.

It had been a long time since the Plainfield native last had waved to the crowd, after winning the 2011 Mid-Am track title.

A very long time.

“It’s been a hell of a year,” he said. “Hopefully, my luck is going to change.”

His life most certainly has.

A year ago, Knippenberg drove the Mid-Am car owned by Bill Gagnon to raise funds for diabetes research. Every dollar the No. 01 earned went to the Juvenile Diabetes Association as part of their “Drivers Against Diabetes” cause.

Knippenberg had good reason. His little brother, Tommy, was diagnosed with Type I diabetes at age 3.

Months later, it became even more personal.

Knippenberg, 39, was at home in late May, recovering from surgery to repair a torn biceps in his left arm when he woke up one morning and saw nothing but a blur.

By the end of the day, his cause had become his own concern. He was diagnosed with Type II diabetes.

“I wasn’t really scared; it was just kind of a depressing thing,” Knippenberg said. “It was instant depression to wake up one day and all of a sudden find out that something is wrong with you that is somewhat life changing.”

Somewhat? Knippenberg couldn’t see well again for almost two weeks. He’s looking in the very near future at wearing glasses.

Every race night he’ll always have to have a Gatorade and a sandwich nearby to prevent dehydration and keep his carbohydrate and protein levels stable.

For now he’s able to keep his blood-sugar level stable with oral medication. There always is the possibility he could become insulin-dependent like his brother.

Tommy, 28, is been-there, done-that when it comes to controlling diabetes, and he hasn’t missed a beat in his own racing career. He subbed in his older brother’s new Mid-Am car this season, and in his last turn behind the wheel a couple of weeks ago won the 25-lap main.

Tommy said he’ll never forget the role his older brother played during his childhood.

“There were nights when my brother saved my life,” Tommy said. “When you’re diabetic, you have highs and lows. When it gets low enough you can go into diabetic coma. He saved my life many times over the years, getting me the attention I needed. Because of him I’m here today to talk about it.

“When he was diagnosed, it scared me because I know what people who have (diabetes) go through. It’s good that he’s happy and still having fun.”

To be sure, Billy Knippenberg hasn’t lost his competitive edge. In Friday’s Mid-Am special he had to pass leader Jeremy Spoonmore — a Mid-American regular — twice during the final 10 laps.

The first time, he appeared to have Spoonmore beaten when they crossed the line to complete lap 36. When the yellow flag fell a few seconds later, Knippenberg was placed behind Spoonmore for the restart.

Mid-American regulars mount their transponders in the front of their cars, while the Grundy regulars mount theirs in the back. Using their eyes from the scoring tower apparently wasn’t an option.

The sometimes volatile Billy Knippenberg from 2011 might have stopped his car in front of the starter’s stand and raised a ruckus. The 2012 edition doesn’t sweat the small stuff.

Shortly after the restart, Knippenberg pushed his car underneath and past Spoonmore to claim the win. It was a popular victory, drawing possibly the most cheers that Knippenberg has ever heard.

“I was nervous,” he said. “There were a lot of hopes by a lot of people involved in this car that I would do well with it. But I wasn’t sure.

“I didn’t know if I was ready yet. But obviously I’m still there. I guess it’s like riding a bicycle.”

And life, albeit a bit altered, goes on. Knippenberg (for another team) and Gagnon both are driving Mid-Ams now, while Tony D’Ambrose is in the process of preparing a late-model for Knippenberg.

And diabetes?

“I’m going to live a long time, I’m not worried about that,” Knippenberg said, smiling. “I’m still going to do the things I want to do.”



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