Archive for Thursday, June 24, 2004

Chasing checkered flags

Sutton won’t let disease stop her from racing

June 24, 2004

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Kelly Sutton has multiple sclerosis.

She also has a husband named Butch, two daughters named Ashlee and Nicole, and a dog named Shadow. She has parents, Ed and Carol, who wouldn't let her give up on her dreams to become a race-car driver.

So what label best defines Sutton, a 32-year-old from Crownsville, Md.? Wife and mother? Or rookie trying to make it in NASCAR's Truck Series, a female in a male-dominated sport? Or spokesperson for a medicine used to help manage MS, the most common neurological disease causing disability in young adults?

"I don't ever want MS to define me," Sutton said. "I am a mom, I am a wife and I am a race-car driver. I have MS, and that has given me an opportunity to share my story with other people and encourage them to get on therapy like the daily injection I take."

Sutton takes Copaxone, and part of her job is to get the word out that the medicine can help people with what she has, relapsing-remitting MS, live with a relatively low number of symptoms.

Another part of her job, though, is to get better as a racer every time she takes her Chevrolet truck onto the track. Racing, after all, is in the Sutton blood. She's a third-generation racer who grew up spending her Saturday nights at the short-track with her dad.

"I started working on cars when I was 5, old enough to hold a wrench," she said.

The idea was always for her to be a driver. Ed and Kelly starting building her first car when she was 15, but less than a year later she started feeling fatigue and numbness on her right side. A spinal tap and an MRI led doctors to diagnose Sutton with MS.

It was a tough thing to take in, and Sutton didn't take it well at first.

For three years, she said, she felt sorry for herself and thought her dream to race had died. Then, Ed and Carol stepped in.

In her first year racing in the NASCAR Truck Series, Kelly Sutton
is 31st in the points standings.

In her first year racing in the NASCAR Truck Series, Kelly Sutton is 31st in the points standings.

"Dad said, 'You want to go racing?'" Sutton said. "I said, 'Yes, but I have MS.' He said, 'I don't care. If you want to be a driver, you're a Sutton and you're not a quitter.'"

She raced at Old Dominion Speedway in Virginia for three years, winning seven features and three most popular driver awards. But then she had a relapse and spent much of 1996 in a wheelchair.

Again, it was up to Dad to help her move on. He built his daughter a piece of exercise equipment that looked like a go-kart with no wheels. "He told me to get my butt up and get into it," Kelly said. "When I could do 100 laps, we'd go racing."

Sutton changed her attitude. She also changed doctors and medications. She started using Copaxone in 1998. She ran Allison Legacy cars, then moved up into the Dash Series and finished in 12th and eighth in points in two full seasons in that division.

Now she's driving a truck owned by her family. It's not the richest team in the Truck Series, and Sutton knows both she and the first-year team have a lot of learning ahead.

"It's very rewarding to be competing. I am not frustrated," she said. "We have to get our act together and get great people with more experience on this team. The guys we're racing against have been running the series a long time. They know what it takes to make these trucks go. We're just learning that because it's our first year.

"I know this year is our learning year. Next year I will worry about having better qualifying times and about finishing in the top 20 and the top 10."

Along the way, she hopes she might be able to help someone else avoid some of the things she had to pull herself out of after learning she has a disease.

"I want to change the face of MS," Sutton said. "I can't tell you the number of times people have said to me, 'Well, you don't look like there's anything wrong.' If you have a broken leg you have a cast on and people can see that something's wrong. People hear about MS and think wheelchair. I want to change that. That's part of my story."

But it's only a part. If you're looking for the best label for Kelly Sutton, there's only one that does her justice -- racer.

"I just know that racing has been in my family and I am a very competitive person by spirit, like race car drivers are," she said. "I think that's what makes you a driver, being competitive. You want the speed, you want to be better than everybody else on a given day. I am just like anybody else, I want to see that checkered flag."

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