Goody's Dash driver uses her racing success despite MS to teach others about living life to the fullest.
Friday, April 4, 2003
By Victor Fernandes
At age 5, Kelly Sutton wanted to be like her father -- a race car driver.
But a 16-year battle with multiple sclerosis has made her into much more than a racer on the brink of joining NASCAR's elite.
Since the day she climbed behind the wheel for the first time as a 19-year-old, three years after her diagnosis, Sutton has proven that only fellow drivers on the Goody's Dash Series have served as worthy foes. Along the way, she has become an inspiration to all and a hero to many people afflicted with the serious ailment.
"I'm able to travel around the country and share my story with other MS patients," Sutton said. "I try to encourage them to live their lives and not to let MS stop them from doing what they love to do.
"It was a real devastation for me (when I was diagnosed) because I never thought I would be able to race. But everybody has mountains to climb -- mine is MS. But we're still going strong. Now MS is a part of my racing. And I think because I've battled it so publicly, people can see some of their own stories in mine."
With the drug Copaxone keeping the disease in check and her skills and Team Copaxone doing the same to her racing counterparts, she has risen through the ranks. Saturday, Sutton continues her second full season on the Goody's Dash Series, as she tackles Oglethorpe Speedway Park's half-mile dirt track in the Lucas Oil "Dash on Dirt" 150.
Next, it's on to the Craftsman Truck Series, one of NASCAR's top-three divisions.
"I look at (MS) as a blessing now," the Crownsville, Md., native said. "I'm able to use that to help other people."
It's a level Sutton wasn't certain she could reach as a teenager "because I was getting sicker and sicker," she said. "I built my first race car at 15, and I was so excited about starting to race. But it didn't happen."
At times, she couldn't dismiss thoughts of spending her life in a wheelchair or confined to her bed, just like one of her childhood neighbors. "Miss Thomas" had MS, and each time the family went to her home after Sunday church services, "that was the first thing that came to my mind -- that I was going to be just like her," Sutton said. "That's pretty devastating at 16. But by the time I was 19, my dad said, 'We're going to do it before anything happens to you.' That was 15 years ago."
"I really am amazed," said her father/crew chief Ed Sutton, a standout dirt racer in the 1970s and '80s, including Figure Eight world champion in 1980. "We just started out with one season in Mini-Stocks and it's blossomed into this."
Five years ago, the drug company approached Sutton about joining Team Copaxone. The list of clients included professional kayakers and mountain bikers, among others -- competitors that wanted to ascend to the top of their sports. The team wanted to provide the same support to Sutton.
"The next thing I know I get the marketing department calling me about sponsorship," she said. "Copaxone is dedicated to helping me fulfill my dreams. They're behind me 100 percent."
The company has become the backbone of Sutton's rise through the Goody's Dash circuit. She has risen from two races and a top finish of 16th place in 2000 to six starts and a top-10 showing a season ago.
Then in February, Sutton achieved her life-long goal of competing on the famed 2.5-mile asphalt oval at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway, as she placed 17th in the season-opening event. Now on June 21st, she will compete at Memphis (Tenn.) Motorsports Park for the Craftsman Truck race, the first of a three- or four-race stint that will lead to a full season on the circuit in 2004. After that, who knows, she said.
"Because of the MS, I didn't know if (racing) was going to happen," she said. "But I knew I was going to pursue it. I wasn't going to let anything stop me.
"Now if I'm not able to go any further than the Trucks, I still feel
really blessed. I didn't expect all this. That's why everything from now
on is icing on the cake."
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