All About Multiple Sclerosis

More MS news articles for June 2004

Traveling her rough road in racing

Kelly Sutton does not let a disease slow her down

Fri, Jun. 04, 2004
Pete Schnatz
The Philadelphia Inquirer

Kelly Sutton's future course as a pickup-truck racer was established early. Her father raced late models on dirt tracks throughout Maryland and Virginia, and she began riding motor bikes when she was 10, then graduated to go-carts.

"I was my dad's shadow, a real tomboy," Sutton said with a laugh, remembering her days growing up in Crownsville, Md. "When I was old enough to hold a wrench, I was out there helping him. I could change rear tires when I was 9 or 10 years old. I just loved it."

But as her short-track career moved on, Sutton experienced overwhelming fatigue and a tingling sensation on her right side. Through testing by a neurologist, she was diagnosed with relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis (RRMS).

"I was devastated," she said. "I was 16 years old and all I wanted to do was race."

Although she spent some time in a wheelchair, Sutton made it back to the driver's seat through a disciplined regimen of exercise, diet and drug therapy. She is believed to be the first person with multiple sclerosis to race in any NASCAR series.

Sutton, now 32, uses her position as a competitor in the Craftsman Truck Series to regularly address others afflicted with the incurable neurological disease.

Before heading to Dover International Speedway to qualify for today's MBNA America 200, she attended the MS Dinner of Champions on Wednesday night in Greensboro, N.C. There she joined high-profile drivers such as Jeff Burton, Michael Waltrip, Tony Stewart and Rusty Wallace in roasting NASCAR president Mike Helton.

"I speak to a lot of groups. I'm there for anybody who needs help," Sutton said. "A lot of people with MS contact me through e-mail on my Web site []. In fact, I'm embarrassed to say, I'm a little behind in my responses."

In a sport where competitors must remain alert and focused while muscling a 3,400-pound vehicle through heavy traffic, often at speeds well over 100 m.p.h., fatigue can be debilitating, and that is one of the symptoms that Sutton has had to overcome through daily injections of Copaxone, diet, exercise, and, as she says, "sheer determination."

Copaxone, an FDA-approved drug (glatiramer acetate injection) made by Teva Pharmaceuticals and used to reduce the frequency of relapses in RRMS patients, also is the primary sponsor of Sutton's family-owned No. 02 Chevrolet Silverado.

According to Sutton, NASCAR doesn't scrutinize her more than other drivers.

"I just have to pass the same [preseason] physical as everybody else," she said with a shrug. "And I passed with flying colors, including the vision test.

"I have MS, but that's not what defines me."

Sutton said that she has no problems with balance, flexibility or spasticity - the simultaneous contraction of opposing muscles - some of the symptoms common to many of the more than 400,000 Americans living with MS.

Away from the track, Sutton also has a busy family life. There are the daily responsibilities of raising daughters Ashlee, 14, and Nicole, 9, and her husband, Butch Fabiszak, owns a dirt late-model race team.

"The hectic schedules aren't really as big a deal as people think," Sutton said. "I was born and raised in a racing family, and when you're in an environment for 30-some years you learn to adapt."

One of 17 rookies (and one of two women - Tina Gordon is the other) in the Craftsman Truck Series, Sutton has found the going tough this season. She qualified for just two of the first five races this season, and her finishes of 32d and 20th netted her just more than $14,000 in prize money.

Yesterday, her qualifying run of 141.343 m.p.h. was more than 11 m.p.h. slower than pole winner Carl Edwards, and landed Sutton 31st in the 35-truck field.

"We're still trying to develop our team. We're definitely searching for more sponsorship to help us along, so we can get more track time and possibly more engineers like the big boys have," she said. "Right now we just don't have it all worked out."

Notes. Several Craftsman Truck Series drivers will participate in an autograph session today, starting at 1:30 p.m., in the North Hospitality Tent Village behind Gate 17. The event, which is scheduled to run for 45 minutes, is free for those holding tickets to this afternoon's race.

Copyright © 2004, The Philadelphia Inquirer