Feb 8, 2003
The driver of the No. 02 Pontiac Sunbird, who runs for Team Copaxone - what the heck is Copaxone? - rolled off the high banks Thursday and into the garage area at Daytona International Speedway.
When the vehicle came to a stop, the driver did not, pulling off helmet and racing gloves and revealing long brown hair and red nail polish.
Kelly "Girl" Sutton never stopped. There was an interview to do, photographs to sign, and she and her dad and crew had to squeeze more miles per hour out of the engine before qualifying for Sunday's Daytona USA 150, part of the Goody's Dash Series.
"She's not much for slowing down," Carol Sutton said of her youngest daughter.
You have to know the story. And when you do, the NASCAR big shots of the Daytona 500, the men Kelly Sutton dreams of running against, don't seem as big as a 31-year-old mother of two from Crownsville, Md., a woman on the go.
What the heck is Copaxone? It's the drug Kelly Sutton injects into her body every day to fight multiple sclerosis, the disease that stalks after her, that has tried to mess with those dreams, that has dared put her in a wheelchair. As if it could keep her there.
"MS doesn't define me," Kelly Sutton said. "I define me."
Slowed After A Fast Start
It was an aunt - Aunt Betty - who gave her a nickname. Hey there, Kelly Girl. Where you going, Kelly Girl? Well, wherever she was going, she aimed to get there first.
Sutton's grandfather, Charlie, raced on dirt tracks. Her father, Ed, was world Figure-8 champion. As a 4-year-old, Kelly Renae Sutton would pull a milk crate up to the cars so she could see into the engines. She was racing motorcycles at 10 and go-carts at 12.
But she began having problems. She was always tired, and it wasn't just from racing or all the softball she played so well. Her right side tingled. One day, it went numb.
Kelly Sutton learned she had MS, a chronic neurological disease that attacks the nervous system. Doctors told her she might walk for another eight or 10 years. She was 16.
She thought about Mrs. Carmen, the only person with MS she knew. Mrs. Carmen was bedridden. Kelly and her mother would visit her with the church group. They'd bring flowers and sing hymns. Mrs. Carmen never got out of that bed. That was what Kelly knew.
"I was scared," she said.
She was confined to a wheelchair and home-tutored for the last five months of her senior year of high school. But something inside her kept going. That motor.
"That spirit," Ed said.
Kelly walked across the stage to get her diploma.
"That was a triumphant night for all of us," Carol said.
Kelly Sutton has relapsing-remitting MS, the most common form of the disease, characterized by partial or total recovery after attacks. Diet helped. Exercise helped. Family helped. And racing helped.
"Driving meant everything," Sutton said.
But there were more curves in the road. Life piled up in January 1995. While driving to her parents' house, Sutton hit a patch of ice and rammed a tree at 60 mph. She was airlifted to a trauma center. "Most of the bones on my right side were broken," Sutton said.
Just when she recovered from the wreck, the MS returned, more vicious than ever. At 25, Sutton sat in a wheelchair for a year and wondered if she'd walk again. That was the bottom.
"She was so far down, I thought we might lose her," Ed Sutton said.
Of course, she came back. Of course, Team Sutton was there for her. There was her husband, Butch, and her two girls. Ed built a stationary race car that doubled as a workout machine. Everybody fueled the dream. And there was Copaxone, which reduced relapses. Kelly Sutton has been out of a wheelchair since 1996.
"And it ain't coming back," she said.
She Drives With The Fighters
The company that manufactures Copaxone eventually became Sutton's sponsor. This is her second full season in the Goody's Dash Series, a NASCAR steppingstone. Sutton finished 12th in the point standings as a rookie last year. She won the Most Popular Driver Award.
She qualified 11th for Sunday's race with a speed of 160.065 mph. Off the track, Sutton still guns it. When not coaching Ashlee, her 12-year-old softball prodigy, she inspires audiences with her story. Teenagers with MS follow her every word.
Bolted to the dashboard of Kelly Sutton's racer is the center cap of the steering wheel from one of her grandfather's cars. She dreams of racing the high banks in a Daytona 500. Her favorite driver is Ed Sutton. Her second favorite is the late Dale Earnhardt.
"He brought himself up to be who he was," Sutton said of Earnhardt. "He was a fighter."
Look who's talking.
"I guess I fight," Sutton said. "You can't give up hope. You keep fighting and you do what you do. You keep moving."
You go, Kelly Girl.
© 2003, Media General Inc.