Sunday, November, 4, 2001 5:15AM
By Kathy Barberich
The Fresno Bee
When Kelly Sutton puts her pedal to the metal, she glides around an oval track at speeds upward of 170 mph. She races like there is no tomorrow. Maybe that's because she has learned to give every day her best shot. And not look at the past in the rear-view mirror.
For a girl who was born to race -- her grandfather and father were racers in the Baltimore area -- her dream of becoming a professional race-car driver came to a screeching halt at age 16. "Kelly Girl," her nickname, was diagnosed with relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis. It's an affliction characterized by cycles of attacks followed by periods of remission, during which there can be numbness, blurred vision, difficulty in walking and pain.
"The diagnosis was devastating," Kelly, now 30, says. "I thought everything I had hoped for had slipped away. My dad told me that a Sutton doesn't quit and that I shouldn't let multiple sclerosis win. Racing is what helped me get out of bed."
There were struggles and there are still struggles, but for the past four years Kelly, who is married and the mother of two, has been on a drug called Copaxone, which is helping to reduce the frequency of relapses. And not only is "Kelly Girl" in the driver's seat, but Teva Neuroscience, which markets the drug Kelly takes, is sponsoring her race car. Copaxone's name is emblazoned on the No. 2 blue and white Pontiac Sunfire.
Kelly is part of Team Copaxone and, when she's not traveling to races, she travels the country speaking to people about MS and how she copes. She will be in Fresno Nov. 16 speaking at the Dinner of Champions honoring central San Joaquin Valley racing legends Blackie Gejeian, Joe Boghosian and the late Fred Gerhardt.
Racing memorabilia will be offered at a silent auction during the event, which will benefit the Central California Chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
"I want to put a face on MS," says Kelly. "I want people to know that there is life after diagnosis."
But isn't life with MS hard? "You bet," she says. "I battle fatigue and muscle pain daily, but I am so grateful there are drug therapies out there now that can help. When I was diagnosed, there was nothing."
Kelly was just graduating from go-carts to stock cars when she was diagnosed. After feeling sorry for herself for three years, her father asked if she still wanted to race and promised to help if she did.
She raced stock cars for several years and graduated to the Goody's Dash Car Series in 1995, a scaled-down version of the NASCAR Winston Cup series.
A week before she was supposed to race in Daytona, though, she was in a serious car accident off the track. "I hit some ice on the road, spun out and hit a tree."
The accident and subsequent surgeries took a toll on Kelly. She came out of remission from MS and was in a wheelchair for a year.
But she recovered to drive in the Allison Legacy series, becoming the first woman to win that title in 1997. In 1998, she drove in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series, then was sidelined again in 1999 because she had no race truck and no sponsor.
When folks at Copaxone heard about a driver who had MS and was taking their drug, they offered her the ride of her life. Since 2000, she has had a car and a sponsor. She's raced only six times this year, but next year she is going full-time and will be in 18 to 24 races and vying for Rookie of the Year honors.
Seeing the checkered flag waving her across a finish line reminds Kelly that while a particular race may be over, she's a long way from being finished.
The columnist can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 441-6431.