Saturday, July 12, 2003
Driver puts pedal down, battles multiple sclerosis
Passion for racing helps
By Colleen Kane
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Kelly "Girl" Sutton rests in her trailer at Kentucky Speedway Friday morning before her practice round for the Goody's Dash Series "Kentucky 150."
Her 13-year-old daughter, Ashlee, sits next to her, and her nephew lies on a bed above her head; they'll soon be out counting laps and making sandwiches for the team. Sutton's mother sits across from her but later will be cooking and taking other drivers' lap times later. Sutton's sister, Tracey, runs around the COPAXONE garage with a radio, keeping things organized. Her father, Ed, attends a qualifying meeting and will spot for her.
For the 31-year-old driver from Crownsville, Md., racing has always been a family affair.
"I've been around it all my life," Kelly said. "I've always wanted to do it."
It was Kelly's family that got her started and kept her going when she found out she had multiple sclerosis.
And Friday night, her family watched as she met her goal when the COPAXONE team finished 10th for the third week in a row. She had qualified 20th. She finished one lap back of winner Robert Huffman, who leads the Series standings by more than 60 points.
Kelly's grandfather and father raced. The family would pack up their motor home on summer weekends to head to races, Kelly and Tracey learning and loving all of it.
"Before we had a motor, we used to race our Big Wheels in the yard," Tracey said. "It's always been competitive. ... It was just our lifestyle."
Tracey liked the organizational and mechanical aspects of racing, but Kelly was a driver from the start. When Kelly was 10, she broke her leg doing tricks on a junkyard mini-bike her dad fixed. By 11, she was driving on the road, and at 15, she built her first race car with her dad.
Her aunt used to call her Kelly Girl "just to remind her she was a girl," Ed said.
"She was always hot-rodding on something," Ed said. "It was pretty obvious she wasn't afraid to go fast. We were always trying to slow her down so she didn't get hurt."
But when she began to slow from sickness in her early teenage years, her family kept her driving through it.
When Kelly was 13, she began to feel symptoms of the then-undiagnosed disease: exhaustion and numbness on her right side. At 16, she was diagnosed with relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis.
"When I was first diagnosed, I thought it was going to be the end of it," Kelly said. "But my dad and mom just encouraged me. My dad always taught me to be a fighter, to always strive your hardest, to learn more and practice in whatever I did."
So she learned more about her disease. MS affects the body's nervous system. RRMS, the most common form, is characterized by attacks of any number of symptoms, numbness and fatigue in Kelly's case.
Initially, Kelly fought the disease with diet and exercise. Years later, different drug therapies emerged. When she was 19, Kelly and her father began racing.
"We didn't want to be years down the road and say, 'What if?' " Ed said. "As a father, you feel you need to fix anything that's wrong, and I felt if she got into racing, she wouldn't have time to think about MS, and it wouldn't be as bad. We're using the racing as therapy. We can do it now, because we don't know how long before she'll be in a wheelchair."
Six years ago, Kelly began taking COPAXONE to reduce attacks, and it was the first drug to work for her. Two years later, under the COPAXONE name, she became the first-known competitor in any NASCAR series with RRMS.
Kelly began racing in the Goody's Series in 2000 and fulfilled a life-long dream by competing at Daytona. She blew her motor on the qualifying lap but returned in 2001 and qualified.
Kelly finished 12th overall and third in rookie standings in her first full season in the Goody's Series last year. She also was named "Most Popular Driver."
She is seventh in series points this year and could move to sixth after Friday's finish, once the official points are updated this week.
Kelly says her disease does not affect her racing, and she travels the country speaking to people with MS to relay the message her family taught to her: "To continue living their dreams. To know you can lead a productive life, whether you have MS or not, whether you're in a wheelchair or not," Kelly said.
Ed said his daughter has always had that attitude. Three days removed form oral surgery, Kelly was exhausted and in pain Friday, yet she did not complain.
"Her strengths are her determination. She won't say anything, she'll just keep going," Ed said. "She just wanted to race so bad - she wasn't going to let anything hold her down."
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