Friday, July 9, 2004

On-track battles not Sutton's biggest

Driver also succeeding in fight with MS

By Dustin Dow
Enquirer staff writer

Kelly Sutton raced in NASCAR's minor series long enough that many auto racing fans know her story.

She not only is a rare female driver, she also is afflicted with multiple sclerosis. Yet she still drives high-powered cars for a living.

The difference between the Sutton of old and the one attempting to qualify today for Saturday's Built Ford Tough 225 at Kentucky Speedway is that she now is competing on a major NASCAR circuit, the Craftsman Truck Series. And while other female drivers have raced this season, Sutton is the only full-time female driver in the CTS - and certainly the only one with multiple sclerosis.

"It's really no big deal to me," Sutton, 32, said. "When I put my helmet on, I'm just a driver. Racing is everything that I've ever known."

Sutton, who is married with two children, was diagnosed at 16 with relapse-remitting multiple sclerosis. Growing up as a go-kart racer, she continued to compete until 1996, when complications from her disease forced her into a wheelchair.

"I wasn't sure if I would ever walk again," Sutton said.

A change in medication to COPAXONE improved Sutton's condition, and by 1997 she was back into racing. But the comeback was short-lived; she, like many drivers, had difficulty finding sponsors, and Sutton lost her ride in 1999. With family money supporting her team, her dad was forced to sell belongings just to keep her competitive.

Then, by coincidence, she encountered a COPAXONE representative in a restaurant, and that ultimately led to the company sponsoring Sutton and gaining a chance to show off a real-life success story for a user of its product. COPAXONE remains committed to Sutton for the rest of this season, though no agreement has been worked out yet for future CTS seasons.

"We just have a great relationship with COPAXONE," Sutton said. "I was taking the product before they sponsored me, and I'll continue using the product after my racing career."

Since she began taking COPAXONE, Sutton describes her life as normal, without the fatigue she battled while taking other medications.

"With a daily injection, a good diet and exercise, I can go out there and live my dream," she said. "I want to be recognized as a driver for my abilities, but on the other hand, I want to get the word out about MS and that you can still be active."


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