For as long as she can remember, race car driver Kelly Sutton loved anything with wheels. And she wanted to ride those things. Fast.
As a little girl, Kelly and her older sister Tracey raced their Big Wheels in the front yard of their Crownsville home. Her tenth birthday present was a dirt bike that her father found at the junk yard and painstakingly restored. She promptly broke her leg on it.
"I remember a lady from the church calling and telling me that God made pretty red dresses for me to wear, and not to ride any more motorcycles," recalls Sutton, 32, with a laugh. "I was raised with respect, so I just agreed with her and thanked her for calling to check on me."
But little Kelly Sutton never put on any pretty red dresses, though she did concede to wearing earrings—checkered flag earrings, that is—to let people know she was a girl. She thought she was "hot stuff," with her
baseball cap pulled down low and her tube socks pulled up clear to her knees. Sutton liked to climb trees, jump in mud puddles, and wanted nothing more than to get good and greasy (she says "gree-zee") working on cars with her dad at the Corvette shop he ran right next to their house. One day she announced she wanted to be an ice cream truck driver."
Tomboy is an understatement," says Sutton, sitting amongst the car parts and dusty old Corvette manuals in that Crownsville shop, which until recently served as the hub of her own racing operation.
At 12, Kelly Sutton—nicknamed "Kelly Girl" by her dad and aunt to remind her that she was one—graduated to riding go-carts and later, dirt bikes. She wanted nothing more than to grow up and race cars, just like her father and both of her grandfathers had done.
"When your little girl says she wants to be a race car driver, you think it's going to go away," says Carol Sutton, 54. "But it didn't."
Not quite. Kelly Sutton followed her passion and went on to become one of the few women to break into the overwhelmingly male bastion of NASCAR.
She's spent the last few seasons driving her blue Pontiac Sunfire in the Goody's Dash series—part of what might loosely be termed NASCAR's minor leagues—finishing 2003 in eighth place overall.
"When I'm behind the wheel, it's my peace," she explains. "You're away from the hustle and bustle. You're in your comfort zone. It's an adrenaline rush to be in control of something that's on the verge of being out of control."
This month, Sutton takes a step up and will begin competing in the NASCAR Craftsman truck series, racing at speeds up to 190 miles per hour.
"She's been as tough and hard nosed a racer as anybody," says fellow driver Jake Hobgood, who won the Goody's Dash series in 2002, the year Kelly was named most popular driver by her colleagues. "Kelly's a real fierce competitor."
"Kelly is a motivated driver who has done very well for herself," agrees former Goody's Dash Series Director Tom Ballos. "I think with enough seat time"—driver lingo for hours behind the wheel—"she could be as good as anybody out there."
But Kelly "Girl" Sutton holds a distinction far greater than just breaking the gender barrier, and her determination to succeed goes well beyond merely holding her own against male drivers; it almost defies belief. That's because Sutton's car is emblazoned not with the logo of a breakfast cereal, a brand of tire, or a laundry detergent, but with that of Copaxone—the drug with which she has injected herself every morning since 1998. The inveterate tomboy from Crownsville grew up to be not just a female race car driver, but a female race car driver who also happens to have multiple sclerosis.
It beganwhen Kelly was about 13. The once vivacious kid became a frequent visitor in the doctor's office with a host of vague symptoms no one could quite explain. Doctors condescendingly dismissed Sutton as a depressed adolescent just looking for attention.
Until the day when 16-year-old Kelly suddenly lost feeling on her entire right side. Carol Sutton had to beg the skeptical doctor to see her beleaguered daughter yet one more time. After some tests, the doctor came out and apologized. Something was indeed wrong with Kelly. Soon came the diagnosis: multiple sclerosis, a neurological disease that impedes the ability of nerve signals to travel freely throughout the body. Kelly was told she would only be able to walk for another eight to ten years.
"I was just kind of devastated," says Sutton. "I felt like my world had been turned upside down."
The only person with MS Sutton knew was a woman from church who was bedridden; the family would pay her visits from time to time. "I thought my life was going to be like that," she says.
At 18, she mustered the courage to go to her first support group meeting, but didn't get past the front door. After catching sight of all the wheelchairs, Sutton turned on her heels and ran.
"I got in my truck and I was crying so hard I could hardly drive home," she says. "I just bawled for hours and hours. I couldn't handle that."
The following year, Kelly was walking across the driveway of her house when her father stopped her and asked if she still wanted to drive a racecar.
"I said, 'Yeah! But can I? I have MS,'" she says. "He told me I was a Sutton and I wasn't a quitter."
Today, Ed Sutton, 57, admits his bravado was for Kelly's benefit.
"In the girls' eyes I could fix anything, I could do anything and I had the answers for everything," he explains. "This was something I didn't have an answer for. This was my way of trying to fix it. If she wanted to drive and race, maybe that would help her not think about having MS."
Ed Sutton says he and his wife had qualms about encouraging Kelly in her quest. But they'd always taught their daughters that they could be anything they wanted to be.
"We knew that it was her dream to race and if we didn't do it, we would end up saying, 'What if?' We had to let her spread her wings and try," he says. "Later on, [if she got too sick to continue] she could look back at a scrapbook. I would rather have that than her looking back and saying 'I wish I'd have tried.'"
And so Kelly Sutton—whose symptoms at that point were minimal—began her racing career in the pro mini-stock circuit. In 1995, just as she was poised to enter the Goody's Dash series and realize her ultimate childhood ambition of racing at Daytona Speedway, fate threw Sutton another curve. On her way to the shop one January day, she skidded on a patch of ice and slammed headfirst into a tree. In the ER, Sutton was fixated on only one thing: talking to her father. "I can't race Daytona!" she cried hysterically once they got him on the phone. "I'm so sorry!"
Her acute injuries—among them broken ribs, collapsed lungs and a dislocated hip and shoulder—healed, but the accident brought Sutton's MS out of remission. She spent a year in a wheelchair, and needed to be assisted in the shower and the bathroom. She was carried in and out of doctors' offices, and had to be carried out in a lawn chair to watch her daughter Ashlee—the product of a youthful first marriage that ended in divorce—play in her first tee-ball game. She was on the verge of giving up hope.
"She looked absolutely horrible. We were praying just that she would not die and get better," says Ed Sutton. "Racing was the last thing on my mind. But as it went on and she did get a little bit better, I had this revelation that I could fix it again."
Ed Sutton's fix was a special exercise machine he built to look like a race car, complete with a steering wheel hooked up to weighted resistance.
He painted Kelly's name and number on it and "told me I had to get up and work out and we were going racing again," she says.
Sutton's health improved and she did go racing again, becoming the first woman ever to win a race in the Allison Legacy series. But by the end of 1998, lacking a sponsor, she turned to waitressing in an Annapolis restaurant, where a chance encounter with a customer would change her life. It turned out the woman's husband had MS, and she suggested Kelly get in touch with the company that made Copaxone, the drug they both took. After a few weeks of phone tag, Kelly eventually got a call from Teva Neuroscience inviting her to be a part of Team Copaxone, which helps MS patients pursue their goals. They ultimately became her racing sponsor.
"It's one thing in racing when you have Tide or Sharpie and these big sponsors to sponsor you. That's great," says Sutton. "But to actually have a sponsor that helps me live my daily life and keep me above the water with the fight against MS—I just feel like Copaxone has been so good to me even without the sponsorship. To have them come on board and help me to fulfill a dream is just unbelievable."
Today, her symptoms kept at bay with medication, diet, and exercise, Sutton maintains that MS just isn't a factor as she goes about her activities.
"I just choose not to let it control my life," she asserts. "It doesn't define me as a person. Being a mother and a wife and a race car driver does." Sutton married contractor Butch Fabiszak in 2000; daughter Ashlee is now almost 14; stepdaughter Nicole is 9. A simple girl at heart, the churchgoing Baptist loves country music, biscuits and gravy, and cross-stitching.
Sutton scoffs at the idea that racing might jeopardize her health. (Her only concession to her disease is a cooling suit she wears to protect her from the high temperatures inside the car, which can be particularly difficult for MS patients to tolerate.) Quite to the contrary, Kelly Sutton believes that racing is actually what keeps her healthy.
"I think when you're doing things you love it makes you a different person," she says. "When you can get up every morning and go to a job you love and do the things you love, it gives you that drive and desire to succeed."
When she's not chasing the checkered flag, Kelly Sutton has a second career as a Copaxone spokeswoman. And as she tirelessly crisscrosses the country to tell her story in her plainspoken, folksy way (think heavy on the racing metaphors), Sutton is a living, breathing testament to the fact that with proper treatment, MS need not be a death knell to patients' active lifestyles. Former Goody's Dash Series director Tom Ballos didn't even know about Sutton's illness until he read it in the newspaper.
"I want to change the face of MS," declares Sutton. And she appears to be doing just that. "I think she's working harder than anyone that I have met," says Melissa Nash of Teva Neuroscience. "We hear story after story about what an inspiration she is and how much hope she gives everybody."
Sutton now gets fan mail from as far away as Vietnam and Australia. One particularly moving letter came from a man who didn't even have MS, but keeps Kelly's picture on his bathroom mirror as a reminder not to give up on his dreams. "The world needs more heroes like you," wrote another admirer.
Kelly's own heroes are her salt-of-the-earth parents, who provide unwavering support and unconditional love. "Without my mom and dad, I wouldn't be standing here," she said, choking back tears during a recent speech at the Renaissance Harborplace hotel.
It's no coincidence that she routinely uses the royal "we" in talking about her own achievements. The Sutton family—including sister Tracey and lifelong friend/surrogate sister Ewa McCullough—helps out with everything from filling T-shirt orders and making travel arrangements to paying and feeding the crew.
"It's all-consuming," confesses Carol Sutton. But the family wouldn't have it any other way. "We're all working towards the same goal, to see her succeed."
At this point, Sutton has succeeded past her wildest expectations. She insists her only real goal was to race at Daytona, which she finally accomplished in 2001, after seemingly countless false starts.
"Anything now is icing on the cake," she says earnestly. "It still feels like a dream. It's the best thing that's ever happened to me. You've kind of got to pinch yourself now and then and say, 'Is this really real?'"