Her drive to excel even passes illness Racer: Kelly 'Girl' Sutton has wanted to follow her racing dad in the fast lane all her life, so a little fender-bender like multiple sclerosis wasn't going to force her to pit.

May 26, 1998|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

Ed Sutton would be working in his garage in Crownsville, trying to make his race car faster, and before he knew it, his 5-year-old daughter, Kelly, would be there trying to help.

Now, 21 years later, Ed and his wife, Carol, are sitting in their living room, talking about how much they want to help their daughter make her dream of "becoming the first really successful woman in Winston Cup racing" come true.

But it isn't their dream.

As they sit on the couch, Ed Sutton's voice chokes up, and Carol's eyes get misty. Their dream is for their daughter to be healthy.

"Kelly always wanted to race," says Ed, who won the 1980 National Figure Eight Championship. "And when she was diagnosed with MS, it was kind of like [we] didn't know how long she'd be physically able, so we said, 'Let her dream come true.' "

Multiple sclerosis is a chronic and progressive disease that attacks the brain, spinal cord and peripheral nerves. It is unpredictable, affecting each person differently. When the disorder flares, it can affect eyesight, balance and speech and can produce paralysis.

Kelly was diagnosed with the disease in February 1988.

"I see her striving so hard for this [racing]," says her mother. "You have to support her."

Thanks to John Mayola of Elkridge, Kelly "Girl" Sutton, 26, and the mother of Ashlee, 8, has a place from which to start her journey on the long road to Winston Cup racing.

Mayola races trucks on the Parts Pro Truck Series. Parts Pro is to the Craftsman Truck Series what Busch Grand National is to Winston Cup, a training ground for future major-league drivers.

Mayola and Kelly hooked up one day in April 1997, when Mayola was in a parts store telling a friend about his health problems. Already the recipient of a kidney transplant, he had just had a pancreas transplant and needed a driver. Overhearing the conversation, Ed Sutton spoke up.

"I told him I knew where he could find a driver," says Ed.

Mayola gave Kelly a try, and they've been together ever since.

"She drives better than a lot of guys," he says. "Last year, guys started wrecking her at the end of the season, when we were competing in the Allison Legacy Series in Pennsylvania."

Wrecking the guys

Kelly "Girl" -- she uses "Girl," she says, so no one will mistake her name in the program for a man's -- is the first woman to win a race in that series. She finished sixth in points while running less than the full schedule, and was named most popular driver.

"I don't think they really intentionally wreck me," she says. "It's just that after I pass them, they feel like they have to pass me back and they get us both in trouble."

Her dad and car owner grin.

"I've seen guys wreck just trying to follow her," says Ed Sutton.

"I told her to drive it like it was hers," says Mayola. "I told her I didn't care if she tore it apart. If you're not aggressive, you're not going to win."

There is no doubt that Kelly is aggressive.

With her MS in remission, she worked hard with her dad from late 1988 until early 1995 to get to the point where she was about to race a Goody's Dash car at Daytona that February. But as she was driving home one evening, her car hit a patch of ice, and she smashed into a tree head-on. She wound up in Maryland Shock Trauma Center with many internal injuries and, worst of all, with a major flare-up of the MS.

It took her two years to get over it, but she did.

"She bounced back," says her mother. "This is a happy story."

Earlier this year, in her first race in the Parts Pro Series, Kelly won her qualifying race to make it into the main event, one of 18 drivers out of 72 entries to make the field. She has made the field in each of her last two events, but then run into problems, failing to finish either.

"We're going to run the whole series," says Mayola, 37, who is financing the enterprise until a sponsor can be found. "Our plan is to run this series and move up to the Busch series by the year 2000. She has a lot of natural talent, and my main purpose now is to promote her."

On course at early age

For Kelly, making it as a driver is a constant challenge. But it is one she has striven toward every day since that day in elementary school when she took her father to show and tell. She showed him off as a racer and told everyone: "I'm going to be a race-car driver when I grow up."

She raced go-carts at 12, mini-stocks at 16. She worked driving dump trucks and as a mechanic for Anne Arundel County. Every job the 5-foot-8, 135-pound woman has had has been physical, and she likes it that way.

And though Kelly started cosmetology school April 28 to give herself a fallback position, she works on her race truck every day, pushing aside the advice of her doctor, who has told her she could have picked a better career path than racing, given her health.

"Being in heat isn't good for people with MS," says Kelly, who must give herself a daily injection of Copzxone, a drug designed to limit flare-ups in patients with relapsing and recurring outbreaks. "But my way of dealing with it is saying, 'I'm going to fight it. I'm going to do what I want to do.' I have MS; it doesn't have me."

And Dr. William Keys, a neurologist at Good Samaritan Hospital, says Kelly's attitude is the kind doctors try to develop in their patients.

"It's true that stress and heat, if she's having a flare-up, can make whatever is going on worse," says Keys. "If everything is fine and she's bouncing around in a truck, no problem.

"People with MS can do all kinds of extraordinary things. I think she has a very optimistic and appropriate way of viewing it. People have the idea that when you get MS, you [automatically] end up in a wheelchair with a horrible lifestyle. That's far from the truth."

Pub Date: 5/26/98

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