MS smooths, not blocks, road to Daytona

Autos: Thanks to a one-race deal from a medication manufacturer, Kelly Sutton will be in Florida pursuing her dream.

January 26, 2000|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

Ever since she was 5 years old, Kelly Sutton has dreamed about racing at Daytona International Speedway. And she has kept that dream alive despite having multiple sclerosis, despite a devastating car accident in 1995 that occurred just weeks before her dream was about to come true, and despite finding it difficult to land a full-time ride as a race car driver.

Two years ago, Sutton insisted her goal was "to be the first really successful woman driver in Winston Cup racing." She said it, even though in the back of her mind she had serious doubts.

Today, at age 28, she is wiser. But today, despite yesterday's snowstorm, she planned to be on her way to Daytona Beach, Fla., where tomorrow she will begin testing her Pontiac Sunfire for next month's Goody's Dash Series race on the 2.5-mile super speedway.

"A person with MS, well, in reality you know you can't [make Winston Cup]," she said before leaving her Crownsville home for her Daytona test. "I really just want to be healthy and able to walk for the next 10 years.

"But racing at Daytona has always been a realistic dream of mine. And to get back to this point, the way it all came together with COPAXONE, is amazing. I thought my MS would be the end of my dream, and, instead, it turns out to be helping me fulfill it."

MS is a chronic and progressive disease that attacks the brain, spinal cord and nervous system. It is unpredictable, affecting each person differently. But when the disease flares, it can affect eyesight, balance and speech and produce paralysis.

COPAXONE is the medication Sutton has to inject every day to keep her MS in remission. And COPAXONE representatives, after several conversations with Sutton and her family, agreed to help her reach her dream.

"We, as a company try to get behind people to raise the awareness of MS and advocate early initiation of therapy," said Jon Congleton, consumer manager for COPAXONE. "We're excited to be able to help her reach for something she has wanted for so long. Her grandfather and father were racers, but she will be the first one in the family to drive at Daytona."

It all came about this way:

Five years ago, with her goal within sight, Sutton's car slipped on a piece of ice and smashed into a tree. Instead of going to the Goody's Dash at Daytona, Sutton found herself in Maryland Shock Trauma Center with many internal injuries and a major flare-up of multiple sclerosis, the disease she had been diagnosed with in February 1988.

It took her two years to get her MS under control, but when she did, she joined forces with car owner John Mayola of Elkridge for a year and a half. In that time, she became the first woman to win a race in the Allison Legacy Series in Pennsylvania in 1997, finished sixth in points and was named most popular driver. Sutton decided to leave the team midway through the next season while competing in the Parts Pro Series.

At that point, it seemed Kelly "Girl" Sutton's racing career was finished.

Divorced and the mother of Ashlee, now 9, she executed her plan to finish cosmetology school and went to work at Chick & Ruth's Delly in Annapolis.

It was there, a customer, whose name she doesn't know but whose husband suffers with MS, encouraged her to look for a racing sponsor. At the woman's urging, Sutton eventually contacted COPAXONE.

"They had read about me in The Sun and were willing to talk," Sutton said. "Eventually, they asked what it would take to sponsor me at Daytona."

To Teva Marion Partners, which manufactures the medication and has given Sutton $100,000 in this one-race deal, Kelly Sutton is the near-perfect representative for the drug that helps control outbreaks of MS.

"We've discovered that people with MS enjoy reading about their peers, about people who accomplish out of the ordinary things -- like racing or growing roses," said Congleton. "They want to know how people manage their therapy."

Since being diagnosed with MS when she was 16, Sutton has had the philosophy: "I have MS. MS doesn't have me." Currently, she said, her health is good and her only problem is getting tired.

But tiredness hasn't stopped her, her family or her friends.

Sutton's mom, Carol, who still gets emotional when she thinks about how much her daughter has accomplished, is listed as the owner of the blue and white Pontiac with the No. 02 on its side.

She is also the one who helps Kelly with the care of her daughter and helps answer the phones.

Kelly is in the garage from 8 a.m. till 5 p.m. helping her dad Ed work on the car. Ed Sutton was the 1980 National Figure Eight champion. He owns and operates Capital City Corvettes, but has had his mechanic operating the business the past three months while he concentrates on building his daughter's race car.

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