Against all odds, she's up to speed

Auto racing: Kelly Sutton hasn't let anything defeat her - not even multiple sclerosis - in her drive toward success.

Auto Racing

February 11, 2004|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

Fairy tales do come true. Just ask Crownsville's Kelly Sutton.

Her professional racing career began with a dream. It was a little dream when measured on a grand scale, but for a then-20-something, divorced mom with multiple sclerosis, a desire to turn just one lap at Daytona International Speedway seemed large - very large, indeed.

She made that lap three years ago and now, as she attempts to qualify her Chevrolet tonight for the Florida Dodge Dealers 250 Craftsman Truck Race in Daytona Beach, Fla., it seems the dream wasn't quite large enough.

"It is like a fairy tale," said NASCAR vice president Jim Hunter. "And it makes you really feel good for her. I've been around a long time. I've seen so many people struggle to compete and to make it to this level.

"This isn't the candy store. This is the big leagues, and for her to just qualify and start this race will be quite an accomplishment, especially given the way she and her family have done it."

Sutton and her family have taken an old-fashioned path - building and maintaining their own cars, towing the vehicles to races with aging pickups and never once asking for a handout. Until this year, the team was all family and friends and all-volunteer.

Now, Sutton has full sponsorship and has moved full time into the truck series - one of NASCAR's top three circuits - and she said she is starting all over when it comes to gaining the respect of her peers.

"There's only one or two other drivers in this series that I've ever raced against before," she said. "If I was going from the trucks to the Busch Series [the No. 2 circuit], there might be some respect carried over. But I think coming from where I've come from, I have to earn it all over again. I'm a new member to the family. You have to get to know people and earn their respect and trust."

Friday night at 8, when the Craftsman race takes the green flag, Sutton hopes to take the first step on a season-long effort to win Rookie of the Year.

It will be a historic night for several other reasons, too. Another woman, Tina Gordon, also will be competing full time in the series, making this the first major professional motor sports series in this country to have two women as full-time competitors.

And it will mark the first race for car manufacturer Toyota in a previously all-American brand NASCAR series, including one entry owned by Alex Meshkin, a Maryland native from Glenwood in Howard County.

"I never thought I'd get where I am," said Sutton, 32. "And yet, if there is a way to get it done, I will. If I can't get to the store because I don't have a car, I will find a way to get there."

It is that attitude in the face of great odds that has enabled her to climb from being a child competing in go-carts to the national stage despite receiving a diagnosis of relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis when she was 16.

MS is a chronic and progressive disease that attacks the central nervous system and can lead to paralysis. It is unpredictable, affecting each person differently. Flare-ups, which cause lasting nerve damage, can affect sight, balance and speech.

Though Sutton has suffered the effects of MS off and on since she was a teenager, she said she has been symptom-free for the past few years.

Shortly after the diagnosis, her father, Ed, himself a former national figure-eight series racing champion, and her mother, Carol, decided to buy her a Ford Pinto to race on local tracks.

By letting their daughter follow her dream, her parents doubled their potential heartache. Already dealing with her MS, they added the worry for her safety every time she went on the racetrack.

"I cry at the drop of the hat," Carol Sutton said from the team's new shop in Huntersville, N.C., just before they left for Daytona this week. "But who would have ever dreamed that we'd all end up here?"

Sutton made that first dreamed-of lap at Daytona in 2001 with the help of Copaxone, the drug that is keeping her MS under control and which sponsored her race car - and still does.

Her first lap was a qualifying run on the 2.5 mile tri-oval that put her in the starting field for the Goody's Dash race. The Goody's series is a lesser-known stock car series that runs an auxiliary race during Speedweek activities leading up to the Daytona 500.

She competed full time in the Goody's series the previous two seasons, turning in her best overall performance when she finished eighth in points last year.

During the offseason, she was awarded the Wilma Rudolph Courage Award from the Women's Sports Foundation, and, on March 1 in Tempe, Ariz., she will receive the 11th Gene Autry Courage Award, given to sports figures for inspiring performance in the face of adversity.

Past recipients include Chicago Cubs slugger Sammy Sosa, Olympic gold medal-winning sprinter Gail Devers and former Detroit Lions lineman Mike Utley.

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