Even as a little girl growing up in Maryland, Kelly Sutton chose to play with Hot Wheels cars over Barbie dolls.
Born into a family of racecar drivers, Sutton knew early on that she'd one day follow in her family's tire tracks. Her grandfather Charlie Sutton raced in the 1950s and '60s, and Kelly loved to watch her dad, Ed, race dragsters, dune buggies, and dirt-track cars. So it was only natural for Kelly to join the family business, Sutton Motorsports. What wasn't quite so natural was a girl continuing the family tradition—by driving cars and trucks on the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) circuit.
Though her nickname—“Kelly Girl”—might conjure up the stereotypical image of a demure Kelly Girl secretary, Sutton is anything but. “Even as a toddler, I was fascinated with racecars,” says the 35-year-old Sutton, who started racing motorcycles at age 9. “I can't remember a time when I didn't want to race.”
She determined at an early age that nothing was going to stand in the way of her racing dreams—not even a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis (MS) when she was just 16 years old.
Sutton was barely 13 when she began experiencing some puzzling health symptoms. She felt tired all the time and had periods of clumsiness. “The doctors we saw dismissed Kelly's symptoms as teenage clumsiness and depression,” recalls her mother, Carol Sutton. “I knew there was more to it. I'd watched Kelly go from being an active, athletic teen to having little energy for racing and other pursuits.”
Kelly's symptoms persisted and, three years later, worsened. She began to experience tingling and numbness on her right side. Then, one morning, she woke up to discover she had no feeling on the entire right side of her body.
“It was a bittersweet moment,” Carol Sutton says. “Her doctor was finally able to give us answers, but we also learned Kelly had a neurological disease.”
A subsequent MRI and spinal tap revealed that Kelly had relapsing-remitting MS, the disease form with unpredictable relapses during which new symptoms appear or existing symptoms worsen.
“I was devastated,” she recalls. “I was 16 years old, and all I wanted to do was race. At that age, you don't expect something like MS to become a factor in your life. I was afraid I would have to give up the things I loved.”
Told she had eight to ten years before she might lose the ability to walk, Sutton overcame her initial depression and spent four years racing mini stock cars locally. By 1995, she was on the verge of realizing her dream of racing at Daytona International Speedway. But a week before she was to leave for Daytona to participate in her first big race, Sutton hit a patch of ice and smashed her car into a tree. The accident not only left her with a dislocated right hip and left shoulder as well as broken ribs and a collapsed lung, but it also triggered a relapse of her MS. The MS symptoms would persist long after the injuries healed.
“I was in a wheelchair and had to rely on my family for help for almost everything, including help with showering, for nearly a year,” she says. “I thought it was over.”
But instead of giving up her dreams, Sutton started to actively battle against her MS. She worked hard to find the right balance of diet, exercise, and medication. “Kelly was on one medication that seemed to be doing her more harm than good,” recalls her mother. “When we found out about a new medication called Copaxone [a daily injection of glatiramer acetate], the change was amazing. It literally gave Kelly her life back.”
And it helped get her back from the wheelchair to the driver's seat. In 2001, Sutton made history by becoming the first driver with MS ever to race in any NASCAR series. Sponsored by Team Copaxone, she placed among the top 12 her first two years in NASCAR's Dash Series for compact cars. She then moved up to become one of only two women racing full-time in NASCAR's Craftsman Truck Series, placing 26th in the point standings as a rookie in 2004 and 29th the following year.
“Racing has always been something I've been driven to do and I work hard to get to where I'm going,” she says. “I refuse to have things handed to me.”
While the challenges she faces as a NASCAR truck driver may seem daunting, Sutton takes her job in stride. Driving at speeds of up to 190 miles per hour, NASCAR racers are faced with extreme heat, limited vision and movement, races that last for hours, and the force of gravity or acceleration on the body. To succeed as a racer, drivers must be in peak physical and mental shape. As the only driver with MS, Sutton continues to defy the odds with her disease seven years in remission.
Her only concession to her MS has been the installation of a “cool unit” in her truck. The device pumps cool air into the driver's seat to combat extreme heat. This is especially important for a driver with MS because heat, even from a shower or a warm day, can trigger symptoms. While the cooling unit was initially designed specifically for Sutton, it has since become popular with other NASCAR drivers.
“I love getting behind the wheel and being in control of something on the verge of being out of control,” she says. “It's a challenge that's a lot like living with MS.”
Making pit stops while traveling across the country on the NASCAR circuit, she serves as a motivational speaker, sharing her story with fans and others who have MS. In her inspirational lectures, she stresses the importance of making proactive choices to manage MS and encourages patients to establish a strong relationship with their neurologist.
Her grit and determination earned her the 2003 Wilma Rudolph Courage Award from the Women's Sports Foundation, joining a star-studded roster that includes such past recipients as Martina Navratilova and Jackie Joyner-Kersee. Small wonder that Sutton receives fan mail from the all over the globe.
Sutton recently launched her own “Let It Shine” Foundation to raise awareness and funds for MS patients who lack the means to support themselves during relapses and crisis situations. “I am so proud of Kelly for taking her diagnosis and turning it into something positive,” says her mother. “Kelly cares about others who have MS, and she encourages them to pursue their dreams and to not let the disease rule their lives.”
The best way Kelly Sutton has done that is by being a role model and pursuing her own dreams.
“Racing is in my blood, it's who I am, and I refuse to let a diagnosis of MS take that from me,” she says. “Interacting with other people who have MS reminds me that this disease is just something we have to deal with. It is not who we are. I am a mom; I am a wife; I am a racecar driver. Those are the things that define me—not MS.”
Today, she is a proud mother to Ashlee, who at 16 recently got her learner's permit and shares Mom's love of racing. As parent and racecar driver alike, Kelly Sutton can lead by example.
“The diagnosis does not mean you have to give up your dreams,” she says. “I have set my eyes on the finish line, and I'm not stopping until I get there.”