Kelly Sutton is racing on the competitive Craftsman Truck Series, but that challenge pales in comparison to living life with multiple sclerosis.
Photo by DoN Coble/Morris News S
HAMPTON, Ga. Kelly Sutton is reminded daily of the things that are supposed to be impossible.
Like succeeding as the only full-time woman driver in NASCAR. Like winning in the Craftsman Truck Series. Like walking.
And yet it doesn't seem to slow her down.
Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis when she was 16, doctors said she would be in a wheelchair within 10 years. With the exception of a brief relapse in 1996, she's been walking - and racing since.
"They told me I had eight to 10 years to walk, and that was 17 years ago," Sutton said. "The mind is a very powerful tool."
Sutton doesn't ask for favors, in racing or in life. She accepts her place in NASCAR as a driver who's struggling to keep pace. Her friends nicknamed her "Kelly Girl" years ago while she was racing motorcycles and go-karts so she won't forget she's not one of the guys.
It's the only reference of her gender that she allows at the race track.
And she's learned to deal with MS, a progressive disease of the central nervous system, with a new treatment called Copaxone the same company that will sponsor her Chevrolet Silverado in Friday night's World Financial Group 200 at the Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Her presence on the truck series has been a struggle, but she accepts it as part of the learning process. She grew up working on cars and racing on short tracks around her Crownsville, Md., home, but the Craftsman Truck Series has been one of her toughest challenges of all.
In 25 career starts, she has three top-20 finishes, including a career-best 17th-place effort at the season-opening race at Daytona Beach, Fla., last month.
"It's a very tough business," she said. "If it was easy, everybody would be doing it. This has been my life. It's never once crossed my mind about being a girl. It's been tough adjusting to these trucks, not because I'm a girl but because they have more horsepower. It's a lot more to get stopped, and they handle differently compared to the cars I'm used to driving.
"It would be great for our team to win its first race, but for me, as far as being a woman, I don't look at it like that. It probably would be a huge deal to be the first woman to win a race (in one of the major national series), but I'd be more proud of my team. My goal isn't to be the first woman winner in NASCAR, it's to win races, period."
She has raw talent, her competitors said. And with a little coaching, Sutton could move closer to fulfilling her dream of winning in trucks, then moving to a ride on the Busch or Nextel Cup series.
"Kelly has some ability," said former truck series champion Mike Skinner. "If she had someone to mentor her, like what they did with Ryan Newman (and mentor Buddy Baker) in his first year, she'd be all right."
She's won races at nearly every stop in her career and has been the most popular driver in several series. Her crowning moment, however, came in 1994 when she won the Metropolitan Auto Racing Fan Club of Maryland award the same honor her grandfather won in the 1960s and her father in the 1970s.
"I grew up with a wrench in my hand," she said. "Racing is all I've ever wanted to do. I've been building race cars and tearing them down and building them again since I was a little girl. Nobody's ever tried to talk me out of it.
"I don't know what the general perception is of me, but I don't think anyone looks at me as anything other than a driver."
A driver with MS.
According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, more than 8,500 people live with the disease in Georgia, 18,000 are afflicted in Texas and another 5,500 have it in eastern Kansas and western Missouri.
"I tried a couple other treatments and I still had some relapses," Sutton said. "Now I manage my disease with daily injections. Having MS isn't always a wheelchair sentence any more."
Peninsula Clarion ©2013. All Rights Reserved.