Kelly Sutton, 33, can’t remember a time when she didn’twant to get behind the wheel of a racecar.
"As far back as I can remember, I’ve been in racing," says Sutton, a native of Crownsville, Md. (pop. 1,670). "When I was 3, I was on the floorboards of my dad’s racing dune buggy. As I got older, I did a little go-cart racing, and then I built my first racecar when I was 15. I love racing, and it’s the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do."
Today, Sutton is part of the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series (NCTS), a hard-racing national circuit in which she drives a half-ton Chevy pickup at tire-blistering speeds of more than 180 mph. Yet her bravery behind the wheel is more than matched by her courage off the track.
At age 16, Sutton was diagnosed with recurring-remitting multiple sclerosis (RRMS), an autoimmune disease that attacks the brain and spinal cord. As she experienced constant fatigue and loss of feeling on her right side, her budding racing career came to a halt.
"I felt my life had ended before it had begun," Sutton recalls. "More than anything, I feared the unknown. I didn’t know how MS was going to affect my life and whether I would ever be able to race again."
Her father, Ed Sutton, a former dirt track driver, told her she had to get up and fight. So she began taking medication and using diet therapy. She also started an exercise program, and, by 19, she was back on the track.
But six years later, Sutton suffered another setback. An off-the-track car accident left her with several broken bones and saw her MS return in full force, confining her to a wheelchair. Again, her dad got involved. He built her a simulator—a go-cart without wheels, painted blue like her racecar and emblazoned with her name and number "02"—to keep her driving skills sharp.
"It meant so much to me to know that my dad believed in me," she says. "He told me I could do anything I set my mind to."
Along with a strenuous conditioning regimen, which she continues to this day, Sutton began daily injections of Copaxone, a drug developed specifically for RRMS. Within a year, she was out of the wheelchair and back on the track, where she’s been ever since, symptom-free.
Just as her dad inspired her to fight the disease, Sutton strives to inspire others. When her racing schedule allows, she travels coast to coast giving inspirational speeches.
"I feel I have to get out there and talk to people who have MS because I was raised to help others," Sutton says. "I listen to how they are struggling to get along in life, and I know how they feel. I tell them they have to keep going."
"I heard Kelly speak in Cincinnati, and then we had a chance to talk," says Brandhi Russo, 16, of West Chester, Ohio, who suffers from MS. "She encouraged me so much and told me I couldn’t give up. That was the turning point for me. After I talked to Kelly, I felt I could do anything."
Sutton’s courage and efforts to help others have earned her several honors, including the Wilma Rudolph Courage Award in 2003. The award, conferred by the Women’s Sports Foundation, is named for the American track and field champion who overcame childhood polio to win three gold medals at the 1960 Olympics.
Her racing career also has earned her fans across the nation. "She has broken down barriers for us younger females trying to get into the sport," says aspiring racecar driver Ashley Parlett, 22, of Wye Mills, Md. (pop. 291). "I look up to Kelly because she has been in the sport for so long and has the determination to keep going."
Sutton’s crew chief, Jason Weissman, 30, expresses similar sentiments. "Kelly sets an example for the whole crew," he says. "Her courage makes us want to give her 110 percent to help her win."
But winning doesn’t always mean crossing the finish line first. In the eyes of many, Kelly Sutton has already won . . . on and off the track.
To learn more about Kelly Sutton, log on to www.kellygirlsutton.com.