Kelly Sutton—Race of Her Life
Kelly Sutton was only 4 when she stood on milk crates to get a good view of the engines that rested under the hood of the cars in the family race shop. Soon, her tiny hands held wrenches and pliers.
Her dad, Ed, worked three jobs, and about the only time she saw him was when he was in the shop working on the dragsters, dune buggies and dirt-track cars he raced.
''I fell in love with cars,'' Kelly said. ''I wanted to be just like my dad.''
Today, as a Craftsman Truck Series rookie, Sutton will be at Lowe's Motor Speedway to try to qualify for the Tailgate 200, which precedes NASCAR Nextel Cup All-Star race.
''I think it's just amazing,'' said fellow Craftsman Truck rookie Robert Huffman, who competed against Sutton in the NASCAR Goody's Dash series.
And that's not because Sutton is one of two women (Tina Gordon is the other) to compete full-time in one of NASCAR's three national series. Sutton is the only person racing in NASCAR with multiple sclerosis.
She has also recovered from severe motorcycle and car accidents and a bout of spinal meningitis and spent several years raising two daughters on her own.
So far, her rookie truck season has been as difficult as her 32-year-old life. Of her first four trucks races in the No. 02 Team Copaxone Chevrolet Desperado, Sutton failed to qualify for two, including the elite season opener at Daytona. A transmission went bad 65 laps into a third race. She has also had to get used to a new crew chief after the old one ''mutually left'' after Daytona.
''It's a tough series to be in,'' she said. ''And I knew it would be tough. But I'm not going to give up that easy because I didn't make a race or two.''
She bounced back last week with a solid 20th finish at the Ohio 250 at Mansfield Motorsports Speedway.
''Kelly has the drive to win races, and in the right situation she can be competitive enough to do that,'' Huffman said. ''I know she's pretty aggressive.''
A Humble Start
With money tight in the Sutton household, her father found an old mini-bike in the junkyard, sandblasted it and painted it yellow and black and gave it to Kelly for her ninth birthday.
Two months later, while showing off for her sister and friend, she lost control of the back end and crashed. The handlebar hit her leg and broke it.
''My dad always was one that if you fall down, get back up,'' Sutton said. ''That's just the way he was.''
She broke the leg on Nov. 7. By Thanksgiving, with a cast from her hip to her ankle, she was back on the motorcycle.
At 12, she was riding with her brother-in-law on farmland behind her house in Crownsville, Md., when she had a high-speed wobble and hit a stump, propelling her over the handlebar. She landed nearly 100 feet away.
''My brother-in-law got to me and I wasn't breathing,'' Sutton said. ''He took off running to my dad, who got me breathing [by performing CPR]. My arm was facing another way. I wasn't wearing a helmet, and I had a major concussion with swelling of the brain. I thought I had killed myself and an angel carried me through it.''
At 13, she suffered a bout of spinal meningitis. Nine of her relatives had died of it. She recovered, only to be diagnosed with MS three years later.
For two years, Sutton was deeply depressed. At 18, she finally went to a support group. Seven people were there. Four were in wheelchairs.
''I broke my leg in half and never shed a tear. I broke my thumb playing softball and never cried,'' Sutton said. ''I walked out of the support group and sobbed all the way home.''
Through it all, her dad wouldn't let her give up her dream. She raced locally for four years in pro mini stock cars at Old Dominion Speedway.
In 1995, her father went to Indianapolis and bought her a Goody's Dash car. She was going to fulfill a dream to race at Daytona. But a week before leaving for testing, she hit a patch of ice and smashed her car into a tree.
Broken ribs. Dislocated right hip. Dislocated left shoulder. Collapsed lung.
That crash brought on a devastating MS relapse that forced her into a wheelchair and made her rely on help for most everything, including showering, for nearly a year.
''I thought it was over,'' she said. ''I was told I had eight to 10 years to walk when I was diagnosed.''
''I know there was a purpose for me because I have been through so much. I never thought I would get this far. Everything now is icing on the cake.''
But it wasn't over. Her dad built her an exercise machine that looked like a go-kart.
''He told me to get my butt up and get in it and go back racing,'' Sutton said. ''I worked with my doctors and got good nutritional advice and changed medications. I got on steroids and then Copaxone.''
She got out of the wheelchair and eventually got back into a race car. But lack of funding, and the responsibility to care for two young daughters on her own, forced her to go to work in 1999 as a waitress at the Chick-n-Ruth deli in Annapolis, Md.
While working there she got an overdue dose of good fortune. She waited on a woman whose husband had MS. It eventually led to Sutton landing a racing sponsorship with Copaxone.
With the sponsorship, she raced in the Goody's Dash series in 2002, finishing 12th overall and third among rookies. She was eighth in the series last year, with three consecutive top 10 finishes and the Wilma Rudolph Courage Award she won from the Women's Sports Foundation.
Last year, she also competed in three truck races, with a 19th-place best finish at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Sutton, who once tried to hide her MS, now goes around the country giving hope to others with the disease.
''I know there was a purpose for me,'' she said. ''Because I have been through so much. I never thought I would get this far. Everything now is icing on the cake.''