By Doug Gorman
Driving a race car around the track at nearly 190 mph isn't for everybody.
For Kelly "Girl" Sutton, however, life in the fast lane is a perfect way to make a living.
The third-generation racer grew up around tracks watching her father compete at local venues around their Maryland home, and hearing stories about her grandfather's racing success before she was bitten by the racing bug at an early age.
"I was the world's biggest "tomboy"," she said. "I can't remember when I didn't want to race."
However, her career was nearly derailed before it started after she was diagnosed with relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis when she was just 16-years old.
Multiple Sclerosis is a chronic disease of the central nervous system The CNS sends and receives signals through a network of nerves insulated by a protective protein coating called myelin. In MS, myelin is broken down, causing a disruption in these signals.
Mild symptoms often include vision or agility problems, numbness and tingling sensations. In some patients, more severe symptoms may eventually include a partial or complete loss of vision or mobility.
Now, nearly 17 years after first learning she had the disease, Sutton is living proof people with M.S. can have full and exciting lives. Friday night the only known person with M.S. to race in a NASCAR series will put her racing skills on display in the NASCAR Craftsman Trucks World Financial Group 200 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
When Sutton was first diagnosed, racing was the last thing on her mind.
"I thought I was destined to spend the rest of my life in a wheelchair, she said. "The first time I went to a support group, I ran out of the room crying, because there was so many people in wheel chairs, I didn't want to live my life that way."
With the help of advances in medicine and aligning herself with good doctors, Sutton has been able to live a productive life.
The veteran racer shies away from calling herself a celebrity, but uses racing as a forum to help inspire those with the illness. Her main racing sponsor, Copaxone is one of the most prescribed drugs for managing the disease.
"If I can help give hope to those with M.S., that's what I want to do," she said. "Not everybody can go out there and race a truck, but if I can make them realize they can have a normal life, that's makes me happy. I want to help newly-diagnosed people know they can be a great soccer mom, cook or whatever they want to be. Their dreams don't have to die."
When Sutton first learned she had the illness, she went through the typical bouts of depression.
"I really thought my life was over (when I was first diagnosed)," she said. "I had always wanted to race more than anything else in the world, and when I was first diagnosed, I thought it was impossible."
Sutton may have given up on her racing dream, but her father never lost hope.
"He came to me when I was about 19 and asked me if I wanted to race again?" she said. "I was managing my M.S. through good doctors, medication and the support of my family, and even though I had some doubts, my father kept telling me, 'I could do anything I put my mind to."
Sutton's father was right. Multiple sclerosis couldn't stop her from succeeding in racing.
From 1992-94, Sutton won seven feature races, 20 qualifiers, and five poles at the Old Dominion Speedway/Pro Mini Stock Series.
Then in 1995 tragedy stuck again as Sutton was injured in a car accident when she hit a patch of ice on a wintery day and careened down an embankment, suffering several injuries that put her in the hospital.
Sutton bounced back in a big way in 1997 by winning two feature races and three poles as part of the Allison Legacy Pennsylvania Series. She also raced on the 1998 Parts Pro Truck Series.
From 2000-2003, Sutton raced in NASCAR Goody's Dash Series. Including races on AMS' quartermile track.
Sutton made her debut on the Craftsman Truck Series in 2003, turning in a 19th-place finishing in Homestead.
Last year in her first full season on the NASCAR truck series, Sutton finished 26th in the points standing, including a 32rd in Atlanta.
She wants to improve on that performance this time around.
"We weren't satisfied with our Atlanta run last year," she said. "We think we can do much better. I really didn't learn to much about the Atlanta track because of our disappointing run. The tracks in Charlotte and Texas are similar, but you still can compare the three."
Through the first two races on the Craftsman Truck Series this year, Sutton has shown signs of having a breakthrough season.
In Daytona, she finished 17th. Sutton just missed out on a top-25 run in California, finishing 26th.
"We feel like we have a good team this year," she said. "We are excited about coming here to Atlanta and improving from last year."
Sutton is content to compete in the Craftsman Series, but wouldn't turn down the chance to race on the Busch or Nextel Series if the opportunity comes along.
"There are a lot of drivers that cross over from the cars to trucks," she said. "I have never been in a Nextel or Busch car," she said. "Right now, we want to keep getting better our here in the truck series. I don't think you should compete on other series, until you are satisfied with the way you are competing in the main series, but maybe someday I'll get the chance. We are getting better, but we want to keep improving out her in the truck.
Win or lose, Sutton's other mission will continue to speak out about M.S. and inspire the 400,000 M.S. suffers in the United States, including the 8,500 in Georgia.