Sunday marks the open of the annual National Stock Car Auto Race at Daytona International Speedway at Daytona Beach, Florida. The professional series of auto races, known as NASCAR, attracts millions of visitors every year people who love cars; who love speed; and love rooting for their favorite drivers. Winning last year's award for "Most Popular Driver" was Kelly "Girl" Sutton, one of the top contenders for this year's championships. It isn't just because Kelly is a woman. Ms. Sutton is the first person with multiple sclerosis known to race in any NASCAR series. Kelly Sutton, whose chronic, but treatable neurological disease, has made her an inspiration to both racing fans and those people living with MS.
"When I was little, my mother asked me what I wanted to do and I said I wanted to be a race car driver and I wanted to help people. So when I say MS [multiple sclerosis] was a gift to me, this has made it possible that I help other people with MS. And it took me some time to realize that," says Kelly Sutton, the third generation in a family of race car drivers.
The self-described "tom-boy" says she began racing motorcycles and go-carts at the age of ten. By the time she was 16, Kelly had already made a mark on the local racing circuit and was working with her father to build her first race car. That's when she began to experience fatigue and a loss of feeling on her right side. She was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. "It was just a devastating thing that I needed time to absorb. I mean, at sixteen years old you think you're invincible," she says. "You get your driver's license, you have friends and it was like my life had been turned upside down for some time."
Kelly Sutton eventually became confined to a wheelchair and believed she would never walk again. She credits the support of her family and medical advances that got her out of her chair and back onto the race track. "I've always had a very close family. And my Dad built me what looked like a go-cart and it was really an exercise machine," she says. "When I turned the wheel to the right it was fifty pounds of pressure and likewise to the left and also with the gas pedal and brake. And he told me I had to get in there and work out so we could go out racing. And so I worked with my doctor and changed some medication and started working out and changed some medication and got back into a race in 1997."
"You can look at Kelly-Girl and you can say, 'This is a beautiful, personable, articulate young woman who got dealt a bad hand of cards by her own body and she's still getting out there and competing with men. And she's competing with them at their own game and she's winning," says Diane Goldberg, a psychologist and writer for racing publications in Charlotte, North Carolina. She recently published an audio book called "NASCAR For Rookie Fans."
Ms. Goldberg says while women still make up a small percentage of professional race car drivers, they have been a presence in the sport since the 1940's. She says racing is a kind of sport that is not gender-specific. "I think a large part of it has to do with the fact that we only dream of doing things that we already have a concept of, which is why I think racing is so great," she says. "Women drive cars, they have that experience. And I hope that mothers who are looking for a role model for their kids, who might not want their daughters to get a lot of speeding tickets, will consider Kelly-Girl and remember that a race car doesn't care what gender you are."
For the 32-year-old Kelly Sutton, a mother of two, she says racing gives her an "adrenaline thrill" like nothing else can. "I love the smells, I love the power, I love being in the car and being in control of the car," she says.
Kelly Sutton claims she is never afraid once she's behind the wheel of a car. Outfitted in a flame retardant suit, helmet and two belts fastened over each shoulder, Ms. Sutton's experience is no different from any other driver including the sometimes unavoidable wrecks. "I've been in a couple of bad wrecks. At Daytona in 2001, we had a real bad crash," she says. "I was running fourth and a guy in front of me passed out from heat dehydration. And when I slowed, the car behind me didn't slow and hit me from the rear. And we're running about [270 kilometers-per-hour] in the draft and it caused a 13-car pile-up, which when you're going that fast, it's a pretty horrendous wreck. And I walked away without even a scratch."
Racing driver Kelly-"Girl"-Sutton. For years Kelly says her dream was to race at Daytona International Speedway known by many as the "Superbowl" of races." Her entry this year marks her fourth consecutive season at Daytona on the NASCAR circuit. Last year she beat 75 other drivers, placing third in the Goody's Dash a competition that provides a training ground for the major leagues. But Kelly Sutton has already established herself a champion.
When she isn't racing, she travels around the country sharing the story of her battle with MS and her love of racing with other MS sufferers. She describes the disease as 'not who we are,' but 'something we have to deal with.' She says "I am a Mom, I am a wife, I am a race car driver. Those are the things that define me, not MS."