Sunday, February 9, 2003

ARCA driver winning battle against MS

Florida Today

Ask racecar driver Kelly Sutton if she believes she's usually the underdog on the track, and you'll likely get a stunned reply from her.

"I hope I'm not an underdog," Kelly laughs. "I'm just like any other driver."

Well, not quite.

First of all, the 31-year-old from Crownsville, Md., is the mother of two, a cross-stitcher and softball player who is not the typical pedal-to-the metal Southern-fried driver who will compete in Sunday's season-opening Goody 's Dash Series Daytona USA 150 at 11 a.m. at Daytona International Speedway.

She's overcome plenty of odds, too.

Such as five operations on her right leg and even a case of meningitis - before she was a teenager. A few years later, an auto accident near her parents' house left her with a collapsed lung, broken ribs, and a dislocated hip and shoulder.

Sutton has also battled multiple sclerosis. The crippling disease paralyzed part of her body five months before her high school graduation, but she worked hard to get out of a wheelchair and walked across the auditorium stage to receive her diploma.

Just like any other driver?

Her peers voted her the Most Popular Driver in 2002.

But the former motorcycle racer who loves to hear songs by country crooners George Strait and Garth Brooks, says she isn't out to win any popularity contests.

Driving her No. 02 Pontiac Sunfire, Sutton posted the fastest lap in practice, spinning her wheels at an average of 163.705 mph around the 2.5-mile high-banked oval. She will start 11th Sunday in her fourth trip to Daytona after finishing 11th a year ago.

Sutton finished third in the 2002 Rookie of the Year standings and 12th in the points standings, some 600 behind Goody's champion Jake Hobgood. But it was more than enough to get her excited about this season.

"We've put together a great car," says Sutton, who moved the team's operations from Lexington, N.C., to Maryland, just 6 miles from the race shop owned by her father, Ed.

She also hired a new crew chief, Dion Ciccarelli, a veteran driver who once raced against Sutton. He also brought the crew that was with him on the Grand National circuit.

"It's been great working with him," Sutton says. "That's all I did in the offseason was work on the car. And I like this one the best."

A Goody's Dash Series race car, which has a 268 cubic-inch, V-6 engine, essentially is a scaled-down version of a NASCAR Winston Cup car.

There already are plans - not just hopes - to race part-time this season on NASCAR's Craftsman Truck Series.

Sutton is winning her 15-year battle with multiple sclerosis. Since discovering the medication Copaxone (glatiramer acetate) in 1999, she has had just one relapse.

The drug company, Teva Pharmaceuticals, even offered to sponsor her.

"My insurance had run out, so I began inquiring about medications at different companies," Sutton says. "I checked with ... the company that makes my daily injection, and they were interested in what I do. Now it 's plastered on the side of the car."

She couldn't be happier.

"Every year, you learn something more," she says. "I'm fortunate that I have been able to keep doing what I love."

So, does she ever think she could race in the Daytona 500?

"Oh, sure, that would be great," she says. "That's every driver's dream."

Hey, maybe she is just like all the other drivers, after all.

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