The Frontstretch: The Best Of The Frontstretch : Tearing Apart the Trucks: Kelly Sutton Makes Her Return by Beth Lunkenheimer -- Thursday January 24, 2008

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Editor’s Note : With Speedweeks just around the corner, there’s an opportunity to take one last look at 2007 before moving forward. And that means we have a chance to honor the fantastic men and women that make this site tick – our talented staff of 19 writers who work hard each day to give the latest and greatest NASCAR news, information, and commentary. Our staff’s passion for this sport is unwavering, and their dedication unmatched – it’s because of them viewership for the site has more than doubled over the past year, even in the face of increasing concerns about declining TV Ratings and fan support. People may not like the direction the sport may be headed – but based on the numbers, it’s through the hard work of our Frontstretch staff that more people are coming here for a daily stock car fix.

So, in their honor, we present to you a special “Best Of” week, chronicling the best articles our staff presented to you in 2007. They’ll make you laugh, they’ll make you cry, and most of all, they’ll make you think – and hopefully, they’ll make your day just a little bit better. Enjoy, and look forward to bigger and better things to come as we head towards 2008!

This article was originally published April 13th, 2007.

When the Craftsman Truck Series rolls into Kansas on April 28th, Kelly Sutton will make her return to racing after an extended absence. Sutton and Billy Ballew Motorsports announced a four race deal for Sutton to drive the No. 51 Team Copaxone Chevy Silverado at the beginning of this month: Sutton will also pilot the truck at Mansfield Motorsports Park (May 26th), Texas Motor Speedway (June 8th), and Memphis Motorsports Park (June 30th) in her debut season for Ballew.

The return of Sutton once again brings a woman back into the Truck Series as at least a part-time competitor; but Kelly Sutton isn’t just any racer, and it’s not because she’s female, either. Sutton has been battling relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis (MS), an “autoimmune disease that affects the central nervous system” for the last 19 years. She was diagnosed with MS at the age of 16; tingling and numbness on her right side sent her to the doctor, where a spinal tap and an MRI revealed MS. Doctors told her she would be confined to a wheelchair within 8-10 years; instead, she’s developed into one of the best female drivers in the United States.

Back at 16, though, Sutton thought all her dreams of being a racer had been lost. All her life, she had dreamed of following in her father’s and grandfather’s footsteps, both racers; now, she feared the opportunity was lost. Her family had other plans, though. One day, her dad asked her if she still wanted to race. She didn’t believe she could, but with the help of her family and steroids, Sutton got stronger and was able to start racing at age 19.

From 1992-1994, Kelly found herself racing in the Old Dominion Speedway / Pro Mini-Stock Series, where she found great success. She won five pole positions, 20 qualifying races, and seven feature events. She also won numerous awards in the series, including the Most Popular Driver Award (1992,1993,1994), the Hard Charger Award (1992), and the Sportsmanship Award (1992).

All seemed to be going well for Sutton; but then, at age 25, the third generation racer had a serious accident. On a trip to visit her parents, she hit a patch of ice and slammed into a tree at 60 mph, leaving most of the bones in the right side of her body broken. That accident triggered a relapse of her MS; she was confined to a wheelchair and needed help with such simple tasks as taking a shower and getting into and out of bed.

Once again, Sutton feared her dream was over, but again her father came to the rescue. He showed up at her house with a training car and told her that when she could run 100 laps in that car, they would go racing again. That gave Kelly the push she needed to find a drug that would work for her. They found the right combination of diet and exercise to improve Sutton’s muscular performance, and she gradually began to grow stronger. That routine, together with Copaxone, an injection that “works both outside and inside the central nervous system to fight damage done to it” helped Sutton get out of her wheelchair and back on the race track in no time flat.

Kelly returned to racing in the Allison Legacy Pennsylvania Series, and four races into the 1997 season, she became the first female to win in the series regionally or nationally. In 2000 and 2001, she ran a few races in the Goody’s Dash Series before going full-time in 2002. She finished third in rookie points, 12th in the series points standings, and won the Most Popular Driver Award.

Since 2003, Kelly has raced 51 races in the Craftsman Truck Series for Team Copaxone and Sutton Motorsports, owned by her father, Ed Sutton. Her best finish in the No. 02 truck was 15th at Charlotte in 2005. Unfortunately, a midseason injury took Sutton out of her truck last season, and the team’s equipment was auctioned off, leaving Sutton without a ride for 2007 until Billy Ballew came calling.

Kelly Sutton has been out of a wheelchair since 1996, “And it ain’t coming back,” she says. The 35-year-old mother of two travels around the country sharing her inspirational story when she isn’t racing; the best part is that she won’t let her MS keep her from doing what she loves. “MS doesn’t define me. I define me,” she says.

Unfortunately, there is no cure for MS and the drugs only slow the progression on the disease, but until then, Kelly loves the time she spends on the track. “For me, it’s not about being discriminated against as a female out on the track; it’s about living with this disease and still continuing to fulfill my dreams,” says Sutton.
“It’s about overcoming adversity; if I don’t race anymore after tomorrow, I never thought I would make it this far (because of MS). I thought my life was over when I was first diagnosed at 16. So if I go no farther in racing than today, I will have accomplished more than I ever thought I could.”

Let’s hope those accomplishments keep on coming.

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