Skip to main content
Original Issue

She'll Stop at Nothing Kelly Sutton is favored to be the first woman--and the first driver with MS--to win the pole in a race at Daytona.

As a five-year-old fond of standing on a milk crate to inspect
her father's car engine, Kelly Sutton was happiest--in the
pit-stop poetry of her mother, Carol--"in the garage, getting

Her big sister, Tracey, wanted to be a cheerleader, but Kelly
became, oxymoronically, a feminine tomboy, part lipstick, part
dipstick, who first rode a minibike at age nine, broke her right
leg on one at 10 and was transfixed--at 11, in 1982--by the
motion picture Six Pack, in which Kenny Rogers plays a NASCAR
driver who adopts, as his mechanics, six irrepressible orphans.

At 12, Kelly, an adolescent Eva Knievel, had the first of five
surgeries on her right leg and then contracted meningitis, for
which she spent 11 days in the hospital. A year later, after
crashing her motorcycle behind the Sutton house in Crownsville,
Md., she was found facedown by her father, Ed, who reached into
her throat, removed a handful of soil and gave her CPR.

When Kelly could speak again, she reiterated her ambition to
become a NASCAR driver and one day race on the world-famous
tri-oval at Daytona International Speedway. Which is when Fate
pulled the hand brake on her life. Kelly, who normally went zero
to 60 in six seconds, now did the opposite. She came home from
school and went straight to bed. She felt exhausted for days and
then weeks and then months on end. She was variously described by
doctors as depressed, attention-starved and enduring puberty.

Still, as a member of a mission group at church, Kelly regularly
visited her bedridden neighbor, Miss Carmen, who was painfully
immobilized with multiple sclerosis. A few months after Miss
Carmen died, Kelly saw a neurologist, whose diagnosis of her
condition was not depression but MS. She was told she had eight
to 10 years to walk before spending the remainder of her life in
a wheelchair. Kelly, 16, thought immediately of Miss Carmen. "It
was a devastating diagnosis," says Carol, "and we accepted it as

But the neurologist was wrong. Kelly didn't have eight to 10
years to walk. She had one. With five months remaining in her
senior year of high school, the right side of her body gone numb,
Kelly became housebound, missing the prom and hoarding all her
energy for a new kind of triumph: walking across the stage of her
high school auditorium on graduation day to accept her diploma.
"That," says Carol through tears all these years later, "was a
great moment."

With a wheelchair waiting, Kelly began to live in double time.
She married and gave birth to a daughter, Ashlee. When Kelly's
father asked if she still wanted to race cars, he added, before
she could say no, "We'll do it before anything else happens to
you." They bought a Mini-Stock car, and when Kelly's MS--the
relapsing-remitting type, the least aggressive form of the
disease--temporarily abated, she entered a race at Old Dominion
Speedway in Manassas, Va. She felt instantly at home. Kelly
Sutton, who had previously raced only go-karts, finished,
improbably, fourth. In the next three years she was voted, each
season, the Most Popular Driver on the Pro Mini-Stock circuit.

By 1995 she was poised, impossibly, to race at Daytona, as a
driver in the Goody's Dash Series, which races a lighter, V6
version of Winston Cup cars. One week before she was to do so,
while driving to her parents' house in Crownsville, going about
60 mph in her '89 Camaro, Kelly skidded on ice, hit a tree,
collapsed a lung, broke ribs, dislocated a hip and shoulder, went
into shock and unintentionally unleashed all the furies of her

At 24 she had to be held up in the shower and placed on the
toilet. Says Carol, "She couldn't close her own eyes." Kelly
endured this for a full year with a dignity that was both
heartbreaking and heartwarming. When she finally did leave the
house, it was to attend Ashlee's softball games, where she'd lay
supine, beneath a blanket, on a chaise longue lawn chair, a
disembodied voice shouting encouragement to her daughter.

All the while Ed was building a metal box with a steering wheel
weighted to 70 pounds of resistance on which he painted racing
colors, Kelly's number 01 and her name. "You need to work out on
this," he said, delivering it to her house one day. "You're gonna
race again."

In 1997, her disease dormant once more, Kelly returned to racing
and made it all the way up to the Allison Legacy Series. She also
began to wait tables at Chick & Ruth's, a famous Annapolis deli
with pictures of movie stars and presidents on the wall. And in
1998 she discovered a drug that has, for four years now, kept her
MS manageable. What's more, the drug's manufacturer, Teva
Pharmaceuticals, offered to sponsor her as a driver on the Dash

The first race of 2003 is on Sunday, at Daytona, where last week
in practice Kelly, now number 02, recorded the fastest lap in a
nondrafting session, averaging 163.705 mph. She is favored to be
the first woman ever to win the pole in a race at Daytona, to say
nothing of the first driver with MS. Her photo now hangs among
the celebrity glossies at Chick & Ruth's.

Of her remarkable existence, racing with scarlet fingernails,
Kelly says, "It's everything I imagined it to be as a little

The doctors, of course, were right: At 31, Kelly Sutton's life is
largely confined to a wheeled chair.