September 23, 2002 12:00 PM

Scarlet nails flashing as she gripped the steering wheel, Kelly Sutton whipped her souped-up Pontiac Sunbird across the finish line at Memphis Motor-sports Park. Twice she had spun out during the June 22 race, nearly crashing into the retaining wall. Yet she finished ninth. “My best finish of the year,” says Sutton, 30, who leaped from her car and ecstatically hugged her pit crew and family. “I never gave up, never lost focus,” she says. “Nothing has stopped me from living my dream.”

For years Sutton’s dream–to race cars, just like her father and grandfather before her–seemed an impossible one. Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at 16, the onetime star athlete found herself confined to a wheelchair by age 18, too depressed to even watch racing on TV. But with a jump start from her supportive family, the help of an anti-MS drug she injects daily and her own unrelenting conditioning program, the Crownsville, Md., mother managed to get back on track. Now she’s chasing after Rookie of the Year honors in the NASCAR Goody’s Dash series. “I love to be in control of something that’s on the verge of being out of control,” says Sutton, explaining her lifelong need for speed. “It’s my passion.”

Sutton was hooked early. As a toddler, she’d stand on a milk crate to peer under the hood of her father’s racecar along with his garage crew. “When Kelly was 3, she’d clean mud off the cars,” says Ed Sutton, 56, a now-retired police officer and amateur racer. By age 10 she was racing a motorcycle, then within two years a go-cart. “When I was out there racing, I felt like I was a cool kid,” says Sutton.

But when she was 15, she began to experience troubling physical changes. An ace shortstop, she started to run flat-footed on the field; then she would come home from school so tired she wanted to go straight to bed. “The doctor said she was going through adolescence and just wanted attention,” remembers mom Carol, 52, a secretary. Over the following year Sutton’s symptoms worsened, but the doctors kept “telling me it was in my head,” Sutton says. “I started to question myself.” Then came the day Sutton lost feeling on her right side. Tests revealed a shocker: MS. “It was scary,” she says. “But my family surrounded me with love. They said, ‘We’re going to get through it.'”

That’s a promise Sutton’s parents and sister Tracey, now 33, kept, even through her darkest days. One of those came at age 19, when giving birth to her daughter Ashlee triggered a devastating flare-up of the disease. (Sutton had married drag racer Rodney Daff just before her MS diagnosis; they divorced in 1992.) “She felt like her world had come to an end and that she was destined to be what MS had left her–in a wheelchair and sick,” her father recalls. After asking Kelly if she still wanted to race, he pledged to help. The family soon bought a small black Pinto, which Ed converted into a racecar. “It was a renewal of my life,” says Sutton, who began a grueling exercise program combined with a high protein diet, which she still follows. “There was a goal: to drive the car.”

By 1993 Sutton was racing–and winning. But there were unanticipated curves ahead. In January 1995 she was driving to her parents’ house when she skidded on an icy patch of road and slammed into a tree. She suffered several broken ribs, a collapsed lung and a dislocated hip and shoulder. The near-fatal accident also precipitated her worst MS attack to date (as well as strained her brief marriage to second husband George Housley, a painter, whom she divorced in 1997). Once again her father came through. He constructed a stationary racecar that doubled as a workout machine. Within two years she was back behind the wheel for real. In 2000 she picked up a sponsor, Teva Pharmaceuticals, manufacturer of the drug she takes to help prevent relapses.

As the racer speeds through her rookie season on the Goody’s Dash circuit–a stepping-stone to the sport’s upper tiers–she still relies on help from Team Sutton. Before every race her sister braids her long hair. During competition Ed serves as her spotter. And her third husband, Butch Fabiszak, 41, a builder and occasional racer, pitches in on her pit crew. (The couple, who married in 2000, are raising Ashlee, now 12, and Nicole, 7, Fabiszak’s daughter from a previous relationship.) “It’s racing 24/7 around the house here,” says Fabiszak. “She lives for it.”

Sutton is also driven to offer hope to fellow MS sufferers, both through her performance and motivational speeches around the country. “I see hope when she talks to people,” says Fabiszak of his wife’s appearances, which usually leave her and the audience in tears. “It’s not so much the words–it’s that she’s out there fighting.”

Pam Lambert
Melody Simmons in Hardeeville, S.C.

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