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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Sutton learned to take on all challenges

Eli Saslow Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Kelly Sutton is her sport’s ultimate outsider.

She’s a disabled, female driver on the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series, which experts refer to as the tough man’s circuit of high-speed racing.

Sutton injects a drug to control her relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis every morning. She battles chronic fatigue every afternoon. In between, she climbs into a half-ton pickup truck and races from her disease at 180 mph. She forgets about the year she spent in a wheelchair. She forgets about the possibility that, someday, she’ll be confined to that wheelchair again.

Thanks largely to her daily injections of the MS drug Copaxone, Sutton, 33, has been almost entirely healthy for five years. During that time, she has made considerable progress in racing, her lifelong passion. On Feb. 18 at Daytona International Speedway, Sutton opened her second season on the truck series with a career-best 17th-place finish.

“I don’t play the female card. I don’t play the disabled card,” said Sutton, who grew up in Crownsville, a town in Anne Arundel County, Md. “When I race, I’m just doing it as a driver. I’ve been around racing my whole life. In my heart, this is where I fit in.”

No matter how much she stands out.

In 2003, during a mediocre rookie year on the truck series in which she finished No. 26 in the overall standings, Sutton became a symbol of barrier-breaking. She’s one of two women racing full time on the truck series. She’s the only driver with MS to race on any NASCAR circuit.

More than 400,000 people in the United States suffer from MS, said Ken Johnson, Sutton’s doctor and once the neurology chair at the University of Maryland. The disease affects the central nervous system, and 70 percent of those who suffer from it are female. Most start with the relapsing-remitting form of the disease, then progress into a stage of constant disability.

At almost every stop along the truck series, Suttonspeaks to hundreds of MS patients at a hospital or clinic. She tells them about Copaxone, the drug that also sponsors her race truck, and how she’s managed her disease.

Doctors diagnosed Sutton with MS at 16, just before she planned to launch the racing career she had spent her childhood dreaming about. Both Sutton’s grandfather and father were professional drivers, and Sutton decided young that she would follow the family tradition. At 5, she learned to turn a wrench. At 8, she tore down her first engine. At 10, she raced her first motorcycle.

“All little girls dream about the different things they might want to do,” said Carol Sutton, Kelly’s mom. “One day they want to be a dancer, the next a doctor. Well, Kelly wasn’t like that. She never mentioned being anything but a racecar driver.”

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