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 greazy."
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 fact."
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, V-6 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 disease.
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."