Racerchick Interview: KELLY SUTTON
by Louis Stone-Collonge
Having Kelly Sutton is not only a
31-year-old mother of two; she is an
accomplished racerchick. What makes this third
generation racer even more special is how she
has dealt with having MS. I had the privilege
of getting to talk with Kelly back in July.
Kelly is currently running full time in the
NASCAR Goody's Dash Series and has also, taken
the side trip to the NASCAR Craftsman Truck
Series this year. Her team is proudly
sponsored by Team Copazone, Tevn Neuroscience
and Royal Purple Synthetic Oil.
Louis: How did you get into racing?
Kelly: I am a third generation driver.
My grandfather race and my dad raced for many
years; I think from the time I was born until
I was about 16. So, it was a natural think. I
just wanted to be like them and getting into
Louis: When did you actually start
Kelly: I started driving when I was 19
Louis: And, that was after you were
diagnosed with MS?
Kelly: Yea. I was diagnosed when I was
16. My dad and I had built my first racecar
when I was 15, but I just kept getting' sicker
and we had to end the project because I
diagnosed with MS.
Louis: How did you get a point where
you could think about getting into a racecar?
Kelly: It was not something that was
always plagued over me. I mean, MS comes and
you are in remission; you are out of
remission. You know, you can go a couple years
without having an attack. And, when I was 19
my dad just came to me and asked if I still
wanted to drive a racecar. And, you know, I
said yes. So we started racing.
Louis: So how long have you been
Kelly: About 12 years
Louis: What do you enjoy most about
Kelly: I enjoy everything, I enjoy, you
know, being in control of something that's on
the verge of being out of control. I love the
competition. I love the speed; I like the
horsepower; I like everything.
Louis: You tend to be competitive by
Kelly: Yes, I am a very competitive
Louis: Are you one of those compete at
everything-drive your friends crazy kind of
Kelly: I wouldn't say I drive my
friends crazy. But, my dad just has always
taught me to be the best I can be and, that
includes, you know, doing everything at your
best. And, if you didn't do it good enough the
first time, do it again. Try even harder.
That's just the way I've been raised: to
challenge myself most of all. And, I have
always challenged myself.
Louis: Did you start with late models?
Kelly: No, I started with ministocks on
a local track. Then I raced one NASCAR Goody's
Dash in '95, and then I got sick for a year
and we had to sell everything, and then I
raced for somebody, and then I raced Allison
Legacy Series, and then I raced Parts Pro
Louis: Is this your first season in the
Kelly: No, this is my fourth year,
Louis: Where do you want to go from
Kelly: We want to look at every
opportunity and make a decision on what we
want to do. We haven't made definite decisions
yet, but we're looking at lots of different
Louis: That's fair enough. What has
been your best experience in racing so far?
Kelly: Well, I think the most memorable
experience in racing was winning the
Metropolitan Auto Fan Club Award, back in the
early '90's. That's something that's very
special to me because my grandfather won it in
the '60's and my dad won it in the '70's.
Louis: What was your worst experience?
Kelly: There haven't really been any
really bad experiences in racing. I have my
ups and downs, like running fourth in Daytona
a few years ago and getting involved in a
wreck. That was really disappointing because
we had a really good car. This year at Daytona
we had a really fast car and blew a power
valve before we went out to qualify, so that
dampened my qualifying run. There are a lot of
ups and downs; I don't know if I can name one
particular thing that stands out especially.
Louis: Now I 'd like to ask you about
what I think are more interesting areas (and I
call them my political questions) such as: Do
you think there are still barriers to women
who want to get into racing or advance in
Kelly: No, I don't think so.
Louis: My follow-up to that is: there
are a lot of people out there who still
believe they are dealing with an "old boys'"
club. Do you just not experience that, or
Kelly: I think it's all in the way you
look at it. I don't know why God made me a
girl, but I love to race and wouldn't be doing
anything else. I've always worked on my own
cars and been a real tomboy at heart. I think
I go to the track as a driver, not as a girl.
I want to be recognized as a driver, not for
being female. When I put my helmet on, I'm a
driver and as good as anybody else out there.
Louis: Which brings me to my next
question which I am very curious about since I
don't have the driving experience and I have
no idea of the female driver experience. There
seem to be two sides for women in racing 1) I
am not one of the guys, I am just a driver,
sort of a gender neutral thing and 2) the
politics of gender really are at play. How do
you separate your racing from the more
feminist approach? How do you deal with that?
Kelly: I really don't think about it.
As a driver, I just take everything in stride.
I just go out and race. I've never had a lot
of problems. Maybe I'm just that type of
person who, if it is happening, I don't
recognize it cause I don't let it bother me.
Maybe its because I'm not out there saying
"look at me, I'm a woman." Maybe it's just
that I'm in a great series and I don't really
have any problems.
Louis: There's a difference between
Sarah Fisher and Shawna Robinson, Where Sarah
talks a whole lot like you do, as if the whole
gender thing is almost a meaningless
distraction, and Shawna really uses gender as
a promotional tool. Where do you come down on
Kelly: I think everybody has their own
style and opinion, whether you're male,
female, or gorilla. We have our own opinions
on how things should work and how they want to
look at things. I do take to the Sarah Fisher
way. I've always been a tomboy at heart; I've
always wanted to race a car and I've never let
anything, like being female, stop me from
doing what I love to do. My main cause in
racing right now is helping people with MS,
and I do have MS. The most important thing to
me is to be a good driver and challenge myself
as a driver. I don't want to be arrogant and
draw attention to myself. I want to be
recognized for who I am as a driver.
Louis: What advice do you have for
someone who is looking to get started in
Kelly: I think it's important to get
all the experience you possibly can on a local
track. If you do decide to come into NASCAR,
be serious about your decision, because it is
a big step. You need to be dedicated 150%, you
need to be married to your racing, and you
definitely need to come in with talent. Work
hard at honing your ability to drive.
Louis: Go out and wreck some pony
stocks and start from the basics?
Kelly: Yes - I strongly suggest
starting from the basics. It takes years to
Louis: What's the time commitment you
have to put into this at your level of racing?
About 40 hours a week?
Kelly: Yes, it's pretty much 9-5 at
this level of racing, and if you wreck a car
and need to be gone for a couple of days, you
pull all-nighters. It's a very time-consuming
job and the further you rise in rank, the more
time-consuming it is.
Louis: Do you work on your Dash cars,
or do you have a crew that does that for you?
Kelly: Well, we certainly have a crew,
but I definitely like to help out. When I was
racing local, it was just me and my dad and a
couple of guys and I worked on cars just as
hard as the guys did. Now, with interviews,
the travel, and my health, I want to save my
energy, so I'm not there every day. But when I
go there I do like to pitch in. My favorite
thing growing up was getting greasy. If I
wasn't greasy, I wasn't having fun. At ten
years old, I was changing quick-change rears
in my dad's late model. I was just always a
tomboy. I always liked working on cars, and my
dad always allowed me out in the shop growing
up. On school nights, Mom would have to call
me three or four times to get me in the house.
I wanted to learn about cars--that was me.
And, my dad always took the time to teach me.
Louis: You're spreading a message about
MS, right, so where you don't use gender, you
do use your opportunities in public to talk
about MS, what it has meant to you, and how
you can have a normal life.
Kelly: Yes. It's not that I use it,
it's that I take the opportunity from being in
a public life to help other people. You know,
MS is a devastating disease. There are
therapies out there that people need to know
about. I've been diagnosed with MS for going
on 16 years now. They told me I'd be in a
wheelchair in 8-10 years, and here I am, still
going strong. My purpose is to encourage
people, whether they've just been diagnosed or
had it for a while, to see that life doesn't
end after diagnosis. I give them my experience
with therapies such as Copaxon which is the
therapy I take. Some of the other therapies I
tried gave me severe side effects, which is
pretty common. I encourage people to work with
their doctor and find a therapy that works for
them. If one therapy gives them bad side
effects, don't be afraid to try another one.
People think life is over after diagnosis and
I completely understand that cause its exactly
the way I felt. I felt like my life was over
when I was diagnosed at 16 years old. 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. It's about overcoming an
adversity and continuously live in my dreams.
If I don't race anymore after tomorrow, I
never thought I would make it this far. I
thought my life was over when I was first
diagnosed at 16. If I go no farther in racing
than today, I will have accomplished more than
I ever thought I could.
Louis: Best of luck to you and thank you for
taking the time out to talk with