Sarasota teen takes on 150-mile Alaskan sled dog race for brother who died from type 1 diabetes
SARASOTA, Fla. - A Sarasota teenager has been turning heads on the racetrack but is about to tackle one of the most grueling races on the planet 5,000 miles away from home.
Lacy Kuehl, 16, is about to become the youngest Floridian to ever participate in the Junior Iditarod Sled Dog Race, a grueling 2-day 150-mile trek through the arctic.
"I'll do anything for a challenge," Lacy told FOX 13.
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Not only has the 16-year-old never seen snow, but she's also never even been colder than 30 degrees.
"It's a little crazy, but nothing wrong with being a little crazy, right?" she said with a sly grin.
But, while first place is her goal, Lacy is also racing with a purpose. She wants the world to know the story of her baby brother, Rocco, whose life was taken far too soon.
"I think about him often," Lacy said. "So yeah, it's super hard."
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Rocco was Lacy's baby brother who fell ill shortly after his first birthday 13 years ago last month. He was sleeping a lot, very thirsty, but never had a fever, which confused their parents and his doctors.
Lacy's parents, Heather and Brent Kuehl took Rocco to a walk-in clinic one morning knowing something was wrong.
"I asked the doctor why he was sleeping so much. He said 'when you're sick, you just want to sleep,'" Heather Kuehl said.
The doctor sent them home, but later that night, she said Rocco tried to get up and fell over. That's when they rushed him to the emergency room where doctors shocked Heather and her husband Brent with the diagnosis. Rocco had juvenile diabetes or what's more commonly now called Type 1 diabetes. Their hearts broke hours later when Rocco died.
"We had no family history, and no one suggested it could be an option until it was too late," said Heather. "Losing a child is the worst thing. It will break you, and it broke me. It's been 13 years and there are days when I don't want to get out of bed, but I do because of my daughter."
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Lacy now races not only with Rocco in her heart, but she races for him. About a year after Rocco died, a friend of Brent's invited him to Daytona to meet a NASCAR driver who was racing with diabetes.
Brent fell in love with racing and took Lacy to the Freedom Factory (formerly the Desoto Speedway) in Manatee County.
"I was hooked on racing from that moment on," Brent said.
Lacy fell in love with it as well always going to the track with him. At just six, Lacy was soon behind the wheel of a Go Kart and her father knew instantly she had natural skills and a fierce drive.
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They also loved how the small-knit community of racing always visited with one another and teams showed each other support. So it didn't take long for him to realize what an opportunity they'd have at the racetrack to share their story and teach others the warning signs of diabetes.
"It could cost you your child's life," Heather said. "I don't want it to happen to anybody else. It shouldn't happen to anyone else."
The Kuehl's established a non-profit organization called Drive 4 diabetes Awareness to be the primary sponsor on Lacy's Go Kart and her Legends car.
So rather than sponsors on her suit, helmet, and hauler there are symptoms of diabetes. Rather than stats on Lacey's autograph cards, there's a story about Lacy's little brother. Fans and even fellow racers often flood Lacy's pits at each and every track.
"We always win when we go to race," Brent said. "Even if we don't win the race, we win by sharing the symptoms and hopefully preventing another tragedy."
But winning on the track is something Lacy has found a way to do as well winning the Inverness Grand Prix and at Auburndale Speedway in her Legends car. She was so impressive early on, she caught the attention of NASCAR in 2020. At 12, she became the youngest driver ever signed in to their Drive For Diversity Driver Development program.
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"I'm a racer," Lacy said when asked what happens when she climbs into her race car. "Nothing else matters other than me trying to be the fastest I can, as focused as I can and drive the car to the best of the abilities to what I have."
Her mom admits she wasn't so keen at first to the idea of a life of racing, considering the dangers, but once she saw how Lacy skillfully prepares and avoids accidents, she knew she had the ability.
"Even at 12 years old, she amazed us," Heather said.
And to be able to use her platform at the track to promote diabetes awareness means everything to them as not a day goes by that they don't think about Rocco.
"They were always together constantly," Heather said. "So, I think he drives her."
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Their story has touched many people, especially a fellow driver at a racetrack in Alaska where Lacy was supposed to race last August.
"We were so bummed because the race got rained out," Lacy said.
But that's when driver Nicholas Petit invited the Kuehl's to see his sled dog team. They gave it a try and that night he offered them to Lacy if she wanted to enter this year's Junior Iditarod sled dog race.
"After three days of being there working with the dogs, I was like 'yes, I'm going to do it,'" Lacy said.
Now, the Florida teen, who has never seen snow, is now in Alaska preparing for one of the toughest races on the planet, which takes place February 25 and 26. It's a grueling 150-mile, two-day trek through the arctic.
Another chance for her to race, and another audience with which to share their story.
"I'm going out there to win, but the chance to spread awareness about Rocco's story and save some more lives is really why I couldn't resist," Lacy said.
Her mom and dad couldn't be prouder knowing something positive can still come from their family tragedy.
"We know numerous families who've been sent home numerous times with [unknowingly diabetic] children, and then they finally figure it out and then, they're in critical condition," Heather said. "Thats why we do what we do – to save lives."
You can follow Lacy's progress in the Alaskan Junior Iditarod Race by visiting the "Drive for Diabetes Awareness, INC" Facebook page and by visiting www.drivefordiabetesawareness.org.
NOTE: Juvenile diabetes is commonly referred to Type-1 diabetes and affects 1.45 million Americans with 64,000 people diagnosed each year, according to the CDC. Between 2001 and 2009, there was a 21 percent increase in the prevalence of T1D in people under age 20. For more diabetes resources and symptoms in toddlers click here: https://www.jdrf.org/t1d-resources/about/symptoms/children/infants-toddlers/