[Editor’s Note: Francesca Steele, who has already regaled us with tales of some fast moms and other women who had a hand in shaping automotive history, put together this story on Cheryl Linn Glass, a Seattle-area sprint car racer who eyed a turn at Indy someday.]
In 1980, social media was the local newspaper. With old-fashioned, black-and-white print, people could read the news of the day, follow their favorite personalities, and keep up with current fashions. If you were into dirt track racing in the Northwest, you couldn’t have missed reading about the first African-American female sprint car driver, Seattle’s own Cheryl Linn Glass.
Besides racing, she became a debutante, was nominated for Seafair princess, and designed for herself a successful career in modelling, fashion, charity, and education outreach. Without the tally of “likes and subscribes,” Cheryl was able to acquire sponsors and garner much craved media attention.
But because of her uniqueness, the attention was not always positive.
“I’m my own person,” Glass said in a 1981 interview for The Seattle Times Pacific Magazine. “Sure, it’s different to have a black woman in auto racing. But I don’t want to be known for that. I want my driving abilities to speak for themselves.”
At the height of Cheryl’s career, Seattle was in the grips of the infamous Green River murders and reading how a local girl makes good was a welcome distraction. Yet Cheryl’s life wasn’t destined to the fairy tale ending she and her family had once dreamed.
Cheryl became interested in racing at an early age. Her father, Marvin, an executive and vice president at Pacific Northwest Bell, helped her buy her first quarter-midget and by 1970 she had won Rookie of the Year. Her mother, Shirley, an engineer at Boeing Co., encouraged Cheryl’s interest as well as her little sister who followed in Cheryl’s footsteps.
“You might say we’re a racing family,” Shirley Glass said in an interview with the Seattle Times in 1981. “It takes up much of our time and resources, but it is fun.”
In 1977, the same year Janet Guthrie became the first woman to reach Indy, Cheryl graduated Nathan Hale High School with honors at the age of 16. She soon switched to half-midgets and won five state and regional championships. She was also named one of the top 10 drivers nationally. She was accepted into Seattle University and studied electrical engineering for two years, but left to pursue full-time sprint car racing at Skagit Speedway in Mount Vernon, Washington. This move would title her as the first African-American female professional race car driver. Her moniker was “The Lady,” and her goal was Indy.
“I picked sprinters because they are the biggest, meanest, roughest cars that I could drive to make a name and go on,” she told The Indianapolis Star in her 1983 run for the USAC National Sprint Silver Crown. “I love the speeds and winning and I think sprints are the keenest group of competitors there is.”
Sprint car racing is pure Americana, and is one of the most powerful types of oval-track racing in the country. Most sprint cars are single-seat fuel-injected 600hp Chevrolet small block V-8s. A pair of overhead aluminum wings affixed to the roof allows the driver to reach 85 to 120 miles per hour.
By the time Cheryl began racing sprints, the estimated cost per season was about $100,000 per year—about $300,000 in today’s money—and that’s if you don’t crash. Even the best racers at the time winning half their competitions without an incident may not break even in the sport. The sport is pure passion for competition and speed at any cost. But Cheryl’s run with the more powerful sprints wouldn’t begin without a few challenges.
In October 1980, racing at more than 120 MPH, she had a devastating end-over-end crash in a non-winged sprint car in the C main event of Western World Championships in Manzanita, Phoenix. The 5-foot-3-inch, 115-pound 19-year-old didn’t break any bones, but she suffered major soft tissue damage to her neck, back, and knees, requiring four knee operations to try to repair the torn ligaments.
“The back end got loose, slid around, smacked the wall, and climbed a 20-foot fence,” Glass recalled in an interview for the Los Angeles Times. “The car started rolling along the fence. Thirteen times it went over and then it dropped back on the track and tumbled end-over-end.”
It would take years to fully recover, but with her family by her side, she pushed on and in 1981 won Northwest Sprint Car Association Rookie of the Year, beating out the younger Al Unser Jr.
A childhood friend who used to race with Cheryl once said in an interview that “she was one of the few girls who’d go really fast. She didn’t always win, but she always went for it.”
Cheryl joined the Florida World of Outlaws circuit with 1979 Knoxville Nationals winner Ronnie Shuyman but shortly afterward dropped out. Mechanic Mark Todd described in an interview for the Indianapolis Star a disappointed Cheryl:
“I think she felt a little let down on our end because I spent so much time trying to get Ronnie’s car running,” Todd said. “But she had the car Wolfie (Doug Wolfgang) drove the year before and it was ready for as fast as she was going…”
Her time at Skagit had also caused bad feelings and disgruntled competitors. Many drivers tried for years to gain a significant sponsor. In the 1981 season, Cheryl raced with contracts from Olympia Brewing Co. and Elegant Eyewear, a Seattle-based eyeglass designer. Sally Kaye, designer for Elegant Eyewear, created a signature pair of eyeglasses in Cheryl’s name, blending style with sport, further cultivating the young racer’s image.
In an interview with the Seattle Times Pacific Magazine, Ranny Green asked Fred Brownfield, winner of the 1980 season and first driver to capture the Northwest Sprint Cars and Skagit Speedway Sprint Division Championship in one season, if he was bothered by Cheryl’s media attention.
“Yeah, a bit. I won two major championships last year and seldom does a reporter come around and talk to me… She’s a crowd pleaser and has been good for the sport. She has helped attract women to the races, and the increase in attendance last season helped boost my winnings 10 percent. But there is also a number of people that enjoy seeing her get beat too.”
At her campaign for the USAC Silver Crown in Indianapolis, she was asked whether her sex or her race had been a hardship or help.
“Both,” she said. “Women aren’t supposed to be sprint drivers and most men (back in the Northwest) really haven’t liked me. Their attitudes have made it very difficult for me to race. But I’ve been accepted around the professional drivers. I was brought up to be very open-minded and never looked at it as ‘I was black and couldn’t do it.’ I’m determined to prove I can handle it.”
After three years of sprint car racing she moved on to other venues, dividing her time between developing a fashion design business and sponsorship career. Unable to reach Indy by 1983, she acquired an older Penske PC-6 Indy car to test herself at the Seattle International Raceway with sights now on Indy 1987. She attended the Can-Am in Dallas driving a VW-powered Van Diemen and in 1985 drove in the Los Angeles Coliseum Off Road Grand Prix in a Toyota pickup.
When asked by L.A. Times reporter Shav Glick in 1985 how she found herself on the truck dirt circuit, she explained that she had been doing promotional work for Coors Brewing Co. Her words expressed her naiveté but also a required fearlessness.
“I haven’t seen an off-road race, but that doesn’t bother me because I had never seen a sprint car before I drove in one,” she said. “I saw a tape of one and I’ve never seen anything like it. It looked interesting having to jump all those hills. I’m looking forward to it.”
Cheryl had her second crash, hitting a rise off the straightaway and dove the truck into a hill. No one was hurt, but the truck was unable to compete for that Saturday night event.
In 1990, she entered the CART racing series Indy Lights, finishing seventh at Nazareth but didn’t continue, preferring to focus on her business career. She co-founded an engineering program for minority students at the University of Washington with her father and became active in local politics, advocating for education in underserved neighborhoods.
Yet on July 15, 1997, something in Cheryl’s life went very wrong. According to the authorities, she had fallen 167 feet to her death from the Aurora Bridge, an apparent suicide. Although no suicide note was ever found, one speculation that lingers recalled a home invasion and assault Cheryl suffered in 1991, and that the perceived battery of abuses at the hands of the Seattle police as she sought justice from her assailants caused her desperate act.
Many years later, one can’t help but to evaluate Cheryl’s emotional state and try to make sense of this tragedy. One thing is certain, however: Cheryl lived life on her own terms. And in a moment of self-reflection after her L.A. crash at the Coliseum she uttered the sentiments of everyone attracted to the thrill of speed and to life itself, “I sure loved it while it lasted.”