Cheryl Linn Glass’ name could have been one that defined a generation of racers but has instead faded from the annals of motorsport history, loaded down with the heavy burden of a life lost too early. The first Black woman to race sprint cars professionally in America, eyes set firmly on an Indianapolis 500 entrance, Glass had all the makings of a racing pioneer come to life.
And then, at the age of 35, her life was cut short. Six years after reporting that her home was burglarized and her walls painted with a lipstick swastika among other Nazi propaganda, then adding that she had been raped by those very same burglars, Glass died. Seattle detectives looking into her death ruled it a suicide, saying that she had jumped off the Aurora Bridge into Lake Union 167 feet below.
Some members of her family posited that it wasn’t a suicide, that Glass was thrown from the bridge. Others believed she’d reached the point where she was capable of taking her own life.
One thing, though, is clear: It is absolutely devastating that the racing world hasn’t remembered Cheryl Linn Glass with the reverence deserved of a Black woman who broke down the barriers placed before her to carve out her place as a racer, a scholar, and a businesswoman.
Welcome to Women in Motorsport Monday, where we share the stories of the badass women who have conquered the racing scene throughout the years.
Cheryl Glass always knew she was going to be something special. Born in Mountain View, California on Christmas Eve in 1961, Glass wanted to race, and she also wanted to fund herself in the process. When she was nine, Glass opened her first business selling elaborate ceramic dolls for as much as $300 each. Around the same time, she read a newspaper story about local kids her age driving quarter-midget race cars. And if you’re a nine-year-old with some disposable income, why not buy your own machine and start racing? Her father, a motorsport fan himself, saw no problems supporting his daughter.
It made sense for Glass to pursue lofty goals. Her parents, Marvin and Shirley Glass, were executives in the aerospace and telecommunications industries, and after a relocation to the Seattle area, Glass honed her racing skills on Washington’s Skagit Speedway — the same third-mile oval that taught Indy 500 winner Tom Sneva hone his craft.
While tracking down the results of children’s quarter-midget racing in the early 1970s is difficult, it is known that Glass was named Rookie of the Year in her first year of competition — the first girl to ever hold that distinction in her series. That must have deeply motivated her, because she won five consecutive state or regional titles as she matured. She also became the first woman to win the season championship at Skagit, and after competing in more than 100 races, she became America’s first Black woman to race professionally.
All the while, Glass was earning a reputation as something of a child prodigy. She graduated high school with honors at the age of 16 and immediately moved into studying electrical engineering at Seattle University. What she could have done with that degree is unknown because she dropped out at 18 to pursue a full-time racing career. The Chico Enterprise also listed her as being a registered professional model and competitive disco dancer who had won competitions in Los Angeles, Denver, Seattle, and San Francisco.
“The Lady” had her eye set on a big prize: to compete in the Indianapolis 500 and then, later, to become a Formula One driver.
“When I started racing, some of my fellow drivers didn’t particularly like the idea,” Glass said before a World of Outlaws Sprint Car, as reported in The Tampa Tribune. “They’d try to crowd me out, push me around.
“But that didn’t last too long. They pushed me around — until they found out I’d push back.”
In 1981, the year of that Tampa Tribune interview, women still weren’t considered equal members on the motorsport playing field. It was, after all, only five years after Janet Guthrie became the first woman to try qualifying for the Indy 500, six since Lella Lombardi became the only woman to score a half-point in Formula One. President Ronald Reagan was inaugurated in January of that year, and his stances on reproductive healthcare were well-publicized. One-quarter of the women hired by the United Nations stated that they were sexually harassed at work. Astronauts Kathryn Sullivan and Sylvia Earle were added to the previously all-male Explorers Club in 1981, and up to 300 members were predicted to resign because, “You have no idea how strongly some men feel about this.”
Add into that volatile environment Cheryl Glass’ status as a proud Black woman, and it becomes easy to see that her mere presence was a threat to the status quo of the racing world.
“Women aren’t supposed to be sprint drivers, and most men [in the Northwest] haven’t really liked me,” she said in an interview with the Indianapolis Star. “Their attitudes have made it very difficult for me to race. But I’ve been accepted around professional drivers. I was brought up to be very open-minded and I’ve never looked at it as ‘I was Black and couldn’t do it.’ I’m determined to prove I can handle it.”
Determination, though, could only count for so much. As early as 1980, Glass’ success was unable to attract her a sponsor, and it was a problem that resonated throughout her career. There were people willing to take a chance on Glass, yes — but there were many more who weren’t willing to acknowledge her success.
Glass began traveling outside her Washington home in 1980. She suffered a bad wreck at Arizona’s Manzanita Raceway, flipping at over 120 mph. The wreck left her with damaged blood vessels in her eyes and torn ligaments, but she was told The Los Angeles Times that it only only strengthened her resolve: “Once I realized I was still alive after all the bouncing around, I never doubted I would race again.”
After her recovery, Glass went to Florida for more sprint car training, and it was there that she received the invitation of a lifetime: Charlie Patterson asked her to race for him at the Hoosier Hundred USAC Silver Crown race in 1980.
“I’ve been involved in racing since 1958, and as the years went by, I’d had a Silver Crown car for about 20 years and thought it would be neat to do something different than hire one of the big names to drive the car,” Patterson said, as reported in Road & Track.
“I’d been reading about her and all the wins she’d had up at Skagit Speedway, and I thought, you know, as a gimmick, I might give it a try. I called her up, and she and her dad thought it would be a good idea.
“I brought her in, and we went out to the [Indianapolis Motor] Speedway where they were having a [IndyCar] tire test, and introduced her to a lot of people there,” he said. “I tried to get her some sponsorship, and that didn’t work out, but I had a business, Patterson Driveshafts, and did it out of my pocket.”
But instead of success, Glass found a blow to her confidence waiting at the Hoosier Hundred. She leapt from quarter- and half-mile circuits right onto a one-mile track, and she retired nine laps into the 60-lap feature.
In Road & Track, Patterson recalled, “She said, ‘I just can’t drive this thing. She was struggling with the car jumping the cushion, so we parked it. That was the last venture we had.”
Robin Miller posited in that same Road & Track article that Glass simply wasn’t ready to make the jump. Her competition included some of the best sprint car drivers in the world, ones who had been competing for decades longer than Glass had been alive.
Glass never spoke much about that Hoosier Hundred, but it must have been humbling. She had gone from consistently crushing her competition to retiring because she felt incapable of racing the drivers around her.
Charlie Patterson hypothesized that, “Her biggest problem was her attitude. She seemed to be down on herself and down about everything. She was not a very joyous person at all. She was out of her element, and her attitude was partly because I don’t think she realized how big a step this was until she made the step. I think her attitude hindered her more than her lack of experience.”
Glass didn’t use the Hoosier Hundred experience as an excuse to withdraw from racing — but nor did she use it as inspiration to hone her skills and come back stronger.
Instead, she leapt into SCCA Can-Am road racing. She tried running the Mickey Thompson Off-Road series. She tried to bypass the steep learning curve associated with open-wheel racing by testing an old Penske PC6 Indy car chassis at Seattle International Raceway. She even bought a car.
All the while, she echoed the same refrain: “I expect to be at Indianapolis in two years. I am confident of my ability. I think I have shown what I can do in a race car, and I hope to have an Indy car team next year to condition myself for the 500.”
Instead, Glass took a break from racing. Between 1984 and 1990, she established a company called Cheryl Glass Designs in downtown Seattle, where she was responsible for designing custom formal wear and wedding gowns — something she found she enjoyed after designing her own silk and lace gown for her wedding to Richard Lindwall in 1983. She took up modeling. She volunteered at a program that brought STEM education to inner-city students. She spoke to political action groups. She won awards for trailblazing. She continued stating her goals to compete in the Indy 500 in the next two years. But she wasn’t racing.
And then, suddenly: she was.
Rather than ease back into racing after her absence, Glass founded Cheryl Glass Racing alongside Hersey Mallory and entered the penultimate round of the 1990 Indy Lights championship.
It wasn’t easy. She struggled in practice until her competition, Robbie Groff, shared tips on how to set up an open-wheel car. She qualified ninth of 11 cars, finished seventh. It wasn’t a stunning return, but it also wasn’t terrible.
At the season finale, though, Glass found herself 10 seconds off the pace. Her Nazareth success could be attributed to the oval-style racing she knew; on a road course like Laguna Seca, Glass was helpless. She failed to start the race.
Glass wasn’t ready to give up. In 1991, she returned for another go at Indy Lights.
At the season opener in Long Beach, Glass started last. She retired on lap 14 of 45, citing electrical problems.
At Phoenix the following weekend, Glass qualified 14th of 15 starters. She crashed on lap 30.
It was her last Indy Lights race.
Cheryl Glass faded from the racing world after her doomed start to the Indy Lights season. She had, it seemed, given up hope on her Indy 500 goals, but what she did after is unclear. Her name didn’t appear in the newspaper again until August 11, 1991.
“Burglars drew a swastika and a German phrase for ‘white power’ when they robbed a house owned by a black race-car driver,” the Spokesman-Review newspaper proclaimed in an article titled “Burglars left racist graffiti behind.”
The report continued:
The swastika and the words “Weiss Mach,” an apparent misspelling of “weiss macht,” German for white power, were drawn with red lipstick inside the home of Cheryl Glass during a Tuesday morning burglary.
Several items were taken, including money, stereo speakers and a telephone, all while Glass was asleep in her bed, police said.
Police spokesman Rob Barnett said the writing may have been done to distract from the investigation, but that police have not discounted racial harassment.
Police said Friday there were no suspects in the case.
In that same article, Glass offered a harsh statement: “I’d rather have someone burn a cross in my front yard than have them come into my home.”
Six months later, when no actions were forthcoming and no suspects had been arrested, Glass reported to the police that she’d been raped by two of the burglars during the home invasion. As per the Seattle Times, “authorities said there was insufficient evidence to bring charges.”
No other mention of the rape make the papers in connection to Cheryl Glass.
What happened next? The only mentions of Cheryl Glass’ name in the newspapers from 1992 through 1996 come in the form of allusions and questions. A story on the rising costs of American weddings uses Glass as an expert. Her ceramics were displayed during an art show.
Police reports tell a different story. Glass was frequently involved in fights with her neighbors. Her car was lit on fire. Her mailbox was blown up. She filed restraining orders. She was arrested. She tried to sue the King County police department, alleging that the had been falsely arrested and beaten in police custody. Her allegations were dismissed. Newspaper records of the time are hard to come by. There is no clear picture of what happened to Glass during that six year period between the burglary in 1991 and her death.
On July 15, 1997, around 4:30 p.m. local time, Glass jumped from the Aurora Bridge in what appeared to be a suicide. Police never found a note. Coroners listed her cause of death as drowning. She was 35 years old.
“I don’t know what happened to my daughter,” Shirley Glass, Cheryl’s mother, said. “All I know is she was found in the water.”
Charlie Patterson, who gave Cheryl Glass her spot in the Hoosier Hundred, recalled to Road & Track, “Her mother told me, ‘Charlie, never ever think that she jumped off that bridge to kill herself. She was thrown off that bridge.’ I said I’d never given it a lot of thought, but figured maybe her life got to a point where she couldn’t handle it, and she said, ‘not on your life. Somebody had to throw her off that bridge.’”
Like much of those final years of her life, Cheryl Glass’ death will likely also remain shrouded in mystery.
There are some things we know for sure about Cheryl Glass. In Washington, she was an incredibly successful racer. She had a high level of talent. She was the first Black woman to race professionally in the United States.
There are also things we don’t know. How would her career have differed if she had eased her way up the open-wheel ladder? What could she have accomplished with reliable sponsors by her side? How detrimental to her career was her break in the late 1980s? How would the world have changed if she had actually attempted to qualify for the Indy 500? What happened during those final years of her life? What happened to Cheryl Glass?
We may never know for sure. But the fact that we haven’t celebrated the things we do know about Glass — that she had established a career in motorsport against all odds, no matter how brief — is, frankly, criminal.
Perhaps Glass’ legacy will become more apparent in the future, when more Black women get behind the wheel and the motorsport world is encouraged to look back on the people who made that path possible.
But perhaps the reason we don’t see more Black women in motorsport is because the racing world has forgotten Cheryl Glass. Perhaps we need a reminder that a Black woman has done it before, that a Black woman can do it again. Perhaps we need Cheryl Glass to show us how to do better for those other Black girls who see a race car and want, desperately, to know what it’s like to win.