Cheryl Glass is most famous for being the only African-American woman ever to race sprintcars professionally, and to race in Indy Lights.
She was born in December 1961 in California, and moved to Seattle two years later with her parents. They were a high-achieving family; her mother was an aircraft engineer, and her father a vice-president of the Pacific Northwest Bell telecommunications company.
Encouraged by her father, she took up dirt-track racing at the age of nine, in a quarter-midget car. A younger sister, Cherry, also raced, although not to the same level as Cheryl.
She competed all over the country, winning some races and titles, and moving through the sprintcar ranks. She made it onto the professional circuit and won the Northwest Sprintcar Association’s Rookie of the Year award in 1981. Among her rivals was Al Unser Jr.
In tandem with her developing sprintcar career, Cheryl graduated from high school with honours at sixteen. Before that even, she had run her own business, creating and selling ceramic dolls, which she started when she was only nine. She enrolled at university to study Electrical Engineering, but did not graduate, preferring to concentrate on her racing career.
Between 1980 and 1983, she continued to race sprintcars. A series of spectacular accidents did not put her off, although she sustained damage to her knees that required surgery. The worst of these happened at Manzanita, Phoenix. In 1982, she took part in the USAC National Sprint Silver Crown at Indiana.
By 1984, she felt that she needed to try a different discipline within motorsport. She set her sights on road circuits, and entered the Dallas round of the Can-Am single-seater challenge, driving a VW-powered Van Diemen. She had to retire after six laps, from eighth place.
Although she hoped to have the funding to contest the rest of the Can-Am calendar, she did not. The Dallas race appears to have been run in a second-choice car, as she was originally scheduled to drive an Ausca Racing Toleman.
In 1985, she tried truck racing, in a Toyota pickup, but she crashed during testing at the Los Angeles Coliseum, and did not actually race.
It was about this time that her father acquired a Penske PC-6 Indycar, which Cheryl tested at Seattle International Raceway. This car was built in 1978, and would never be competitive against the current generation of Indycars. Talking to the Los Angeles Times, she stated that her aim was the 1987 Indianapolis 500, after at least a part-season in CART in 1986.
There is some talk of Cheryl taking the Indianapolis Rookie Test, but I cannot find any concrete information to confirm or deny this. Her 1985 accident seems to have been a considerable setback to her career, as she disappears from the scene for a while after that. She remained hard at work on her business interests, which by now included a high-end bridal and eveningwear design studio. She was a vocal advocate for young black people wanting to get into business and engineering. This, coupled with her photogenic looks and bold career path, meant that she remained a popular media figure.
She reappeared in 1990, and entered the penultimate round of the CART American Racing Series (Indy Lights), finishing seventh at Nazareth. Among her rivals were Robbie Buhl and Paul Tracy, the latter of whom finished below her. Although she was listed for the final Laguna Seca event, she did not start.
The following year, she entered the first two races of the season, but did not finish either, driving for her own Glass Racing team, sponsored by Elegente Eye eyewear. The car’s electrics gave up after fourteen laps of Laguna Seca, and she crashed out at Phoenix.
After that, things started to go very wrong for Cheryl. She appears to have become the target of criminal activity, motivated by racism. Her house was broken into and daubed with swastikas, and she was sexually assaulted by intruders. The police were called, but the incident ended with Cheryl herself being arrested for assaulting a police officer. Her family and friends protested her innocence.
She committed suicide in 1997, at the age of 35, although some mystery surrounded her death. She is still remembered as a pioneer in the sport.
(Image copyright Paul Jackson)