Community, Cottage Grove


Glass made racing history, then paid ultimate price

COTTAGE GROVE – An incredible success story? 

Yes, the saga of Cheryl Glass – the first Black woman to win a sprint car race – was epic, exhilarating, amazing, awe-inspiring … all those things and more.

But it all came at such a cost. 

Glass died at age 35 in 1997. Although her death was ruled a suicide after she plunged off the Aurora Bridge in Seattle, some friends and family members insisted she didn’t die by suicide.

To this day, more questions than answers remain about Glass’ death. She had previously tried  to commit suicide on several occasions in the wake of an alleged rape in 1992. Her time on the track had taken a heavy toll – she is believed to have suffered 12 concussions during crashes that left her with a brain injury, a severe pain-pill addiction and an inability to train anymore. 

By the age of 28, the former model was a mere shell of her former self. 

That, in a nutshell, describes the often-mysterious, always-complex life of Cheryl Glass. 

It’s all captured in a just-released book, “The First Lady of Dirt: The Triumphs and Tragedy of Racing Pioneer Cheryl Glass” by Bill Poehler, an investigative journalist for the Salem Statesman Journal. 

Poehler is uniquely qualified to tell Glass’ story. He’s not only a compelling storyteller and award-winning writer, he’s spent his entire life around racetracks, sometimes as a driver, but mostly as a mechanic and crew member. His crews helped local drivers Jerry Davis win the Oregon Double Shot Series in 2013.and Britton Donahoo capture the 2016 Late Model Track Championship at Cottage Grove Speedway. 

“There were so many threads, but I had to keep digging. I have binders full of court records, finding threads here and there,” Poehler said during a recent interview at TJ’s Restaurant in Creswell. “Nobody had been thorough with their reporting. 

“Shirley Glass said nobody had ever interviewed her about her daughter. How could that be? There had been hundreds of stories done on Cheryl Glass over the years, and they had missed huge chunks of the story. She was a trailblazer. She was the first successful race car driver, then her life takes a gigantic turn after she was raped, and she had all these problems with the police and the FBI and supposedly the CIA – although I couldn’t confirm that – and then she dies. 

“Her house got broken into in 1991. They scrawled the Nazi symbol on the wall with her lipstick – the cops said it wasn’t a hate crime – and she came back months later and said she was raped. She had an ex-boyfriend who had beaten her badly, and her mother had also abused her. I was told who the suspect was, but he was never charged. … It was a year later before she told the police who raped her.”

 * * *

Fame was fleeting for Cheryl Glass. One minute she was a shining star, the next minute she flamed out. 

Or so it seemed. 

She made her big breakthrough on Aug. 30, 1980, during the season finale at Skagit Speedway, just north of Seattle. Even though the power went out for three hours, the crowd was hungry for some racing and promoter Jim Raper wanted to make them happy. So after canceling some of the warmup races, the main event finally got underway around 9 p.m.  

Glass took her spot on the second row, behind Alan Munn and Keith Jensen. She kept a steady pace early, then inched her way past Jensen on lap No. 7. Three laps later, Munn’s car blew an engine, and – out of the blue – Glass was the leader  with 15 laps to go. 

She made all the right moves down the stretch in her No. 28 car, hitting the checkered flag with no challengers in sight, and in the process becoming the first woman to win a sprint car race in the U.S. 

Many drivers made excuses. They said Glass had an unfair advantage.

“You just got your (butts) whipped by an 18-year-old Black chick,” veteran driver Jerry Day said, a quip that Poehler said was the best quote in the whole book. “So go tell your stories to someone else. I watched it and she kicked your (butts).”

The victory thrust her into the national spotlight, as she suddenly was being interviewed by the Associated Press, the National Speed Sport News, and The Weekly World News. Her big moment was also a coming-out party for female drivers as well as Black female athletes. 

Sadly, though, it would be the one and only victory of her career. 

* * *

It’s too bad Cheryl’s grandmother didn’t have the luxury of caution flags when entering into relationships. She might have chosen a safer route. 

Helen Robinson was just 14 and pregnant when she married a 41-year-old man. Shirley was born eight months later. Little sister Dorothy came along three years later. The couple divorced, and Helen’s ex was convicted for murdering a man over 75 cents in a poker game. 

A recent parolee became the next man in Helen’s life. After getting steadily abused for quite some time, Helen finally reached her breaking point, and shot him to death. 

Helen was sent to prison, and the girls were sent to live with their maternal grandparents, who were both high school dropouts.

But the girls were bright and determined to make a good life for themselves. Shirley enrolled at Tennessee Agricultural & Industrial State College in Nashville, where she blazed new trails by majoring in engineering. It wasn’t long before she met Marvin Glass. They clicked right away, and she knew had found a real go-getter for a partner. 

Marvin had earned college football and track scholarships, but he knew his future was in academics – so he wound up transferring to Tennessee Agricultural & Industrial.

Shirley and Marvin were the Big Couple On Campus. They got married the day after graduation. Both wanted a family, and they got their wish on Christmas Eve, 1961, when Cheryl Linn Glass was welcomed into the world. 

Both parents had struggled so much growing up, they were dead-set on doing everything in their power to help their daughter succeed in life. They wanted her to be the very best at whatever activity or profession she chose. 

Much to her folks’ delight, Cheryl displayed impressive learning skills at an early age. At 3 years old, she took a comprehensive test that placed her in the  “very gifted” category.

 * * *

From ice skating to volleyball to gymnastics to soccer …

As the book details, by the time she was 10 years old, Cheryl had tried several sports, with her parents rooting her on, encouraging her to give it her best shot. So she tried … and just became more and more frustrated each time.

Cheryl then read about a form of auto racing for children called quarter midgets. Her family couldn’t comprehend why she wanted to take part in a sport in which Black people had frequently been excluded during the sport’s 100-year history. 

When she climbed into her first quarter midget, Cheryl had never even been to a race. Some thought she was attending as a publicity stunt. They soon found out otherwise, as she finished third in her first race. 

The day she had dreamed of arrived in 1971, when her fellow drivers voted her rookie of the year for the Washington Quarter Midget Racing Association. It was official: Cheryl Glass was a bona fide racer.  

A few months later, Cheryl’s little sister, Cherry, was born. 

Having made the transition from midgets to sprint cars at the start of 1980, Glass had become a hot commodity – even before her big victory at Skagit Speedway. 

Cottage Grove Speedway wanted Glass to be its star attraction on July 25 and 26, 1980. The quarter-mile dirt oval was hosting the first sprint car race in its 26-year history. Learning to drive a new track again proved to be a losing proposition, as she flipped and crinkled the top of her wing. This time, she was unhurt. 

“Heather Boyce does a great  job there. It’s one of the nicest tracks we have in the Northwest,” Poehler said of the speedway promoter. “They’re the most well-prepared. I’m closer to Willamette, but I’d much rather go to Cottage Grove.”

* * *

In late October of 1980, Glass entered the prestigious Western World Championships at Manzanita Raceway, a half-mile dirt oval in Phoenix. But Glass’ entry wasn’t the only headline going into this event – there was another 18-year-old phenom making a big splash. Al Unser Jr., the son and nephew of former Indy 500 winners, quickly formed a bond with Glass.

“Quite honestly, I thought she was really cute,” Little Al said in the book. “She was quiet, super polite, and you know, it was all good. Everything about my whole thing with her was really good.” 

Everything about her race that night, however, was really bad. Really bad

Cheryl’s right rear tire hit the wall, sending the car airborne. It flipped 13 times, with Cheryl’s car somehow landing upright. She sustained face, neck, shoulder, back, hip, knee, and ankle injuries. The blood vessels in her eyes were so damaged from the violent impact that she was blinded for several hours.

It was one of many bad accidents she would endure, but this one was the worst. 

Knoxville, Iowa, is known as the Sprint Car Capital of the World. Every year it hosts the Knoxville Nationals, and Glass decided to give it a whirl in 1982 – even though she was severely overweight and dealing with the ongoing effects of multiple concussions. 

The first woman ever to compete in the Knoxville Nationals, Glass – driving on a slick track – plowed into Jimmy Sills’ stalled-out car. It was not the way she wanted to go out, and her dream of racing in the Indy 500 suddenly seemed to be sputtering.  

Still, she had made her mark in the racing world. 

Marvin Glass – who had spent up to $100,000 a year financing his daughter’s dream while she was earning around $5,000 in a good year – sold her sprint car and equipment. Clearly, it was time to turn the page.  

Believing she could still win races, she kept trying to find a ride in various auto circuits with no luck. She even tried hydroplanes and drag racing, again not finding any real success. 

She felt exasperated. Her life and her health were falling apart, But the belief that she could still win races kept Cheryl Glass’ spirit alive. 

Another Cheryl – Cheryl Burgard of New Berlin, Pa. – had attempted to race sprint cars before Glass. Burgard started racing in 1978, mostly near her home, but burns and injuries suffered in a crash that same year put the brakes on her time behind a wheel. 

* * * 

As reported in the book, on Aug. 6, 1991, while having some remodeling work done on her Seattle-area home, Glass reported a break-in and a robbery. The alleged perpetrators used her red lipstick to draw a large swastika on her living room wall and wrote “WEISS MACH,” a misspelling of Weiss Macht. In German, it means “White Power.” 

Months later, Cheryl was back at the police station, saying she had more details about the burglary. She said all three men involved were skinheads, and that two of the men had raped her. The police said it was too late to gather physical evidence and said there was nothing else they could do.  

Then, exactly one year after the alleged sexual assault, on Aug. 6, 1992, Glass was having her bathroom remodeled. She reached out to the same contractors who had worked on her kitchen the year before, and she was horrified to see that one of her attackers was back in her house. Determined to track him down and find out who he was, she discovered he was the roommate and nephew of a Washington state trooper who had ties with Neo-Nazi and other white supremacist groups. She took the information to local authorities, who investigated the man, but ultimately declined to press charges. 

Cheryl attempted to commit suicide on Aug. 24, 1992, by overdosing on sleeping pills. After being revived and having her stomach pumped, she agreed to see a psychiatrist, who diagnosed her with multiple personality disorder. 

The report in the book read that “she had been raped during the burglary and that several of her multiple personalities had watched the crime occur.”

Between 1993-94, Cheryl was arrested 13 times, charged with eight misdemeanors and a felony charge of malicious mischief and reckless endangerment – charges that were all later dismissed. She was constantly harassed by her neighbors, and her accusations that the police were out to get her had seemed to take on a “Boy Cries Wolf” type of feel. 

What was the real truth? Nobody really knows. 

“Her suicide is a mystery, too. Was it depression? Was it medication? You don’t know everything she went through,” Poehler said. “Al Unser Jr. was on top of his game – he had won his first Indy 500 in ‘92 – and he didn’t pay attention to her (before she died). He felt badly about it because he liked her but he didn’t know what she was going through even at that point, just to help a fellow driver, but he was so locked into his own thing.

“Drivers generally will help each other out. There’s a sense of trust out there, I have to trust that you’re not going to take me out. It doesn’t work if I don’t trust that you’re not going to put me into the wall, and she earned that trust. Cheryl Glass earned that trust. She had to do it the hard way. Of course, there were some who were never going to like her.”

Poehler says he hopes his book will peel back the layers of a perplexing pioneer. 

“I want people to view her as the real complicated person she was, not the one-dimensional person they want her to be,” he said.  



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