On February 1st Black History Month began - a period dedicated to celebrating the history and achievements of Black people throughout U.S. history. Nowadays, other countries have also devoted time to celebrate the heritage of their Black communities.
As we’re a platform created to share the inspiring stories of women in motorsport, I wanted to focus on the incredible black women who have and continue to make the history of motorsport. While the list is unfortunately and strikingly short, it’s no less important to highlight the achievements of these women who are true trailblazers and that are opening doors for so many others.
While doing my research, I came across Cheryl Linn Glass. She was the first African American female sprint car driver. Born in 1961, Glass had everything to become a success story: she was a model, a business owner, a racing driver, a fashion designer and so many other things… in all, she was “The Lady”.
At the age of nine, she already had her own doll business and the profits she made from it helped launch her racing career. With the support of her parents (her father being the VP at Pacific Northwest Bell and her mother, an engineer at BOEING), she started her career in quarter-midget race cars and even went on to be nominated Rookie of the Year. She won the regional and state championships five years in a row and was among the national top-10 drivers for that category.
But Cheryl wasn’t just skilled on a racetrack – she was also a brilliant student. She graduated at 16 with honours and got accepted at Seattle University to study electrical engineering. However, she yearned to become a full-time racer was stronger and she decided to leave college to pursue her dreams.
By now, she’s now an 18-year-old ambitious young lady with big dreams. She buys her first sprint car and starts competing at Skagit Speedway in Mount Vernon (Washington). In an interview for The Indianapolis Star, she explains having picked sprinters because they are “the biggest, meanest, roughest cars that I could drive to make a name and go on”.
By entering this competition, she became the first African American female professional race car driver. She was determined to make it, with a specific goal in mind: to drive (and win) the Indy 500. While trying to achieve that goal, she raced hundreds of events and won multiple trophies. Her career wasn’t an easy journey. She received a lot of media attention, which wasn’t always welcomed by other drivers. Add to that, she was a black female driver.
When asked on this matter, Glass answered: “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.”
Cheryl raced in different series during her career, and like most drivers, she knew ups and downs and crashes. After an accident she stopped her driving career, preferring to focus on her business. However, she stayed very active on the political stage, fighting for better education in neighbourhoods. She even co-founded an engineering programme for minority students. Alongside her activism, she had started a career in fashion design after designing her own wedding dress, which created a vivid interest from other brides-to-be.
Although she never got to realise her dream of racing in the Indy 500, her life and career were nothing short of extraordinary. Glass was a woman of many talents and was rightfully recognised as such. She received awards both for her driving and personal achievements, such as the Candace Award for Trailblazing in 1987 or being named one of America's Top 100 Black Business and Professional Women by Dollars and Sense magazine.
Unfortunately, her life ended shortly in a tragic way. But we are here today to honour her legacy. Glass was a strong, determined woman who believed she could race against the best drivers if given the chance. As told by a childhood friend of hers, she might not have always won but she always went for it.
It is therefore so paramount to remember everything she achieved and everything she fought for so she can keep inspiring women, young and old, from around the world.
While the number of black women in motorsport is still low, women like Cheryl Linn Glass are helping to break down barriers. And she is not alone in breaking those barriers. For instance, the UK is fortunate to have Carol Glenn.
Carol is the first black woman to have a race and speed licence and was the first black woman to become a clerk of the course for British Motorsport. Glenn started out as a trackside marshal after meeting her husband. For over 30 years, she has officiated at many different races from Le Mans to A1 GP and FIA WEC. Even while facing discrimination, she never backed down from doing what she loves. Now, she shares that passion and experience with others.
This became even more apparent to her after the events surrounding the death of George Floyd and the important issues raised by the BLM movement. Further, inspired by the work of seven-time Formula 1 world champion Lewis Hamilton (who is doing tremendous work with the Hamilton Commission and Mission44 to promote diversity and black people in motorsport), Carol Glenn started an academy called Next Racing Generation.
NRG is about encouraging diversity and helping drivers from all backgrounds to achieve their goals in motorsport. She aspires to share her knowledge of the motorsport world to help these kids make it, whether that’s to become a pilot, engineer, or mechanic.
When it comes to pushing for inclusivity and diversity, W Series is definitely doing its part. In 2020, they appointed Naomi Schiff as their diversity and inclusion ambassador. Naomi is a Rwandan-Belgian racing driver who grew up in South Africa, where she began her career.
She started racing single-seaters at 16 in the Southern African Formula Volkswagen before moving on to other series. In 2014, she won the Clio Cup China Series and in 2018, she competed in the 24H of Nürburgring, finishing second in her class.
She hasn’t yet completed a full season with W Series, but her work as an ambassador has been crucial to promoting the series.
Just recently, she presented the launch of the Mercedes-AMG PETRONAS Formula 1 Team W13 alongside broadcast journalist Natalie Pinkham. She is showing every little girl that they can, just like her, become a racing driver and an important role model.
However, little girls can also aspire to become something other than a driver in motorsport. Motorsport has a wide range of professions, without which the sport could not function. In particular, professions in the scientific field. Yet, as it is well known, girls are largely under-represented in STEMs. Fortunately, this is changing thanks to a number of initiatives and more and more women are taking up positions in the scientific fields.
This is also true in F1 where more women are being appointed as engineers. And one of these women made history in 2020 by becoming the first black woman to stand on an F1 podium. Stephanie Travers was the Trackside Fluid Engineer at the Mercedes-AMG PETRONAS F1 Team. She joined the team in 2019 after being chosen among 7,000 other candidates. Originally from Zimbabwe, Stephanie has always had an interest in motorsport and was inspired to pursue this dream when she read about other women doing the same job.
Her role in the team was crucial as she ensured the performance and reliability of the engines in the team’s cars and additional customer teams. Her appearance on the podium in 2020 was a strong marker for all little girls, especially black girls. Lewis Hamilton even took to Instagram to pay tribute to Travers and wrote that she told him she wanted to inspire young black children and children of colour to believe they could do it too… and they can.
As we know, representation is essential in promoting change and Stephanie is part of that. In an interview, she was asked what advice she would give someone who wanted to pursue a career like hers, and she beautifully answered “go for it as you never know what the outcome may be”.
Stephanie has recently joined Hamilton’s X44 Extreme E team where she continues to be a vivid inspiration to all.
Brehanna Daniels is another role model for girls wanting to work in the heat of the action. She’s the first African American woman in a NASCAR Cup Series pit crew, working as a tyre changer. Not only that, but she’s also part of the first female duo to do pit crew work. She joined the series after being one of 10 selected from NASCAR's Drive for Diversity program in 2016. Phil Horton (NASCAR's director of athletic performance) mentioned that her previous athletics experience and exceptional hand speed were some of the reasons why she excelled in that programme. And she keeps excelling, with her work being highly regarded. In 2020, she received the Crew Member Award at the NASCAR Drive for Diversity Awards.
While there aren’t many black women in motorsport, they are proving every day that they have a place in our sport. And all the women mentioned here (as well as those not mentioned) are helping to push for equality in such a white male-dominated sport.
Every time a woman steps up and reclaims that place that is so rightfully hers, the sport becomes more and more interesting.