Denise McCluggage, 1927-2015

Denise McCluggage

Yesterday evening, as I checked my e-mail, I noticed a note from my friend Tim.

“You may have heard,” he succinctly wrote, “dear Denise passed today. Aren’t we blessed to have known her.”

It came as a thunderbolt. I hadn’t heard. Denise McCluggage had passed away. We didn’t see each other often the last few years, and while we lived thousands of miles apart, I felt I’d lost a family member.

And yet, as many people as Denise’s rich, full life had touched, I’m sure I wasn’t alone in feeling I’d lost a close friend. Denise knew everyone, and they were drawn to her energy, her knowledge, her beauty, her talent, and to her irrepressible charm.

I met Denise long after the whirlwind part of her life had taken place. I was working with her at the North American International Auto Show, and we clicked immediately. We worked together a few months later at the 24-Hours of Le Mans - a race that was very dear to her.

Over the years, our paths crossed several times, most often at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and I hung out with her like a rock star groupie, devouring every story she shared, every memory, every joke. She illuminated a room with her grace.

Denise’s background is a story Hollywood couldn’t have envisioned. She told me of growing up in Kansas, but wanting so much more in her life than her Midwestern town could offer. She attended Mills College in California, studying economics, philosophy and politics, ultimately graduating Phi Beta Kappa. She was a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle and New York Herald Tribune before becoming one of the founding editors of the Competition Press, which went on to become Autoweek.

While she enjoyed skiing, she discovered her love of automobiles in the 1950s, and was untrained as a race driver. Yet her passion for the sport gave her an impressive resume:

  • During the 1950s and 1960s, McCluggage raced against such competitors as Stirling Moss, Phil Hill, Peter Collins, Carroll Shelby, Dan Gurney, the Rodriguez brothers, and Juan Manuel Fangio.
  • Winner of the Nassau Ladies Race 1 on December 8, 1956 in a Porsche 550
  • Winner of the Watkins Glen Grand Prix Ladies Race September 20, 1957 in a Porsche 550.
  • Winner of the Nassau Ladies Races 1 and 2 on December 7, 1957, driving a Porsche 550 again.
  • Placed in 5th at the Watkins Glen Grand Prix on September 24, 1960. She was the only woman to compete in the race that day.
  • Earned 1st place in the GT category at the Sebring 12 Hours in 1961, driving a Ferrari 250. She placed in 10th in the overall standings.
  • She won the Copa de Damas at the Grand Prix of Venezuela, driving her Porsche 550.
  • Earned 1st place in her class at the 1964 Monte Carlo Rally, driving a Ford Falcon.
  • Inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in 2001.
  • Inducted into the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) Hall of Fame in 2006.

Along the way, she met her friend and mentor, sportsman Briggs Cunningham. He encouraged her to pursue her interest in racing. I knew she’d been considered to drive one of Cunningham’s Corvettes at Le Mans in 1960.

Denise knew every giant of that golden era of motorsports - from Juan Manuel Fangio to Sterling Moss. She told me once of her friendship with Wolfgang von Trips, whose untimely death in the Ferrari 156 in 1961 handed the Formula 1 World Drivers Championship to von Trips teammate, American Phil Hill.

Being a female journalist in that exclusive male-dominated sport meant she was excluded from garage and pit areas, necessitating her style of getting casual interviews at hotels, restaurants, and bars after hours, when drivers were more at ease.

It was through her work in this era that she paved the way to become the first journalist inducted into Automotive Hall of Fame (2001).

She had the drivers’ respect, not easily gained. Denise could go toe-to-toe with these impressive egos, and charm them as she did her friends all through her life. Denise’s photographs of this era are a document to the Olympian players on road courses of the 1950s and 1960s, her access and “photographer’s eye” beyond reproach.

Including myself.

Denise blazed trails as both an accomplished race driver, and as a talented journalist, photographer and writer. Women in motorsports today - both behind the wheel and behind the keyboard - owe a lot to that short-haired beauty.

When I was at Le Mans with Denise fifteen years ago, she left that storied race course a bit saddened that the old track she remembered had  changed too much - lost much of it’s charm. She preferred to remember La Sarthe as she left it many years before. I know what she meant. We all have a sweet spot for certain times in our lives.

I’d hoped to see Denise at least one more time later this year at the Santa Fe Concorso, a hometown event for her which she held dear - filled with old cars, good food and drink,  and great friends.

Denise once wrote of her life: “I am asked from time to time: “When are you going to do your autobiography?” I answer: “I don’t do fiction.” That reply has become a set piece and usually gets a laugh. A suggestion came back from a knowing colleague: “Just call it a memoir – that’s what I did. Then it’s as accurate as you can remember. It doesn’t have to be ‘true.’”

Denise’s life was extraordinary, and her impact on the lives she touched, even more so.

I’ve been lucky to get to know important people in the motorsports industry, many of them legendary names. But Denise occupies a special place in my heart, and I know today - wherever we go when we conclude our lives - she’s racing somewhere, running laps in her polkadot helmet with friends, like Fangio, Hill, Bob Said, Rodger Ward, and sharing stories. And laughing.

I’ll miss that laugh. Good night, Denise.

Tom Beeler

Tom has been a contributor to RIS since 1992. He was invited to join the staff as a full-time reporter/editor in 1995, and has covered IndyCar, Formula 1, NASCAR, Grand-Am, ALMS and the 24 Hours of Le Mans. In addition to his RIS work, Tom has been a contributor for General Motors, Nissan, Toyota and the ACO.

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Volume 2015, Issue 5, Posted 6:35 PM, 05.07.2015