I have stated in previous essays that I do not equate sports legends with heroism, with a few exceptions. Denise McCluggage is one of those exceptions. She was to sports car racing what Jackie Robinson was to baseball — a lone, accomplished driver in a completely male-dominated sport at a time when women were generally supposed to be nurses, teachers, or stay-at-home moms. Denise died this month at the age of 88. What a trail-blazing life she led.
Autoweek magazine devoted most of their May 25th issue to her life using the cover displayed here. ‘For good reason: it captures both her spirit and her essence. The title also speaks volumes: “Racer, Visionary, Pioneer and Ours.” The “Ours” was because she was a contributing journalist at Autoweek for almost 50 years. I knew her for what she wrote before I knew who she was and what she herself had accomplished.
Denise was there when one of my all-time favorites, Phil Hill, won LeMans, driving around the track with him the night before while Phil daubed paint on all the apexes because he was worried he wouldn’t see them otherwise. She was there when Fangio and Moss were winning Grands Prix across Europe. She was a friend and confidant of the greatest names in racing.
She raced as often as she could and in the best classes that the often sexist race organizers would let her: she won the GT class at Sebring, fifth at the Watkins Glen Grand Prix. She won her class in the Rally Monte Carlo in a Ford Falcon! At other times she was relegated to the “ladies races”. She won those, too, finishing first at Nassau and at the Grand Prix of Venezuela. She ended her racing career in the late 1960s and became a full time writer for Autoweek; she had a syndicated weekly column that appeared in over 90 newspapers.
Along the way, she won many awards, including induction into the Automotive Hall of Fame and the Sports Car Club of America Hall of Fame, and the prestigious Ken Purdy Award for Excellence in Automotive Journalism.
At Autoweek, Denise wrote on a very broad range of topics, but she was at her greatest when writing about race car drivers because she was one and understood them so well. As Kevin Wilson said, “She knew them with all their foibles, insecurities and blind-spots, brilliance and idiosyncrasies. And when she told the stories, they focused on those elements of humanity.”
Denise was born in tiny El Dorado, Kansas, the youngest of three daughters. Her dad was a lawyer and the first Assistant United States District Attorney for the state of Kansas. She attended Mills College (my mom’s alma mater) in Oakland and graduated Phi Beta Kappa. Her first job was as a journalist for the San Francisco Chronicle. While she was with The Chronicle she met Briggs Cunningham at a yacht race. Cunningham became one of the legends in auto racing and built the first American cars to compete at Le Mans. He inspired Denise to buy an MG Midget and begin racing at small club events. A few years later she moved to New York City and bought a Jaguar XK 140 and began to race professionally while still working as a journalist.
Of the many tributes to Denise, here are some that struck me as among the best:
- Dan Neil: “She was a
kick-ass broad afraid of no one. Denise left us a message in the
character and quality of her work: Write with grace, precision and
wisdom. Be smart. Be skeptical. Translated: Don’t write stupid.”
- Kevin Wilson:
“Whenever we met at some event . . . she would drop a compliment for my
latest column, with specificity that showed she’d read and absorbed it.
This always floored me because her columns were gems, linguistic works
of art that made mine seem pedestrian in my eyes. She touched so many
lives that way, gently encouraging, building up . . .”
- Andy Weiss: “I have
never been to Santa Fe [where Denise lived] and I often thought of a
road trip. I thought about what she would think if I knocked on her
door. . . Would I be welcomed or tolerated. I’m not a groupie throwing
my panties at a Tom Jones concert . . . I am 58 years old, for Pete’s
sake. I just wanted to tell her how much I respected her for her
courage, determination and talent. Few have had this effect on me. Now I
must cross off a bucket-list goal because I waited too long. Lesson
- Wes Raynal (Editor
of Autoweek): “We once spent a half-hour at some car launch debating
the merits of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books The Beautiful and the Damned versus Tender is the Night.
But the very best was about five years ago when she compared a Toyota
Camry to an Alfa Romeo Guilietta, prompting a “Huh?” from me. Her
reasoning was clear and simple. Automakers should focus on making stuff
people love, not merely like. Amen, sister.”
- Dan Gurney, another real legend in the sport of auto racing: “I see her in my mind’s eye, laughing with our old pals, Briggs (Cunningham), Phil (Hill), (Carroll) Shelby and Stirling (Moss). We were young together, we grew old together. I will miss you, Denise!”
In closing: a picture of Denise with her signature polka dot helmet and a smile for the ages.