Denise McCluggage (left, above), race car driver and automotive journalist, has passed away at the age of 88. She was one of the industry’s earliest and most successful women racing drivers, as well as a distinguished journalist. McCluggage was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame and the Sebring Hall of Fame.
This column about Denise McCluggage’s incredible life first ran in the December 2013 issue of AUTOMOBILE. — Ed.
A book about the amazing life and times of Denise McCluggage would be more fitting than this single, measly page, but she’s the only one who could write it: Ken Purdy is dead. I will forge ahead with my brief account.
I have known Denise my entire life as an automotive journalist. On one of my very first press trips, I found out she was in the hotel so I called her room and asked her to join me for a drink in the lobby bar. I was twenty-seven years old, fresh out of the Chrysler Proving Grounds, and I remember little other than how pleased she was that I’d called and how excited I was to meet her, an older woman who had raced against Fangio and Moss and Hill! Who won the Grand Touring class at Sebring driving a Ferrari 250GT SWB! I mistakenly thought she was at the end of her fabulous career. Hilarious.
For the next three decades, I saw my heroine working every kind of automotive event — walking the pits at F1 and Indy car races, taking in the new-car reveals at international auto shows, judging the premier concours d’elegance events like Amelia Island and Pebble Beach, and driving the wheels off test cars at events all over the world. We’d pair up whenever we found ourselves together, and I’m not ashamed to say that I preferred her behind the wheel.
Oh, she could drive, but her columns for Autoweek, which morphed from a racing paper for which she had written from its beginning, remain the most exquisite writings you can find in automotive journalism — elegant, insightful, warm, deeply personal, and as inside this business as you can get. She won the Ken Purdy and Dean Batchelor Awards for excellence in automotive journalism. She was the first journalist inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame. And let’s just throw in the fact that she’s the only female driver in the Sebring Hall of Fame.
She is indefatigable, and only recently have I noticed her slowing. There she was this past August in the heat of The Quail event, part of the Monterey weekend, walking slowly with a cane across the show field. We sat for a bite and a chat. I was already tired. She, on the other hand, showed me the first book published by her new imprimatur, FulCorte Press: Jimmy & Me, by Lew Bracker. “He was a Porsche driver on the West Coast who was Jimmy Dean’s best friend for sixteen months when he was in his twenties. It’s amazing. I can’t wait for you to read it. I couldn’t put it down. It’s so genuine and real.” She’d sat next to Bracker at a Porsche dinner and wrung a book right out of him. “My second book is from Stirling, who is allowing me to republish All But My Life, which he wrote with Ken Purdy. He wrote a new foreword, and I wrote an afterword about Ken and Stirling in the day. My third will be from Sue Mead. Do you have a book?” I wanted to lie down.
Almost as an aside, she told me she would have brain surgery the following week for a tumor on her pituitary gland, which had dimmed the sight in her left eye. I was astonished that she’d traveled from her home in Santa Fe with a brain tumor, while she was miffed that she hadn’t been invited to the Mercedes-Benz dinner that night. “Are you coming to the Santa Fe Concorso next month?” She’d asked the same thing last spring at the Amelia Island Concours. “You really need to be there.”
This time, I listened. The week after her surgery, she was on form: “Right now, it’s uncomfortable because I have these nose stents into my brain. But I can see out of my left eye again. I’m having my knee done next, so I can hear again, too.” I booked my ticket.
So did Alma and Derek Hill — Phil Hill’s widow and son — and Sir Stirling and Lady Susie Moss, who love this “boutique” car show. It was a collection of gems, both human and automotive. But I was there for the gem of all gems, the original Koh-i-Noor diamond gal of gals, Denise McCluggage, honoree of the weekend. “Do you remember your last race?” asked Tim Considine, who moderated an evening with her and Sir Stirling.
After a pause she said, “I haven’t finished yet.”