Remembering Denise McCluggage, 1927-2015
Bright, spirited, and vivacious.
On May 6, 2015, Denise McCluggage died in her hometown of Santa Fe, New Mexico. When she did, it was the same way that she'd lived: fast and on her own terms. At 88, she had dodged typical old-age ailments just like she dodged racetrack chicanes. In the end, she decided not to seek the sort of debilitating treatment kidney cancer requires, so she did nothing. It was not the same as giving up.
If McCluggage was the sort to give up, she would have done it a long time ago. As a journalist and a skier and a race-car driver—and anything and everything else she did—she was a periodic pioneer who asked not for pity, but for a chance. In a male-dominated world driven by big egos, McCluggage had no problem hanging with boys and made her presence known by being bright, spirited, and vivacious. And really, really good at the two things she loved: writing and driving.
Three things, actually: She could tell a story. No one—no one—was better at that.
McCluggage was born in El Dorado, Kansas, in 1927, to Robert and Velma McCluggage. She graduated from Mills College in Oakland, California, and began writing for the San Francisco Chronicle, then the New York Herald Tribune, before helping found Competition Press, which later became Autoweek.
She married, and soon divorced, actor Michael Conrad, who went on decades later to win two Emmy awards as Sgt. Phil Esterhaus on "Hill Street Blues." She had a fling with Steve McQueen. She raced at the Nürburgring. She won her class at Sebring, driving a Ferrari 250 GT SWB. She won at the Grand Prix of Venezuela sports-car race, driving a Porsche 550. And in the Rallye Monte Carlo, driving a Ford Falcon.
She knew everybody who mattered in our world—Juan Manuel Fangio, Dan Gurney, the Rodriguez brothers, Carroll Shelby, Phil Hill, Jim Clark, Stirling Moss, Wolfgang von Trips—but she also knew us, and she made us feel like knowing her colleagues was just as important to her as knowing certified legends.
She loved nimble little SUVs, diesels, Santa Fe, her friends, and life, until life wouldn't let her live it the way she wanted—wide open.
She will be missed, more than she ever would have suspected.
Read her work at DeniseMcCluggage.com
Photo courtesy Autoweek archives.