Denise McCluggage, 1927-2015 – A Personal Memory

Ronnie Schreiber
by Ronnie Schreiber
denise mccluggage 1927 2015 8211 a personal memory

Denise McCluggage passed away this week at the age of 88. A pioneer in so many ways and not simply because she was a woman competing in mostly male environments. Denise simply excelled at whatever she did.

To most car enthusiasts she was known primarily for her automotive writing and photography. In the 1950s, though, she raced cars actively and successfully on road courses and in rallying, including a class win in a Ferrari 250GT at the Sebring 12 hour race in 1961. She raced in both women’s events and in those men’s events that would let her enter, competing with and being treated as an equal by racers like Phil Hill and Sterling Moss. She and Moss were lifelong friends. You could always spot her in the field by her distinctive red polka-dotted racing helmet. She was also a competitive downhill skier and a professional instructor in that sport. For more details on her professional life, you can read her biographies elsewhere, or check out her personal website, but this post is more of an eulogy than an obituary. Denise McCluggage was simply one of the coolest ladies I’ve even known.

Denise McCluggage at the wheel of a Ferrari, Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin

Part of the job of writing about cars necessarily will involve the occasional obituary post on the death of a notable automotive personage. I’ve written a few myself. You gather up some biographical materials, a few notable quotes, some public domain photos and you put together a synopsis of the departed’s life. In this case, however, Ms. McCluggage was not simply a Wikipedia entry to me but rather a gracious veteran who treated a newbie with kindness.

I don’t remember exactly the first time I met her. It would have likely been at the big North American International Auto Show media preview in Detroit, a dozen years ago or more. At the time, I could barely get past the credentials committee and was less naive about the autojourno biz, so it was exciting to hobnob with writers whose worked I read and in many cases admired. I told Denise how much I enjoyed her writing and in following years if I had a question about something like Porsche 550 Spyders (which she raced back in the day), I’d drop her an email and she would always respond, with the answer usually accompanied by an entertaining anecdote involving some automotive notable. While I may be more cynical about automotive journalism than I was then, I have always maintained my admiration for McCluggage. You could tell she was in it because she loved the world of cars.

From left to right: Juan Manuel Fangio, Stirling Moss, Denise McCluggage, Pedro Rodriguez, Innes Ireland, Ronnie Bucknum

One year at the NAIAS, I mistakenly thought I had lost my “ famous autographed bag“, a personal souvenir of more than a decade of covering automotive events. While I was searching for it at Cobo (it turned out to have been left in the car by my son) I told Denise about it and she was almost as disheartened as I was. Her autograph is on that bag with, among many others, Carroll Shelby’s signature. Now it’s as irreplaceable as Shelby’s.

I know some active old folks. My mom will be 91 this year, God willing, and she had a part time job serving lunch to seniors well into her 80s. But McCluggage amazed me the way she covered events that left me literally bent over and limping at the end of the day. Still, she wasn’t immune to the infirmities of old age. Over the years she got a little bit shorter, but if the term spry ever applied it was to Denise, though time was catching up to her. The last time we spoke it was at the 2014 NAIAS and she complained to me about how show organizers wouldn’t let her use a Segway to get around Cobo Hall.

One of the perks of this job is access. Access to events, access to cars, but perhaps most important, access to people. Getting to know Denise McCluggage will always be a highlight of my career, and my life.

Photos: Denise McCluggage collection.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

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  • Fincar1 Fincar1 on May 08, 2015

    I remember reading her stuff and seeing her photographs back in the day. May she rest in peace.

  • 210delray 210delray on May 10, 2015

    Sad to hear of Denise's passing. Definitely a life well lived.

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  • Arthur Dailey What give with this site? I know that I posted a comment. The site says that there are 12 comments. But when I click on the 'see more' button it resets to say that there are 11 comments and I can't see mine. I am not that egotistical as to believe that my comments are important. But that makes me wonder if others are also having their comments 'erased'.