Road & Track published an article earlier this year with the title “Denise McCluggage should be your hero.” In it, the author wrote that despite her advanced age it was impossible for any automotive journalist to keep up with her – “Not in speed, not in writing, and certainly not in grace.” I wish that I had written those words but like so many things in life you sometimes miss the chance to do something until it’s too late.
I last spoke to her two weeks ago and promised to visit before the start of summer to help sort through some clutter that had been sitting in her garage. I made a point of trying to call at least every few weeks to catch up on her latest thoughts in the car world and to see how she was getting on with the various maladies that had threatened her trademark independence over the past few years. The news that we lost Denise McCluggage tonight could not have been more of a shock. Deep inside I thought that perhaps she would live forever – at least far longer than me – and although her health problems were serious it does not seem possible that anything could stop the irrepressible Ms. McCluggage.
It seems trite to say that she was one of my favorite people but it’s a true statement nonetheless. She was a friend, confidante and mentor who never failed to have time to talk about whatever was on my mind. In the pantheon of automotive writers she was the foremost female and was surely at the head table among the all-time greats. She was a pioneer when women did not write about sports and certainly never competed against the best of the men on equal terms – but she did. She raced alongside the legends like Moss and Fangio and won her class at Sebring in a Ferrari 250 in 1962 having earlier placed fifth in the Watkins Glen Grand Prix. She founded Competition Press and then stayed when it grew into the magazine we know today as Autoweek.
Unlike most writers, when Denise wrote about a subject it was based on more than mere observation. Denise wrote about subjects intimately because she participated in them at the highest levels. Her book The Centered Skier has never been out of print since it was written because she was a great skier and could write about it from that perspective. Her automotive writings came from the point of view that few could ever know because she raced alongside, drank at the same tables and shared the same dangers as the drivers that she wrote about.
More than anything else, Denise possessed an indomitable spirit that never failed or waned and she was constantly smiling at the good fortune that fate had sent her way. I am forever lucky to have been blessed by her presence and I can remember driving her in a Jaguar E-Type wondering what she thought of my skills before remembering that she likely could care less as long as we got to where we were going. Denise and I spent much time over the last few years speaking at various car events and I was grateful to be her warm up act on a number of occasions knowing that the crowd had really come to see her and not me.
The last time we saw each other we were seated in her patio talking about Le Mans and she told me about the time that both she and Pedro Rodriguez were denied a spot on the grid at the last minute for the big race. She explained that Pedro took it in stride – his brother was racing already – when he said to her: No chicks and no babes for this race (since he was too young and she was a woman). Anyone else might have been bitter, but she never was. I will miss our phone calls and the Tuesday lunch group in Santa Fe, New Mexico that I attended as often as possible.
I will miss you Denise. Thanks for all the help, the friendship, but most of all for the times that we spent together on the road. You were truly one of a kind.
With rue my heart is laden
For golden friends I had,
For many a rose-lipt maiden
And many a lightfoot lad.
By brooks too broad for leaping
The lightfoot boys are laid;
The rose-lipt girls are sleeping
In fields where roses fade.
– A.E. Houseman