If you don't know who she was, you should.
I was standing with Denise McCluggage in the hotel lobby at Long Beach. We were there for the Grand Prix. Bobby Rahal walked up and introduced a friend to Denise. By way of explanation, he said, “She’s like Danica, but nice.”
Indeed Rahal and Danica Patrick had their disagreements, which were quite recent at the time, but what he said was true: Denise McCluggage, who died Wednesday at the age of 88, was a pioneer, which is not a word I apply loosely.
Denise was before Shirley Muldowney. Before Janet Guthrie. And way before Danica Patrick.
Denise was a journalist, a sportswriter in New York when there were no women sportswriters, much less racers, a dual career odd enough to get her on the old “To Tell The Truth” TV show in 1959, where a celebrity panel had to guess what you did for a living.
Writer, then racer
She was always a writer, but in the 1950s, she became a racer. She won her class at Sebring in a Ferrari 250 GT, a car she owned and was her daily driver, because buying it took every penny she had. She raced at the Nurburgring, at Monte Carlo, where she won her class. You want to know more? You’d have to ask her. She never, ever said, “By the way, you know I raced at the Grand Prix of Venezuela in a Porsche…” I don't think she ever got to race at Le Mans, because it is an invitational race, and they once told her that they "choose not to invite women drivers."
But there are a lot of great racers, female and otherwise. The reason I respected Denise so much is that she was a great writer. In the automotive world, and motorsports world, there are some great writers, but I can count them on two hands. Denise was one. I read her stuff, right up until end – usually in Autoweek, which she helped found more than 50 year ago as Competition Press – and every story had a twist or a turn of phrase that would make me shake my head and think, “Crap, she’s still better than me.”
I’d known Denise for a while casually, but really got to know her after an event at Talladega Speedway. We both ended up at the airport in Birmingham, awaiting our flights, when a massive thunderstorm hit. We sat, talking, for maybe seven hours. It wasn’t long enough. Her stories – man. About cars. Racing. Journalism in New York City, where she worked at the Herald Tribune.
The people she knew, which was everybody. Being at an event with Denise was like sitting next to a magnet. Here comes Dan Gurney, Phil Hill, Brock Yates, Briggs Cunningham, Carroll Shelby, A.J. Foyt, Stirling Moss. She knew Juan Manuel Fangio, Jim Clark, and others you wouldn’t assume, like Miles Davis and Dave Brubeck from her years in New York. I never asked her about her 1950s fling with Steve McQueen, but now I wish I had.
And in her day, she was, incidentally, a looker. Ten years ago, at a vintage racing memorabilia show in Indianapolis, I came across an ancient issue of Hot Rod that had a feature on Denise. She was wearing a dress the appeared to have been made from a checkered flag. The headline was something akin to, "Gal Racer and Writer Sizzles On and Off the Track!" I carried it with me for a couple of months until I saw her again, which was on the ferry to Catalina Island. I gave it to her, she looked at the story, and said, "I have absolutely no recollection of this." I said, "You still sizzle, you know." She rolled her eyes.
Never slowed down
Eventually Denise settled in her beloved Santa Fe. But she never retired. See the photo that accompanies this? It’s a snapshot I took of her last September next to an ancient steam engine at a mine in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. Range Rover, new to America, had launched the product with a “Great Divide” expedition, where dozens of journalists, eight or 10 at a time, were invited to take part in crossing the Great Divide – north to south, not east to west.
That was 25 years ago. Last fall, Range Rover invited the journalists who were still alive to come back and do it again. We called it the “dinosaur wave,” and it was me and a few other veterans like Denise, William Jeanes, Jack Nerad and a couple of others.
Denise and I partnered for much of the trip. She had just gotten some new digital hearing aids, and was complaining that they did indeed amplify noise, but converted into digital signals, it was tough to separate conversation from the background.
One on harrowing drive near the end, Denise was driving, I was in the back seat, and riding shotgun was mountain driving expert Tom Collins, then and 25 years ago the architect of the expedition. We were leading the pack, and we were losing them.
“Might wanna slow down a little, Denise,” Collins would say, and she would, for a minute. “Denise, I think we’re losing the people behind us…” And she would slow down, for a minute.
Eventually, Collins gave up. We reached the end of the trail about five minutes before the next car. Try to slow down Denise McCluggage? Good luck.
One of my absolute favorite Denise columns in Autoweek had nothing to do with cars. She wrote of her marriage – until then, many of us didn’t even know she had been married – to a young and struggling actor, when she was a young and struggling sportswriter in New York. They were poor but in love. But both also loved the careers they had chosen, and soon their work drove them apart.
You didn’t know until the last paragraph that her husband was Michael Conrad, who was in a million TV shows and movies, but was best known for his Emmy Award-winning role of Sgt. Phil Esterhaus in “Hill Street Blues,” and by his famous ending to every roll call: “Let’s be careful out there.” He died in 1983, and that’s when Denise wrote her obituary on him.
After that, I asked Denise to write my obituary, because we thought she’d outlive all of us. In a sense, she has: You can read her writings at DeniseMccluggage.com.
RIP, Denise. You have no idea how much you will be missed, and by how many people.