Only once in the more than 25 years that we were colleagues and friends did I ever see Denise McCluggage come even close to blushing. It was in January, four years ago, when I was covering the “Women Who Have the Need for Speed” panel discussion taking place in conjunction with Barrett-Jackson’s classic car auction at Scottsdale, Arizona.
Women not only comprised the entire panel, but most of the audience. The moderator for that early-morning session was Lyn St. James, like McCluggage a woman who excelled in what was, and what for the most part still is, a man’s domain: the world of auto racing, of driving racing cars.
And there were no Powder Puff derbies for the likes of McCluggage or St. James. They went wheel-to-wheel with the world’s best racers on the world’s fastest tracks. One time McCluggage drove her Ferrari from New York to Sebring, won the GT category — and finished 10th overall — and then drove the car back home.
But St. James’ first question for McCluggage wasn’t about the racing. It was about Steve McQueen and the rumors that back in the day, back when McQueen was a struggling young actor in New York City and McCluggage was a young sports reporter for the New York Herald-Tribune… well… St. James asked… were the rumors true, were they a couple?
McCluggage refused to kiss and tell, but her slight smile was an acknowledgement that did nothing to deny the truth of those rumors.
Yesterday, at the age of 88, Denise McCluggage’s race on this planet ended.
I was fortunate to be not only a colleague but a friend. Once upon a time, I, too, was a young sportswriter for a daily newspaper, but in the late 1980s I was recruited to become the motorsports editor at AutoWeek magazine, a publication for which Denise not only wrote a column, but which she kept alive for a while when it was Competition Press, taking over ownership when the founders couldn’t pay their printing bill.
Sometimes Denise would visit the AutoWeek offices in Detroit. But more frequently I’d see her at the major auto shows or on the press junkets, where the automakers would introduce their newest vehicles to the motoring press, or at special events being held to commemorate some great moment in auto racing history.
Often, Denise and I would share a car at vehicle introductions. Such events were set up to provide equal driving time for each journalist, but I’d frequently skip one of my turns so Denise could keep driving, especially on the most challenging of roads where her driving abilities far surpassed mine, where I’d just sit back in the passenger’s seat and marvel at how skilled she was, so swift yet so smooth, even in her late 60s, throughout her 70s and well into her 80s.
Sometime in the late 1990s, the cabinets containing the old photography files at AutoWeek were filled to overflowing and a suggestion was made to throw much of it away. I was the magazine’s managing editor by then and helped to preserve such an important part not only of the magazine’s heritage but of automotive and motorsports history as well.
Part of that process involved moving some files to storage in another part of the building and that meant deciding what went where. I was going through one of the file drawers one day when I came across a manilla folder labeled “Denise McCluggage.” Inside were several dozen black-and-white 8X10 photos, and not just of Denise racing around tracks.
There were several photos of a very attractive young woman with short blonde hair wearing a two-piece bathing suit while on a beach with the likes of Moss, Fangio, Hill and others. My recollection is that the photos were shot at one of the Nassau Speed Weeks.
I walked over to my desk, picked up the telephone and called Denise at her home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she not only helped organize the Santa Fe Concorso but hosted what she called the Tuesday Car Table, an informal weekly lunchtime gathering of local car enthusiasts — and any car enthusiast from anywhere was welcome to join in when they were in town.
“Denise,” I said, “you were a babe!”
I explained how I’d stumbled across the folder with her photos.
“And you’re still a babe,” I added before our telephone conversation ended.
It was true. Maybe she wasn’t still that thin young thing in the two-piece swimming suit, but throughout her life she was an outstanding writer, an accomplished racer, a sincere friend, a role model, and yet never ever full of herself or what she had done.
And every time I’d see her, even far into her 80s, we’d share a hug and I’d whisper in her ear, “You’re still a babe.”