• Pioneering driver and motorsports journalist
• Driving force behind Autoweek magazine
• 1st female sports reporter for major daily (New York Herald Tribune)
• Successful sports car driver for top teams
• Class wins at Sebring and the Monte Carlo Rally
• 1st woman to win Ken W. Purdy writing award (1985)
Few fueled the rise of sports car racing in the U.S. more than McCluggage. Without her, there would’ve been no Autoweek, the sport's bible in the ‘60s and ’70s. She also was a fine driver who paved the way for other women. Joining the New York Herald Tribune in the 1950s, she became the first female sports reporter for a major daily. She convinced her editor she could better cover the sport if she participated in it and drove for some of its foremost teams: Ford, Porsche, NART, Camoradi and Briggs Cunningham. Successes included first in GT at Sebring in 1961, first in class at the Monte Carlo Rally and class and overall victories at a number of tracks in the U.S. and Europe. (She was famously denied entry at Le Mans because of her gender.) She wrote the syndicated column Drive, She Said and in 1985 became the first woman to receive the Ken W. Purdy Award for Excellence in Automotive Journalism. McCluggage was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in 2001.
By George Levy
Leon walks into my office, eyes saw-a-ghost wide. My boss and mentor, Leon Mandel, was the publisher of Autoweek and one of the gods of automotive journalism.
“That woman,” he whispered.
It had to be Denise.
She’d called him moments before. They hadn’t spoken in years. Decades earlier, he explained, she’d cured him of a nasty nicotine addiction through hypnosis—yet another in Denise’s bottomless reservoir of skills.
“She says to me, ‘I sense you’re getting the urge to smoke again. Let’s do a little booster session to keep you on track.’”
Thing of it is, she was right. After several decades and from a thousand miles away she had tapped into his exact mental state. In the past few days he had felt himself slipping, losing an internal tug-of-war he hadn’t shared with anyone. Somehow Denise had felt it. Felt it. Figured it. Fixed it. Leon never touched a cigarette again.
That was Denise McCluggage.
Leon and I weren’t the only ones awed and mesmerized by Denise on a regular basis. Autoweek’s Mark Vaughn began a remembrance of her, “Denise McCluggage’s whole life was spent doing things women weren’t supposed to do.” She got her driver’s license at 13 (you could do that in Kansas then, although damn few girls actually did) and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Mills College a year early. Shortly thereafter she became possibly the first female sports reporter for a major New York daily. She convinced her bosses the best way to write about activities like skiing, skydiving and motorsports was by doing them.
She seemed to do them all extraordinarily well. She began racing—and winning—right away. First, she beat the girls—they had things called “Ladies Races” then. Then she beat everybody. In 1959, she became the first woman to win the feature sports car event at Thompson Raceway in Connecticut and two years later scored a GT class victory at the Sebring 12 Hours.
She was a dazzling writer. Ralph Nader quoted her in 1965’s Unsafe at Any Speed. In the ‘70s, she wrote a book on skiing that’s still in print today. A decade later she became the first woman to win the Ken Purdy Award for automotive journalism. (What took them so long?)
She was an even more dazzling person. Her friends in New York were people like Steve McQueen, James Baldwin, Briggs Cunningham and Miles Davis. They were as enthralled with her as she was with them. She had weekly potluck dinners with her neighbor, a pre-The Autobiography of Malcolm X Alex Haley, and encouraged him to pursue his passion project, the family oral history that became Roots. She cultivated in Davis a lifelong passion for sports cars.
She then proceeded to do that for the entire nation. Possibly her biggest contribution to motorsports, perhaps the main reason she was voted into the Hall, was taking over a failing magazine called Competition Press—now Autoweek—and turning it into the bible that fueled the nation’s obsession with sports car racing in the late 1950s and 1960s. For a brief shining moment, its worldwide headquarters was her tiny apartment at 12 Cornelia Street in Greenwich Village.
That woman. That person. That force of nature.
It had to be Denise.
While at Autoweek in the 1980s, decades after McCluggage had sold the publication, MSHFA president Levy assigned her the story on her friend, racing great Juan Manuel Fangio, for which she won the Purdy Award.
Racing trailblazer and former driver Lyn St. James