A simple Google search turns up hundreds of photos of Denise McCluggage. Many of them show an attractive and slender young woman with short hair. Often, she’s in the pale blue Dunlop racing overalls of the early 1960s and frequently, she is wearing or carrying a white helmet with polka dots.
The remarkable thing is who she’s with in the photos. You’ll see her deep in conversation with Jean Behra or Stirling Moss and Juan Manuel Fangio or posing with a group of top racers, including the great Pedro Rodriguez or her old friend Phil Hill. It’s easy to see from the images that she wasn’t a spectator or a companion of one of the racers; she was one of this elite group of top international drivers and a winner in her own right.
Born in Eldorado, Kan., McCluggage was a graduate of Mills College, a small liberal arts women’s college in Oakland, Calif. Following completion of her degree, she began her career as a journalist at The San Francisco Chronicle. She covered yacht racing, skiing and auto racing and soon found herself owning and racing an MG TC. Later, while working at The New York Herald Tribune, she began racing professionally. No matter what she was driving, she was easily spotted by her white helmet with polka dots, which she admits were actually cheap stickers bought in a stationery store.
An accomplished driver, she graduated from the MG to a Jaguar XK-140 and on to a variety of other cars, including Porsches, Maseratis and Ferraris. At Sebring in 1961 she drove a Ferrari 250GT SWB to first in the Grand Touring Class and 10th overall. She was generally acknowledged as a genuinely fast driver who earned the respect of her male counterparts.
In addition to being an accomplished racer, McCluggage was a fine skier and a skilled writer and photographer, as well as a truly gifted interviewer. A founding editor of Competition Press – later AutoWeek
– she authored several books and was published in scores of magazines and newspapers, including Hagerty Classic Cars magazine.
Over the last several decades, she continued to write and was a frequent judge at concours all over the United States. A resident of Santa Fe, N.M., McCluggage passed away after a series of health setbacks.
From her friends and colleagues here at Hagerty, she will be sorely missed.