Denise McCluggage wore many hats in her career such as, racer, journalist, and photographer. Working for several publications, she was instrumental in growing the popularity of auto racing as a spectator sport. Through her writing, the world would also celebrate her adventures, perspective, discovery of cars, and so much more. McCluggage was a participant in life to the fullest who chose to share her adventures via the written word.
Born in Eldorado, Kansas, in 1927, McCluggage quickly headed West, graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Mills College in Oakland, California in 1947. Her first job out of school was working for the San Francisco Chronicle as a reporter. She first covered women’s features, moving to cover what today would be called “extreme sports;” racing, skiing, and sky diving. It was while she was living in San Francisco that she also discovered the early sports cars being imported into the U.S., specifically, the MG-TC.
With amateur road racing growing exponentially in California at the time, it was not surprising that McCluggage found her way to the track. She convinced her editors at the Chronicle that she could cover races better as a participant, since female reporters were not allowed in the pit. With this, McCluggage had invented the new category of participatory sports journaling.
In the mid-50s, McCluggage moved East, joining the New York Herald Tribune. She brought her interest in fast cars and her connection to the racing community with her. Replacing her MG with a Jaguar XK 140, she began competing as a professional race driver. Concurrently, she helped found and edit Competition Press, America’s first motorsports weekly, now published as Autoweek.
McCluggage did not just drive, she won. In 1959, she drove a Porsche RS to victory at Thompson Raceway in Connecticut, took fifth in the United States Grand Prix at Watkins Glen, in 1960 and won GT class at the Sebring (Florida) 12-hour race in 1961 driving a Ferrari. Before the decade was over, she raced all over the world, winning at the Monte Carlo Rally in 1964 driving a factory-entered Ford Falcon and competing at some of the world’s great venues; Daytona Beach, Florida; Nurburgring, Germany; and Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, to name a few.
McCluggage’s writing was not confined to newspaper assignments and enthusiast publications. Her byline would appear in Autoweek in a weekly column, “Drive, she said” until shortly before her passing in 2015. She also received acclaim for her other works as well. The Centered Skier, a book that mixed sports psychology, Zen Buddhism, and an enthusiasm for skiing, earned McCluggage a place on the Professional Ski Instructors reading list.
Awarded the Ken W. Purdy Award for Excellence in Automotive Journalism, Denise McCluggage was the first journalist to be inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame.