Leading Ladies: Denise McCluggage

March 9, 2021

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Welcome to “Leading Ladies;” a month-long series on the women who have helped shape automotive history. Our first installment featured Shirley Muldowney, “the first lady of drag racing.” This week’s feature is on racer-journalist Denise McCluggage.

Journalist, racer, skier, photographer, equal rights activist, trailblazer, friend. Denise McCluggage was all of these. Born in Kansas in 1927, McCluggage started a neighborhood newspaper at the age of 12. After graduating college, she got her first job as a journalist at the San Francisco Chronicle. It was during her time in San Francisco that she began to develop an interest in racing.

It was also in San Francisco that McCluggage met the legendary Briggs Cunningham while covering a yacht race. Cunningham was the man who built the first American cars that raced at Le Mans. This was an instance of McCluggage’s uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time. Not long after meeting Cunningham, she moved to New York and began to write for the sports section of the New York Tribune.

Women correspondents writing for sports pages in those days were rare, but McCluggage made a name for herself through another defining characteristic; performing what she penned. She had bought her first race car, an MG-TC, in the early 1950s and began to race against the very people that she was interviewing. Legends like Stirling Moss, Phil Hill, Peter Collins, Carroll Shelby, Dan Gurney and Juan Manuel Fangio all raced with McCluggage, and grew to respect her natural ability behind the wheel and adventurous spirit. Not only did McCluggage compete with these men, she became friends with many of them, granting her better access to their stories.

Despite her tenacity, McCluggage still faced many of the same obstacles as other women in the 1950s. “I wasn’t allowed in the garage, pit area or press box at Indy,” McCluggage remembered. “I had to interview drivers through a chain link fence. Women just weren’t permitted in. I was told people wouldn’t accept news from a woman.”

Undeterred, McCluggage always found a way to get her story; “…I just did what I could do, reported from wherever I could.” During the 1960s McCluggage, began to rack up an impressive resume of racing victories, including a GT class at the 1961 12 Hours of Sebring and an overall win at the 1964 Monte Carlo Rally. McCluggage also helped launch a publication called Competition Press, which is now called Autoweek.

McCluggage was a witness and participant in the golden era of motorsports. She also became part of the movement for women to be treated as equals professionally, especially in work places dominated by men. She received the Ken Purdy award for Excellence in Automotive Journalism in 1985 and became the first journalist to be inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in 2001, joining many of her friends and peers that she helped make famous.

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