We lost one of the greats on Wednesday, 6 May 2015. Denise McCluggage, 88 years young, slipped this mortal coil – as many of her close friends have in the recent past. It seems like just yesterday that we heard that Phil Hill had passed away – Phil was a contemporary and close friend of Denise’s. It’s sad to see my generation’s heroes slip away – but, as we are painfully aware of, it happens to us all eventually.
Denise was born In El Dorado, Kansas in 1927. A number of years ago she related a story to a group of us about her father taking her to the site of Knute Rockne’s plane crash when she was a child. It was a spellbinding performance, one of many that those who have had the pleasure of being in her presence can relate.
She spent time as a sports reporter in the 1950s, extraordinary for a woman in those times. And she was good at it – covering among other things skiing and auto racing. Her skiing skills were high, as both instructor and competitor, and, as those around her quickly learned, her driving skills were commensurate. She went on to found, Competition Press, which eventually became Autoweek. At the time, outside of National Speed Sport News, it was the only place a racing aficionado could get race results (especially for Formula 1 and sports car racing).
She was a part of a parallel ‘rat pack’ of racing drivers and hangers on, equivalent to Sinatra’s gang, but with women in prominent roles. There was Denise, Phil Hill, Carroll Shelby, Stirling Moss, Pat Moss, Erik Carlsson, Dan Gurney, and a host of others, that made their way through the fifties and sixties across Europe and the US racing and partying. I’m still not sure about all the odds and ends I have heard regarding her friendship with Steve McQueen – but, truth be told, she did have a funny story or two about him (that I will not retell ; -).
She treated everyone she met with kindness and a directness – a true mid-western characteristic – that immediately put one at ease and enabled the wonderful story telling. Denise was a world champion raconteur – I remember spending a lunch with her on a product launch where she described having been awake so long that she was hallucinating that gnomes on logs in the Austrian forest were cheering her on when she negotiated a corner correctly during a rally. She was a delight to be around and an incredible human being. I am ever so glad to have met her and been able to spend time with her, as brief as it was.
There are any number of eulogies I have read today and Steven Cole Smith’s stands out (as do others): http://www.motorsport.com/
Also, John Pearly Huffman wrote a gem: http://blog.caranddriver.com/
Of course, then there is Mark Vaughn of Autoweek’s contribution: http://autoweek.com/article/
God speed Denise.