Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

Denise McCluggage

March 1, 2022 Archive Insight

Woman sits with legs out door of small, open race car among other cars and people
Denise McCluggage at the wheel of her Osca S187 at Bahamas Speed Weeks, 1959. /
1959NassauSpeedWeek_080

It’s one thing to cover auto racing for a living. It’s quite another to live the racing you cover. Journalist and race driver Denise McCluggage earned a unique place in racing history not only for her reporting on a golden era of motorsport, but for her participation in it too.

McCluggage was born in Eldorado, Kansas, in 1927. She traced her love of cars to a moment when, at six years old, she saw a Baby Austin parked on the street and decided she had to have one. Alas, even a letter to Santa Claus didn’t make that dream come true. But McCluggage realized another childhood dream—a career in journalism—that was ignited when she published her own neighborhood newspaper at age 12.

After high school, McCluggage studied at Mills College in Oakland, California, where she earned degrees in economics, philosophy, and politics. She began her journalism career at the nearby San Francisco Chronicle. McCluggage moved to the other side of the country in 1954 and went to work for the New York Herald Tribune. She joined the paper’s sports department, where her assignments included reports on auto racing.

Group of people stand and talk under a pier or bridge surrounded by cars
McCluggage developed a lasting friendship with fellow driver Sir Stirling Moss. The two are pictured here at Bahamas Speed Weeks in 1959. / THF134439

As she covered the sport, McCluggage began to take a deeper interest in racing. She bought a British MG TC and began running in small sports car club events. McCluggage didn’t have any formal lessons, but she proved a natural on the track. Her experiences in competition brought unusual insight to her reporting and—at a time when women weren’t welcomed in pits or garages—gave her better access to the male drivers she covered. McCluggage’s efforts on the track gained her greater respect in the macho world of 1950s and 1960s motor racing, and she earned a reputation as someone who did what she wrote about. (When she wasn’t writing or racing, McCluggage was often on the slopes where she became an accomplished skier—another sport she frequently covered.)

With her trademark polka dot helmet, McCluggage earned an impressive list of victories and became one of the top female racing drivers of her time. She won Nassau Ladies Races in 1956 and 1957, and she took the checkered flag at the Watkins Glen Grand Prix Ladies Race in 1957. McCluggage placed first in the GT category at the 12 Hours of Sebring in 1961, and she finished first in her class at the 1964 Monte Carlo Rally.

Many race cars drive on a track
McCluggage won the GT class at the 1961 Sebring 12-Hour Race. Her #12 Ferrari 250 is at center right. / THF246594

McCluggage’s journalism career flourished as well. In 1958 she collaborated in the founding of Competition Press. The racing magazine eventually broadened its focus to general car culture and changed its name to Autoweek, but it remains active today as a digital publication. McCluggage contributed columns to Autoweek for the rest of her life. She also wrote several books, including The Bahamas Speed Weeks, The Centered Skier, American Racing: Road Racing in the ’50s and ’60s, and By Brooks Too Broad for Leaping—a collection of some of her pieces for Autoweek.

In later years, McCluggage seemed to split her time between giving awards—she was an honorary judge at the prestigious Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance—and receiving them. She was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in 2001, and into the Sports Car Club of America Hall of Fame in 2006.

Denise McCluggage passed away in 2015. At the time of her death, she was remembered as much for her achievements behind the wheel as for her accomplishments behind the typewriter, and she was recognized as one of the trailblazing women in racing. Time has not diminished her triumphs; McCluggage was posthumously inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 2022.

Mark Twain said “write what you know.” Denise McCluggage struck a similar chord in a quote published in Sports Illustrated in 2018: “Racing was something I wanted to do, so it was something I wanted to cover.” The automotive world is richer because she did both.


Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford.

sports, cars, by Matt Anderson, race car drivers, racing, women's history

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