25/07/2024 6:47 PM

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Denise McCluggage Was a True Automotive Trailblazer

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Tucked away in a barn for more than three decades sat a Jaguar XK140 that one automotive enthusiast always intended to restore but never did. It was only after the owner decided to sell the car that he learned the storied history of that specific XK140: It was the car Briggs Cunningham gave Denise McCluggage to launch her career as a racer.

Now, that career is set to be recognized by the American Motorsports Hall of Fame—and McCluggage’s Jaguar has been brought to Daytona Beach, Florida for the occasion, where it will remain in the MHOF’s museum.

The Motorsports Hall of Fame was founded to recognize icons in racing. Its inductees have included everyone from household names like Mario Andretti to historic car builders like Augie and Fred Duesenberg.

The list of female inductees, though, remains short. Wheeled record-holders like Janet Guthrie and Shirley Muldowney were easy picks, but the MHOF also includes pilot Jacqueline Cochran and power boater Betty Cook. McCluggage will be joining their ranks as the second woman in the At Large category, which celebrates people who have had an impact on the racing world in countless ways. McCluggage was preceded in her induction by promotional legend Linda Vaughn of Hearst fame.

The word “trailblazer” is thrown around a lot these days, but Denise McCluggage was just that. A jack of all trades, she served as a journalist, photographer, author, and race car driver. Motorsport historian Barnaby Brokaw describes her as an “insider,” the kind of person who knew everyone who mattered in the motorsport world. When McCluggage spoke, her audience tuned in with a rapt attention.

“I have not found a person anywhere that just doesn’t gush over her,” Brokaw said in an interview with this author. “She had total insight into all the most famous drivers, and we’re talking in the ’50s and ’60s, the Stirling Mosses, the Phil Hills, the Dan Gurneys. She not only was writing about it, which was difficult enough as a woman [at the time], but she was really living it.”

Denise McCluggage Was a True Automotive Trailblazer

Barnaby Brokaw is pictured here with the famed XK140.

The Motorcar Society

And “live it” she was meant to do. The first joke McCluggage ever told, according to writer Amy Wallace, was about a car. When McCluggage graduated from Mills College, she quickly found herself working as a journalist covering extreme sports like skiing, skydiving, and, most importantly, racing. And by delving into the world of sports car racing, McCluggage began to foster her own interest in the automotive scene. Her first race car was an MG-TC, a vehicle she soon replaced after moving East.

Her new vehicle? A Jaguar XK140 from Briggs Cunningham.

Brokaw, himself a longtime auto enthusiast, has developed his own career around telling stories of vehicles from days gone by. Brokaw was “always interested in history and how fleeting it can be, and so I got interested in trying to capture as much history from the people that made it.”

The founder of The Motorcar Society, a publication dedicated to parsing out automotive history, Brokaw turned out to be a unique fit for the authentication of McCluggage’s Jaguar.

“I had a client/friend, 25 years ago, who liked Jags and Mercedes, and he bought this car out of storage from an estate in Chicago where it had been sitting for many years,” Brokaw said of the Jaguar. “The guy he bought it from had told him he bought it from Briggs Cunningham.”

It was one of two Jaguar XK140 dropheads that Brokaw’s friend had purchased, both of which he one day intended to restore out of his home in Portland, Oregon. Life got in the way, those plans never panned out, and Brokaw’s friend was planning a move to Europe. The Jaguar didn’t make the cut of cars he brought along with him. Brokaw recommended his friend sell the Jaguar to Larry Berman, a long-time collector of Briggs Cunningham machines. Berman was able to assist Brokaw in tracing the history of that particular model through Cunningham’s history — including the moment he gave that car to McCluggage.

Cunningham gave that car to McCluggage, Brokaw said, because “he saw something special in her. She was fiercely competitive and highly respected by her peers on and off the racetrack.”

denise mccluggage jaguar xk140

Barnaby Brokaw

And with the Jaguar, she earned her respect after her 1956 debut at an SCCA regional event in Montgomery, New York. She won the Ladies Race and placed well in the larger field of more experienced drivers. It was the motivation she needed to launch a successful career, one that saw her become the first woman to win a feature sportscar event at Thompson Raceway in Connecticut, and take victory in the GT class during the 1961 Sebring endurance event.

In many ways, she had to compete to write. In McCluggage’s era, women were frequently barred from entering the pit lane or garage areas of a racetrack — unless they were a competitor themselves. She may have been the first woman allowed in the pit lane at the Indianapolis 500, but she also knew that to earn her access there, she needed a prestigious body of work under her belt.

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Pair that with her countless published works — books, articles, stories, and more — and her key role in founding Competition Press, a publication that went on to become Autoweek, and McCluggage earned her place as one of the most deeply respected writers in automotive and motorsport history. Her place in the Hall of Fame, though, has been a long time coming.

“Racing, especially historically, is largely a sausage fest,” current MHOF president George Levy told this author. “Most of the participants were male, so it would be natural that most of the inductees from a particular year would be male as well.”

The MHOF awards inductees their place in the annals of history based on popular voting conducted off a premade ballot. It’s natural that many votes gravitate to names like Jim Clark or Colin Chapman.

jaguar xk140

Barnaby Brokaw

“But in the last five years, there’s been real recognition for women,” Levy said. “This year, Denise is one of the nine inductees, but in the fall of last year, three of the nine were female. The voters seem to be making that recognition as well, and through an organic process, rather than someone saying, ‘Hey, you know what? There should be more women in here.'”

For fellow female racer Lyn St. James, McCluggage was an icon that deserves a place in history.

“Every decade has its sort of style, in every way. In social stuff, in apparel and hairstyles, and in the way of thinking,” St. James said. “Then, every decade that you are living, at a different age in your decades, you see it differently. You see the 1970s differently if you’re in your 30s or 20s, you know what I mean? Your filters are different.

“[McCluggage] had all of the access to that, because she was not super young. She was old enough to come to know she was, I think, doing special stuff. And so she was paying attention. She was brilliant. I think she came out of the womb that way, already a thinker, a doer, and a deep diver of knowledge and people.

“And we are just blessed, because she was able to help us live and experience her experiences in ways that made you feel closer to motorsport. I felt closer to Formula One, to people I never met like Juan Manuel Fangio, because of Denise. She made you feel like you were sitting with the people she was talking about. She enabled you to be closer to the history, and I don’t know that anyone else could have done that because other people, they didn’t stay around long enough.”

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The ability to keep history alive saw McCluggage inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in 2001, an achievement of which St. James said McCluggage was “really proud because, from what I understand, she was the first automotive journalist to be inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame. Not just the first woman, but the first automotive journalist.”

It’s a shame, then, that McCluggage won’t be there to enjoy the celebration of her career at the Motorsport Hall of Fame.

“Because of her passion for racing, if she had still been alive and able to celebrate it, it would have been just so damn wonderful,” St. James, who will be giving McCluggage’s induction speech, said. But with McCluggage’s newly found Jaguar XK140 and her place in the Motorsports Hall of Fame, her legacy will continue to inspire.

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