TodayApril 16, 2022

Denise McClugagge 1927-2015, You mattered on Driving the Nation

Denise McClugagge, you mattered

Denise McClugagge passed away this week. The legendary McClugagge was a co-founder of Autoweek and so much more.

Twitter, Facebook, and media posts were lit up today with tributes to McClugagge. There are two words that summed her up the best…you mattered.


In a world of fifteen seconds of what have you done lately for me, Denise McClugagge defied all odds by being herself to everyone that she met. She lived her life at the moment and made you feel like you mattered.

Born in 1927 she was known to the automotive media as the first female race car driver and journalist. She raced with the greats; Stirling Moss, Phil Hill, Juan Manuel Fangio, Pedro Rodriguez. She raced with them, she played with them, and sometimes she beat them and they loved her for it.

While driving together we talked like women do which was one of the special aspects of Denise, she was real. Her sisters, nieces and nephews, and great-nieces and nephews were a source of pride for her. They mattered to her. Last month “Aunt Dennie” arranged for her friends to take her nine-year-old great-nephew on a ride in an Audi R8 when they came to visit her.

We talked about her relationship with Steve McQueen and how his son had called her after McQueen passed away. She told me about her brief marriage to actor Michael Conrad, the Hills Street Blues cop, best known for saying “let’s be careful out there,” an oxymoron for Denise’s life. All the while, Denise was giving me pointers on driving and her thoughts on the car we were driving.

McClugagge broke glass ceilings in racing and journalism. She was a mentor to many writers, female and male alike as well as some young female race car drivers. She was everything a woman wants to be, intelligent, professional, passionate, sassy but not mean. She was always up for a good time and always had a fun story to tell.

Denise let me video her in an Audi R8 going around Infineon Raceway, but the most fun was videoing her in a Toyota Sienna. A minivan? Yes, a minivan.

Denise was laughing as she got in the car with the young engineer, “he’s looking at me like I’m some little old lady”. She was right, he didn’t know her and he was probably being polite as he got in the van with us. By the end of the trip, Mr. Mori got out of the van and wanted to take pictures with her. Denise was obliging, as always.

Sir Stirling Moss gave a great tribute to Denise during a 2007 interview with Tim Spell from the Houston Chronicle:
“Denise was a breath of fresh air to racing in the States. She knew what she wanted, and usually got it. She was a very competent driver and a writer who knew what she was writing about and had an in-depth knowledge of the subject. She is a lady who it has been my pleasure to have raced against, and been able to call my friend, for many years.”

Godspeed Denise.

Lou Ann Hammond

Lou Ann Hammond is the CEO of Carlist and Driving the Nation. She is the co-host of Real Wheels Washington Post carchat every Friday morning and is the Automotive, energy correspondent for The John Batchelor Show and a Contributor to Automotive Electronics magazine headquartered in Korea. Hammond is a founding member of the Women's World Car of the Year #WWCOTY, and board member of the Women in Automotive.