Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Road Tripping With Denise McCluggage, 1927-2015: The "She Broke Even" Tour

 Story by Frances Madeson

Change is the only constant, Hanging on the only sin.--Denise McCluggage

I am drawn to sport because I like to experience those clear neon-lined moments of being truly tuned in. And I like to watch the concentration of energy in anything done purely...Beauty is a tremor of the spine.--DM

On the racetrack I feel like a monk on a secluded cliff. The race is like being on a balcony in NYC, it's chess at a hundred miles an hour, chaos becomes peaceful in the race car. There's no pollution of outside life, you're absolutely in the moment. Not everybody gets it, but Denise did
.--Eben Cahan, Amigo Tires and Auto

Racing is something I did, not what I was....Writing  is an excuse to sample anything.--DM
A Soul's Reverie

A wonderfully wise and witty writer named Denise McCluggage passed away at age 88 in Santa Fe this past May and, oh yes I almost forgot, she was also a pioneering race car driver and breaker of any number of gender barriers in athletics and sports journalism. In a more just world she'd be as well known, widely celebrated and filthy rich as that other New Mexican feminist icon--Georgia O'Keeffe. Denise also filled her canvas in a beautiful way, but her canvas was her life, lived artfully, intentionally and fruitfully. She leaves behind a breathtaking record of accomplishment and a fellowship of some of the nicest sweetest smartest most bereft mourners in the Land of Enchantment--the members of Car Table.

Denise and cool car broker Fred Vang formed Car Table in 2002, and it's still as lively and happening as ever. But it might never have gotten off the ground if Fred had not been as persistent as he was about making contact. "I'm reading one of her articles and it says she's 'perched at 7,000 feet in Santa Fe.' I looked in the phone book, found her number and called her. I left a message, sent a fax, called her editor. Nothing, no response. One day I'm driving along St. Michael's and I see a souped-up AMG Mercedes, E Class. Its wheels were black, its exhaust was cranking, it had been driven hard. I thought what's this car doing in Santa Fe? On the steps of the bank I see Denise and can't help myself and say, 'You never answered my letter!' To which she says, throwing her hands in the air like a criminal, 'Oh my God, who have I offended now?' We sat in the car and talked for an hour. I invited her over for breakfast and Martha made popovers."

From this auspicious beginning, Car Table was later born. In essence it's a cohort of car enthusiasts who meet for lunch every Tuesday at noon at the Santa Fe Bar and Grill and discuss all things automotive. At my first visit Rubin Manzanares said, "I was born craving cars, ever since I could walk. My uncle had a tractor, when I was four or five I began noticing cars. I finally got my first one—an El Camino with the muffler cut off, sparks flying...Freedom!" Like Fred Vang many of its members knew of Denise decades before they actually got to meet her at Car Table. Bob Morgart, originally from Pennsylvania, remembers watching her race as boy. "I was a kid. I would see her race in Limerock, Cumberland, Marlboro, Watkins Glen. My uncle and I would go. I think she was driving a 550 Porsche Spider and my uncle said, 'That's Denise McCluggage, the greatest woman driver in the world!'

"My first meaningful discussion with Denise," Bob explained, "was at the mailboxes at our townhouse community in 1991, maybe 92. I was driving a 90 Q45 Infiniti, and she asked me if I'd driven the new Cherokee Jeep. When I realized I was talking to the Denise McCluggage, I began to recite all of her accomplishments but she stopped me. 'Don't!' she cried. 'I didn't set out to blaze a trail for anyone. I just did what I wanted to do and I wasn't going to let a man stop me.' But a man did stop her from the best ride of her life. She was set to drive a Ferrari at Le Mans, and the French officials refused to allow it. She got kicked off the team for being a woman, and Bob Grossman got the ride instead. Later Grossman tried to apologize to her, but she wouldn't let him. 'It wasn't your fault,' she told him. And she meant it.

"Denise was either the judge or an honored guest at many of the major racetracks," Bob continued. "She was a longtime judge at the Concours d'Elegance at Pebble Beach, twenty-plus years, I'd say.. She could get the president of any car company on the phone at any hour and sometimes would pick up the phone and call Stuttgart, to Dieter Zetsche, the CEO of Mercedes, just to talk to him about cars. Mercedes Benz established a scholarship in automotive journalism at the University of Kansas in her name.

"She was on the road traveling at least half the year. She'd be invited to road rallies all over the world, from Europe to China. Australia to Cuba in the time of Batista, to South America. She tested cars.She drove roads on ice above the Arctic Circle. Every car company invited her to drive their cars. I'm not sure how many cars she ever paid for personally. The old MG and maybe the last one."

Beyond the Black and White
When the great designers and drivers in the racing community learned that Denise had died—men like Peter Brock, the designer of the Cobra Daytona; Dan Gurney, Bob Bondurant, Stirling Moss—they broke down in tears. "I never thought she'd die" was the common reply..

"We thought she'd go on forever," Bob said, "she was so young at heart. But kidney cancer took her, though she told no one, or very few. It's why she had so many parties at the end, she wanted to see everybody." Denise had confided in Dennis and Beverly Little with whom she'd worked on the Santa Fe Concorso since its inception. Everyone says the Littles were very good to Denise, adding many comforts and care to her final days. Jean Jennings, who served as emcee at the Memorial Tribute, had visited Denise just a few days before she died. People from around America came to Santa Fe for the tribute on Saturday: Luigi Chinetti, Jr., Claiborne Booker, and three generations of her family.

Jim Coffman came to his first Car Table in October 2011. He had “met” Denise reading her work in Autoweek and before that Competition Press as a youngster. “I'd subscribed from the late 60's. When I realized she was living in Santa Fe I emailed her and said, I would love to meet you. She said sure, so my wife and I met her at the Pink Adobe for tea. She regaled us with stories for almost two hours. She was a national treasure, always had a twinkle in her eye. She knew Miles Davis, she helped him with his first Ferarris. It's hard to walk in here and see that she's not there." 

Eben Cahan, proprietor of Amigo Tire and Auto, teared up as we spoke of Denise. Besides his sons, Eben's passion in life is race car driving and Denise McCluggage is a personal hero. He met her at an art opening in a gallery on Canyon Road about ten years ago, sat next to her at Car Table's celebration of her 88th birthday, and was one of the guys who arranged to put new tires on her car as a birthday present.

"My first conversation with Denise was about driving. She likened a car to a board with four water balloons under each of its corners. When you accelerate, the weight of the board squishes the balloons, the balloons being the tires. I sought Denise out because of her racing experiences. If I had one wish in life it would be to download her experiences from her brain to mine—the smells, the sounds, all of it. To become a better racer, to better control the race car. Denise would say, 'Don't break the balloons.' I was envious in a good way, in awe. There are a handful of women in the world doing what she did. And she was beating boys, she was genuinely fast. That is a skill that cannot be taught, it's a God-given talent.

"The beautiful thing about racing is that it's totally honest. The stopwatch never lies, either you're fast or you're not. Denise was.She was also humble. She didn't like to talk too much about her accomplishments, it never went to her head. The most important thing about Denise was that she was genuinely happy. You'd catch a little of that when you hung out with her. You always felt better afterward.”

"Without Denise, I wouldn't know any of these guys..." is a common refrain among Car Table members. "We were always in her light."

To a man, they love Denise McCluggage. Love her! I'd bet my next Ferrari there's not a man in Car Table, straight or gay, who hasn't fantasized pillow-talking with some version of Denise: She was a gamine young woman, sophisticated in middle-age, and a cherubic elder. At last Saturday's memorial tribute thirty-something J.P. Gonzales said from the podium: "Denise was my 86-year-old girlfriend, my 87-year-old-girlfriend, my 88-year-old girlfriend..." Another man on the packed patio at Santa Fe Bar and Grill called out: "I dated her before you did, J.P.!" Everyone laughed, but as Fred Vang said when he took his turn at the mic: "This is fun, but also very, very hard."

She was lovers with a veritable parade of hotties: Hollywood actor Steve McQueen, jazz sax player Allen Eager, racers Caroll Shelby and Briggs "Swift" Cunningham, and...ahem...more. Lots, lots more. She told some of the Car Table guys, “I may not have been made for marriage, but I sure had a lot of fun with some really great men.” Bob Morgart places her in the free-thinking company of personages like Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee Celeste Claflin. "Denise was a rule-breaker, always. A true original."

From her Short Cuts interview with Bill Sharfman published in Automobile Magazine, circa 1996:
I drove for Briggs, he'd give you a car, it was a totally amateur thing, he never paid his guys, but it was more fun. Now these guys make millions, you have to bring sponsors with you. I had CITGO as a sponsor, to promote a book I wrote called "Are You a Woman Driver?" which was a pump giveaway -- you got that instead of steak knives. It sold for a buck in bookstores, you could get a book for a dollar then. I was always scrambling, I'd like to have on my tombstone, "She broke even."
Many would likely argue that those three little words, though perhaps telling about her equanimity in temperament, sense of fair play and steady upbeat personality, are an insufficient summation of her extraordinary life. But it's a moot point: there's no tombstone. Instead, her family, in Santa Fe last week for the various tributes, along with her auto-reviewing co-blogger, J.P. Gonzales, scattered Denise's ashes roadside at an undisclosed location somewhere in the New Mexican countryside. J.P. explained why. "As you drive those lonely roads, she's with you."

Further proofs of the value of her company on those lonely roads follow.

Why not Earl?

From her earliest days as a Topeka Kansas schoolgirl Denise had the gift of radical inclusiveness. The story goes that it had come time to elect a new class president in high school, and while discussing potential candidates Denise asked a simple and life-changing question: Why not Earl?

Why not Earl? Because Earl was Black, ergo in most minds ipso facto out of the running. But back in 1940's Kansas Denise had a social imagination, and exercised it enough to ask that one vital question of her peers. Why not Earl?

On the strength of Denise's nomination, Earl was elected class president. If she has greatness, and many believe that she does, the seeds of it are in that story.

My favorite piece in her collection of automotive journalism, By Brooks Too Broad for Leaping (Fulcorte Press, Santa Fe, 1994), is titled "Me, Mama, Mini and Moscow." In a breezy offhand style she writes about her trip to the Soviet Union in 1964--"an early touch of glasnost." Yummy alliteration aside, "Me, Mama, Mini and Moscow" concerns risk-taking on behalf of freedom of expression and personal liberty. And not just for oneself.
I carried in the Mini an assortment of records and a unique little player no larger than a book.Open it up and then close it--clam-like--around a record. VoilĂ ! Music.
Mom and I returned to the Mini, parked in Red Square, after lunch one day to find we were being awaited. A young man tapped the car window pointing excitedly at the records. So I hauled them out, set the little player on the Mini's roof and VoilĂ ! Music.
Maybe not as sure fire as a small plane to gather a crowd in Red Square, but it would suffice. A soldier and his girl started doing the Twist, radical enough for Moscow in that age. Others joined them. (Was I introducing randomness?) Then Mother whispered at me: "You're going to get us arrested!"
And that could happen. Now I was being offered illegal old rubles, icons, family treasures in trade for the records. "Milesdavis!" "Milesdavis!" One guy was beside himself over 'Round Midnight. I guess the Voice of America was reaching its target.
I had heard of tourists arrested for illegally trading money, for selling blue jeans. Like that. But could officials fault a visitor for presenting friends with a gift? I certainly hoped not. And I dealt out my Sarah Vaughan, Miles Davis and Ray Charles records to a grateful few in the shadow of Lenin's tomb. And mounted my Mini with my mother. And moseyed on.
Part of what Denise would do in New Mexico is “establish new routes” for the car rallies, meaning she'd go riding in the countryside at speeds not really contemplated by the Department of Transportation with their restriction to two-digit speed limits. There was a Viper event and Bob Lutz, the General Motors Exec in charge of the Dodge Viper was in town from Michigan. Together they opened up a new race route through Cuba, New Mexico, and back over to Jemez Springs. She was in one red Viper and Lutz was in another identical car. When the law caught up with them, she pulled her car out of view and hid behind a restaurant. Lutz, who hadn't been the offending driver got pulled over and ticketed. She could hear him saying to the police, “There were two and I'm the other one.” To her later, he accused, “You set me up! You set me up!” But she just laughed, and said, “You've done it to yourself.”

Future of the Absent Present Far Past

Great thanks to photographer Robert Esposito for illustrating our imaginary road trip with Denise so splendidly, so sublimely. These and more photos are available for purchase on his website  Please read his bio and artist's statement there. (I'm pretty sure he may have a really cool Mustang that might be available for purchase, as well.)