Friday, July 31, 2015

Denise McCluggage

Change is the only constant.  Hanging on is the only sin.

The memory that I have of newsrooms is that they were places of motion.  It was rare to find in that sea of desks a person who wasn't just about to leave to interview someone or to observe some conflagration, or those returning from doing the same.  I suppose that's why the desks were rarely personalized, as we see now with cubicles.  A reporter's desk would hold her/his typewriter, an IBM Selectric, a drawer filled with Portage Professional Reporter's Notebooks waiting to be used, another for the filled notebooks [these were important to keep for future reference and for protection from libel suits] that were loosely "filed", and I seem to recall a third for the bottle of Four Roses or John Begg or some equally low-rent liquor.

This was true even in the 1980's as one of the fellows with whom I shared my Episcopal Church-owned apartment worked for the New York Times and was never, ever in the office.  The closest I think he ever came was the Blarney Stone across the street.  A couple of years ago I had the occasion to enter the newsroom of The Hartford Courant, in great anticipation of once again experiencing the frenetic electricity of reporters at work.  Instead, it was a cubicle zoo, with reporters sitting, sitting!, at their desks in front of quiet laptop screens performing their research through Internet search engines, quietly speaking to people via a thing in their ears [Bluetooth?] and drinking from Starbucks cups.  I was all at sea.

Now, while I've always had respect for reporters, the opposite is generally true of journalists.  Reporters get the story; journalists massage it.  In fact, many times these days, as most of those in the media would describe themselves as journalists rather than reporters, it seems that they're merely extensions of the public relations departments of political parties or corporations.  Stories are not necessarily the truth, but rather the journalist's point of view; a not-so-subtle change from the grand days or reporting

Even those who describe themselves as "participatory journalists" such as Hunter Thompson, George Plimpton, Gay Talese, Norman Mailer, Robert Cristgau, and Joan Didion need to be regarded with a grain of salt.  Having lived next door to a "new journalist" has made me even more suspect when I read their works.  My neighbor crows in print about his sports car collection, but they rarely leave his garage and then only to travel about a third of a mile to the local market, generally at the speed of a riding mower.  I imagine similar postures exist with the other members of his writing fraternity.

That is, except for this week's personality, as she not only and without question participated in the stories that she wrote, but did so honestly and in full public view.  In addition, she was able to report the story without artificially inserting herself into the narrative.  That's quite a feat.

Perhaps this was because Denise McCluggage was truly interested in sports, especially that of auto racing, and not as a means for self-glory.  Born in 1927, and having wanted to be a reporter since childhood, McCluggage was covering a yacht race when she met the American godfather of sports cars and racing, Briggs Cunningham, who convinced her that the only truly exciting sport was auto racing. She agreed so whole-heartedly that not only did she become the first woman reporter to cover auto racing, but one of the first women to compete.

What made her participation sublime was that, in the days when drivers wore distinctive helmets so that the fans could identify them as they whizzed by the stands, her's was white with pink polka-dots.  You'd never catch Phil Hill or Dan Gurney in anything resembling a chapeau.

Since McCluggage had gotten her first driver's license in Kansas at the age of 14, she was already familiar with passenger cars.  Her first competitive sports car was not a large, heavy piece of Detroit steel, naturally, but a 1950 MG TC with which she began her racing life in small races and small tracks.

Rather elegant, isn't it?  And a little fragile looking, too.

By the time she was hired by a New York City daily paper's sports pages, she had the wherewithal to upgrade to a Jaguar and compete in the more serious, professional races.  In 1959, she would win her first race at Thompson Raceway in Connecticut.  Eventually, she would compete in the Sebring 12 Hour race where, in 1961, she would win her class in a Ferrari, and the 1964 Monte Carlo Rally, winning her class in a...Ford Falcon [the most underrated American car in history; its engine and chassis were eventually covered by a snazzy body and called the Mustang]. 

Her career lasted until the late 1960's, driving cars for over a dozen different American and European racing marques and earning the respect of the other, mostly male, drivers in the sport.  Their regard for her is displayed in the photo at the header, where she is at ease with Juan Fangio, Stirling Moss, Pedro Rodriquez, and Innes Ireland.  All the while that she raced she also wrote articles on racing for the sporting press that are easily among the best of that wild, dangerous era of motor sports.

As her racing days concluded, McCluggage then took up skiing and organized the purchase and development of what is now known as the Hunter Mountain ski resort in New York.   She also wrote a well-received book, The Centered Skier, that combines skiing technique with elements of Zen philosophy that is still in use at some skiing schools in the USA.

She was one of the founders of what is now AutoWeek magazine, and remained one of its editors and columnists until her death earlier this year.

 There are a handful of collections of her columns for AutoWeek and other publications that bear numerous titles; By Brooks Too Broad For Leaping being the most popular.  In addition to her deft hand at the steering wheel and while heel-and-toeing her way through a corner at 100 mph, McCluggage was an able writer who could, with authority and lyricism, describe an event as visceral as an auto race with a vividity that captured the senses involved in the spectacle and the personalities attracted to its pursuit.  

This is why she was the first, and still only, reporter ever to be inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame.  When asked, as she entered her ninth decade, if she would ever write her memoirs, she replied, "I don't do fiction."