Later On

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Lady Leadfoot: Denise McCluggage

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Amy Wallace writes in Sports Illustrated:

MARCH 20, 1961

Five days before the race, the automobiles began to appear in this small backwater town. They came on trailers, on huge haul-aways, on tow-bars behind passenger cars and some under their own power, all accompanied by crews of eager, purposeful men and a few purposeful women. Their goal: to compete in (or at least witness) the Twelve Hours at Sebring, one the premier sports car events in the world. The race’s formal name was the Sebring 12-Hour Grand Prix of Endurance, and the need to endure affected everyone, not just the drivers. Pity the local resident who had the misfortune of blowing an engine during the run-up to the start, because garage space—even filling station space—was suddenly unavailable. Noisy strangers—weekend hobbyist racers and top-flight factory teams alike, including the finest drivers from both the old and new world—thronged restaurants in the center of town. Tourists passing through on their way north were well advised to take alternate routes, for every available bed, even empty bunks in the local jail, had been booked for months.

That said, no one visited Sebring to sleep. In the run-up to race day, the pungent punch of orange blossoms that normally filled the air was replaced by the sharp smell of burned castor oil and exhaust. Even in the small hours of the morning came the sound of engines revving and growling and howling. Over several days of hard-won practice, it would become clear that this Sebring Grand Prix would be a faster and tougher than ever before. One driver completed a one-lap practice dash of the 5.2-mile, 12-turn course in just three minutes and twelve seconds—a record! And every evening after practice sessions ended, the lights in the garages burned for hours as drivers and their crews sought to identify and switch out their cars’ weakest components, hoping for victory.

Into this happy chaos drove Denise McCluggage, a 34-year-old amateur racer who had just bought her very first Ferrari—a dark blue “mouthful of a car,” she liked to say, “with superb handling and wonderful manners.” The used 1960 250 short wheel-base Scaglietti-bodied Berlinetta had set her back $9,000 and was the most expensive thing she’d ever owned by a factor of three, but McCluggage had no doubt it was worth it. A lean, 5-foot-6-inch beauty with short-cropped hair and angular features, she’d been a sports car freak since the age of six. Now, as European sports car racing really began to catch on in the United States, she’d earned a nickname: Lady Leadfoot. 

McCluggage’s entrée to the sport was unusual: She was a journalist who had a reputation for participating in and excelling at the extreme sports she covered. She had jumped out of airplanes, skied treacherous mountains, become a champion fencer—all in search of what she called “the perfect meditation” that well-honed exertion can bring. No matter the contest, she always played to win. But she’d lost at Sebring before—three times. In 1958, she’d raced in a borrowed Fiat-Abarth 750 Zagato but didn’t finish. In 1959, her team came in 18th in an OSCA. In 1960, she drove in another OSCA, but didn’t complete the race. Now, on her fourth consecutive try, she hoped driving her own Ferrari would give her an advantage. In terms of international prestige, Sebring was second only to the 24 Hours of Le Mans, in France. But the French didn’t let women drive. This, then, was McCluggage’s shot at the big time, her chance to go down in history. Maybe this race would bring her better luck. 

The only question was with whom she would share the driving. No one completed Sebring’s dozen hours alone. The course demanded not just concentration, but agility and physical strength. It was utterly exhausting, which is why several cars would be piloted by as many as four people. This year, McCluggage planned to make do with two. If she had her way, she and her boyfriend—a jazz saxophonist named Allen Eager—would take turns in the Berlinetta, spelling each other, switching out when it was time to refuel. McCluggage had been coaching Eager for months; this would be his first race ever. But to qualify, he had to pass the physical. And that was by no means a sure thing.

The first time Denise McCluggage cracked a joke, it was about a car. She was five years old, riding in a Dodge sedan her father was thinking of buying. The salesman was taking her family for a demo ride, and was weaving sharply in and out of traffic. “No wonder they call it a Dodge,” she piped up from the back seat, and everyone laughed.

That Dodge notwithstanding, the McCluggages were an Oldsmobile family. They had a mud-colored sedan, probably a ’36. Each summer, it transported the whole clan—Robert, a lawyer, Velma Faye, a court reporter, Denise and her two younger sisters (a third had died of measles and pneumonia)—from Topeka, Kansas, to Tincup, Colorado, to escape the heat. Every year, upon arrival, they would take up residence in a rented log cabin chosen for its location (next to a creek, famous for good fishing) more than its amenities (no plumbing and no electricity).

One summer, the family went to watch the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb—an annual race run on the narrow dirt roads that ascend the mountain’s face. It was there that she first saw Louis Unser, whose nephews Al and Bobby would later combine to win seven Indy 500s between them, and even filmed him with the family’s eight millimeter camera. Years later, he would pilot a Maserati to victory on that course. For the rest of her life, Denise would call the daring, dark-haired Unser her hero.

Cars always seemed to speak to her. There was the Baby Austin 7 she saw when she was six, parked on the street in Topeka. (She promptly asked Santa to bring her one for Christmas). There were the kiddie-sized racers her family encountered at a carnival in Manitou Springs, Colo. Denise got to drive one for a dime a lap, and put her foot down, hard.

MARCH 25, 1961

With one hour to go before the start, there was no avoiding the jitters. After months of preparation, the Sebring four-wheeled endurance marathon was about to begin.

Denise McCluggage was ready; she even had a back-up plan. Worried that Allen Eager wouldn’t be allowed to compete, she’d invited another driver, Fred K. Gamble, a Floridian who’d raced a Corvette the previous year at Sebring, to join her team as an alternate. The reason: Like many jazz musicians, Eager had experimented with drugs. Heroin, specifically. Though he’d been clean for some time, McCluggage worried the mandatory physical might trip him up. Moreover, Gamble recalled: “We didn’t think the race organizers would let him drive, because he’d never driven a race before.” But McCluggage and Gamble hadn’t factored in Eager’s star power. The saxophonist had played with Tommy Dorsey! He knew Miles Davis! The race organizers loved the buzz Eager’s fledgling race would generate, so they cleared him to drive. Gamble, relegated to the sidelines, would shoot home movies of the race.

Now, it seemed as though all the energy in town converged around the track. After just 10 years in existence, the Sebring International Raceway had a well-earned reputation as a treacherous course. Like many early racetracks, on series of a World War II era landing strips—the former Hendricks Army Airfield. The concrete expanse was broken by large seams, its surface so uneven that racers often scraped their cars’ undercarriages as they careened by, sending sparks flying. Even the best drivers had trouble keeping a grip on the wheel. Then there was the track’s irregular shape. Instead of an oval, Sebring was a road course whose dozens turns included one head-spinning hairpin and several high-speed 90-degree corners. There was very little elevation change and little camber—or tilt—at the turns, which made it difficult to maintain speed while turning. As if that weren’t enough, the course was poorly marked with orange cones banded in reflective tape. Since the race began precisely at 10 o’clock in the morning and ended at 10 o’clock at night, drivers would be navigating these obstacles for about four hours in the dark—a confusing task at best and, at worst, a fatal one.

McCluggage knew the risks were real. She’d seen more than one racing phenom lose his life to the sport—Herbert MacKay-Fraser, Jean Behra, and Peter Collins to name a few. This was a time before roll bars and flame retardant suits, an era when race car driving was defined largely by machismo. Few women attempted to compete in such a male-dominated space; those who did were mostly relegated to so-called Ladies Races or “Powder Puff Derbies.” But today would be different. Of the 65 vehicles entered, two would be piloted by teams that included a woman driver.

In endurance sports car racing, the cars are the stars. Most fans root for manufacturers, not drivers. This year, the cars were as varied as they were spectacular. Two Triumphs, three Arnolt Bristols, four Sunbeam Alpines, five Corvettes, six Maseratis, seven Porsches and 13 Ferraris were competing, not to mention a few OSCAs, Alfa Romeos and Elva Couriers, among other models. As always, there were two categories for the entrants—Sports Prototype and Gran Turismo (or GT). As a general rule, GT cars are vehicles you could buy at a dealership that have been prepared for racing, while Prototypes are limited production cars built specifically for racing. At the end of 12 hours, one car would win in each category. All told, the 65 cars would be driven in shifts by 145 drivers.

With its engine running, McCluggage’s Ferrari would be blazing inside—way hotter than Florida’s balmy 75 degrees. But she didn’t care. She strapped on her signature polka-dot crash helmet, determined to win.

Denise McCluggage would never forget the sight of her father sitting in the Olds, his ear to the car radio, the summer the Germans marched into Poland. She was 12. “I didn’t understand what was going on but clearly it had import beyond rainbow trout,” she wrote. “The Olds was parked creekside… Daddy sat sideways in the car with the door open, a solemn look on his face, listening to the news.”

Like most things in her life, Denise’s memories of her parents would be intertwined with automobiles. The way her father hated to stop for gas, for example. (“Daddy was a champion avoider. As a child, I thought everyone routinely ran out of gas, because we did. Daddy strove to wean every car he drove.”) Or the way, in bad weather, he wrestled “to keep tall wheels lightly aimed on a slithering pathway, solemnly seeking higher ground.”

She had always been drawn to sport. “I like to experience those clear neon-lined moments of being truly tuned in,” she wrote. “And I like to watch the concentration of energy in anything done purely—two good doubles teams ricocheting volleys at the net, the perfect ballooning of a spinnaker, a kid bending a skateboard around a corner—golly, a Frisbee that doesn’t wobble! Beauty is a tremor of the spine.”

Growing up, her first love was football—tackle, not touch. On hard Kansas vacant lots after school and all-day Saturdays, Denise showed up to play, gravitating not to the glory role, but the brutish ones. “I liked to block,” she recalled. “I liked that hard contact. That force hitting force. That unequivocal confrontation that said, ‘This is Me; that is Not Me.’” But she knew her football days were numbered. Girls did not play football. It wasn’t acceptable.

She was never unaware of the complexities of being a strong girl. Her first best friend was a boy named Sammy Barnhill. They rode scooters and bikes together, and signed secrets in blood. But then, he had a birthday, and invited only boys to the party. “I was so convinced there had been a mistake I cried my eyes out,” she recalled. “Well, they let me go along after all. But it wasn’t the same.” Later, she told an interviewer, “There were no boys in the family, and I awfully wanted to be one.” . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

29 October 2018 at 11:25 am

Posted in Daily life

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