The great Denise McCluggage passed away on May 6, 2015. A version of this article was originally posted January 20, 2015, on the occasion of her 88th birthday - The Eds.
Let me tell you a story.
It’s the Streets of Willow Raceway, June of 2007. I’m here to drive a Mercedes CLK63 AMG Black Series. This is the first time I’m on a racetrack with other journalists. I expect to be the slowest of the bunch and I expect the AMG to be terrible. I am wrong on both counts. The Black Series is incredible—the first heavy modern car I’ve ever experienced go perfectly neutral at its limit. It refuses to understeer. It refuses to not be incredible. It refuses to refuse to do whatever you ask of it. I am in immediate love with the car, I’m pushing as hard as I can, and I’m passing everybody.
Almost everybody. There is one car out there driving at my pace, and I do everything I can to catch it.
When I finally catch the other silver Black Series—thanks to traffic—we spend a lap or so waiting for a passing zone. Finally it’s our chance.
We nail our throttles. When the first corner arrives, I’m a mess. Ditto the second, third, and every corner thereafter. I’m sideways absolutely everywhere. Braking sideways, turning sideways, getting on the gas way too early and sideways then, too. My car must’ve looked like an In Living Color Fly Girl humping around a ballerina. I watch the car in front of me as its sidewalls breathe upon every apex, the CLK in a perfect four-wheeled saunter across the asphalt. There isn’t a twitch of the rear end; there isn’t a bob of the front end. It is fluid magic and I am transfixed.
I’m elated I’m able to keep up—not for any ego reason, but because it’s an opportunity to learn so much. Why am I so sideways when that car—an identical car—is so composed? What am I doing wrong to upset my car so, when that car is so clean? I would gladly spend a month behind that car, but when we pull onto the straight for the second time, I’m given a pass-by. No, no, no! I have so much to learn from you, silver Black Series. I back off. The AMG pulls right and slows way down. I have no choice but to drive by.
Knowing that my car is now the biggest thing in that car’s windshield, I clean up my act. I drift—barely—through the kink and into the braking zone for the hard, right, first corner. And when I track all the way out with just the smallest hint of opposite lock, I look up and see a rearview mirror full of DTM-anger CLK63 hotness. No matter what I do on the rest of that lap, I cannot lose that AMG.
I look up in the mirror after blasting once again onto the front straight and notice that my teacher is gone. The car pitted. I’m devastated—I want so badly to know who was at the wheel. My next lap—ostensibly a cool-down lap—might be the fastest of all. I nail every apex. I curtail every slide, just. And when I arrive into the pits, brakes practically on fire, I spot the other Black Series. Standing right at the door, laughing with a friend, is my hero.
She was tiny. She was 80 years old. She was Denise McCluggage.
A quick nod, a quick wink of one of her sparkling hazel-green eyes, and she’s back to her conversation.
It would be another year or so before our paths crossed again, by which time I had taken the time to read Denise’s book, By Brooks Too Broad For Leaping. I suggest you do the same.
If she’s not already, Denise McCluggage should be your hero. And I’m certain I still couldn’t keep up with her. Not in speed, not in writing, and certainly not in her grace.