Denny Hulme

Denis (Denny) Hulme is New Zealand’s only Formula One World Champion.

If he had come from anywhere in the world, apart from New Zealand, his name would have been known in every household. New Zealand sporting heroes tend to be those who play a form of rugby. Denny was the archetypal New Zealander, a virtual Sir Edmund Hillary on wheels, enigmatic, often taciturn and tough, he eschewed the glamour, the fame and the glory that goes with the Formula One World Championship crown. It seemed to make the man from Te Puke even more reluctant to stand in the spotlight of glory.

The son of Clive Hulme VC (Victoria Cross), Denis Hulme got into international motor racing the hard way. His racing career began in the late 1950s. Driving trucks for his father’s carrying company, he was careful enough with money to be able to buy a new MG TF sports car at a time when any new car in New Zealand was a luxury and a sports car was a rarity. He was a big, raw-boned man, going bald at an early age and he made a mark in the sport not just because he drove fast and well, but because he drove in bare feet. He reckoned that it gave him a better feel of the throttle. Today, that would not be countenanced, but in the late 1950s rules were a lot more relaxed.

His next move was a major one. He bought a Formula 2 Cooper Climax. By international standards it was an old car, but in the Antipodes, the home of cast-off international racing cars, it was still competitive. His arch-rival that season was a headstrong young carpenter from Whangarei, George Lawton, driving a similar car.

At the end of the season, the pair had made such an impression on motor racing administrators in New Zealand, that they decided to send them both overseas on the “New Zealand Driver to Europe” scheme which had sent Bruce McLaren to Britain two years earlier. Of the two, Lawton was probably the naturally faster driver. Hulme was more methodical and calculating in his approach. Lawton’s courage resulted in a fatal crash at a race in Denmark. It was not the last tragedy that would touch Denis Hulme in his career.

Hulme leased a bigger and more powerful Cooper Climax for his return home at the end of that year and won the Dunedin Festival Road Race. He had now decided that he was going to become a professional racing driver and returned to the UK where he bought a Brabham, a cheap tow car and spent the next two years being a motor racing gypsy. Living off the proverbial smell of an oily rag, sleeping in the car and living off prize and appearance money he did a tough, hard apprenticeship.

Brabham was a brand new name to motor racing. It was a company founded by 1959 and 1960 World F1 Champion Jack Brabham and it was Denis Hulme who gave the new marque its first win with victory in a Formula Junior race at Brands Hatch in 1961. He was so close to the Brabham team that he could not possibly have been ignored by the company boss. There were similarities in attitude and approach between the two men and Brabham offered the New Zealander a position driving the works Honda-powered Formula 2 cars in 1964 and 1965. Between them, they won every major Formula Two race with team orders always prescribing that the boss would win. But Formula Two was still a long step away from Formula One.

Hulme’s chance came in 1966 after Formula One changed from 1.5 litres to 3.0 litres. Brabham was ready for the change with a simple car and the Australian produced Repco V8 engine. It was a winning formula that saw Brabham win his third crown. By 1967, the opposition were catching up with the new technology but through consistency and reliability the two Brabhams were still highly competitive. Hulme won the title that year, defeating his boss which created some tensions and at the end of his championship year Hulme moved outfits, joining fellow New Zealander, Bruce McLaren’s fledgling team.

Being a competitive racing driver and wanting to win the most glittering prize in motor racing is one thing, but living up to the public expectations is another. In some ways, winning the crown saw Denis Hulme revert back to being the barefoot racing truck driver of a decade earlier. He wasn’t comfortable with the fame and he was awkward in the spotlight.

Denis Hulme and Bruce McLaren were no strangers to each other. Apart from coming from the same country, Hulme also partnered McLaren in the McLaren sports car team that dominated the North American CanAm series to the point where the series became known as The Bruce and Denny Show. It was during the CanAm seasons that Denis Hulme became known to the American media as “The Bear” for his often gruff attitude. But this was a name that was applied more out of affection than anything. Hulme’s record as a racing driver was relentless and professional. In 1968, a tourism survey in North America showed that New Zealand was better known for the exploits of Denis Hulme, Bruce McLaren and fellow racing driver Chris Amon than for anything else. And that included our lakes, mountains, rivers and the All Black rugby team. Success continued to come the way of Denis Hulme with wins in Formula One, CanAm and other categories of racing, but another World Championship eluded him.

Perhaps Hulme’s greatest challenge as a human being in his motor racing career came in June 1970 when team owner and his friend Bruce McLaren, was killed in a crash at Goodwood in England. The McLaren team was embarking on a period of growth. Apart from Formula One and the CanAm sports car races there was a challenge for the Indy 500 and the possibility of a road car as well.

Denis Hulme had badly burned his hands in training for the Indy 500. The cars use methanol fuel that burns with no visible flame. Hulme’s car caught fire and he burnt his hands so badly that the tips of his fingers were through to the bone. Despite being in agony, Hulme knew that his team needed him after the death of his mate and team leader, and his performances in all categories of racing over the next weeks were critical to the survival of the team as a competitive entity. He continued to be a tough, wily, fast competitor but he decided to retire from active racing after yet another tragedy. In practice for the 1973 South African Grand Prix, his friend Peter Revson crashed and Hulme was one of the first on the scene. Later, he would tell how his mind erased much of the rest of that day and he only became aware of the surrounding world back in his hotel room when he was having a shower and he watched blood being washed off him. “I knew that it was Peter’s blood and I made up my mind then, to retire at the end of that season.”

He returned to New Zealand, bringing with him one of the M23 McLarens he had driven in Formula One. But retirement was never going to be easy for him. He took up a hobby of collecting stationary engines for water pumps, sawmills and the like, but the racing bug still ached and he was soon back behind the wheel in a variety of vehicles ranging from Group A high performance saloons to monster trucks. He was as fast and as competitive as ever.

More tragedy blighted his life when his son Martyn drowned in a boating accident. Unknown to all but his closest of friends, he developed heart problems and the end came at Bathurst on October 4th 1992. Driving a BMW as hard and as fast as he knew how, he suffered a massive heart attack as he came across the mountain and entered Con Rod straight. Even as he was dying, the years and years of race craft took over. Somehow, he guided the car off the track, hit the guard rail a glancing blow and the car trickled to a halt.

Denis Clive Hulme died at the age of 56 in the way he probably would have wanted to go — alone in a racing car and managing to save it from being badly damaged. The records show that Denis Hulme was a winner in everything he tried. The records show that 1967 was a busy year for him. On May 1 that year he won the Monaco Grand Prix, within days he was competing at the Indy 500 finishing fourth and being named Rookie of the Year. In June he was competing in a Ford at Le Mans where he set the fastest lap. And there was the F1 world crown that year.

In all, he won eight Formula One races from 1967 to 1973 and 22 CanAm races, taking the CanAm title in 1968 and 1970.

A true New Zealand hero.

Allan Dick, Editor, Driver Magazine, October 2005.

Denis Hulme

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