Nicknamed ‘The Bear’, Denny Hulme was one the most low key champions in Formula One history, preferring anonymity to fame. He was also one the most accomplished drivers of Formula One, who tragically died behind the wheel, 25 years after being crowned champion. Born to a World War II hero, Denny Hulme’s father, Clive, introduced him to the world of driving early in life, and by the age of six Denny was driving his father’s truck solo. Preferring hunting, trout fishing or working on his father’s truck, Denny left school at the age of 17, to become a mechanic and a driver. He would haul cargo over large distances across New Zealand and would while away hours pretending to be Stirling Moss, or any one of the European stars he knew of from New Zealand’s Tasman Series.
The first few competitions Denny participated in were in an MGTF, which was later replaced by an MGA, that his father bought for him. Denny became joint winner with George Lawton for a New Zealand’s Driver to Europe scholarship in 1959. Clive and Denny had a purchased a F2 Cooper that year, which Denny drove bare feet, as it gave him a better feel of the pedals. The scholarship earned them a year of racing abroad in 1960, during which time Denny and Lawton settled in London, where they were helped by fellow Kiwi Bruce McLaren, who was just making a name for himself in Formula One circuits at that time. Their European debut year ended in tragedy when Lawton crashed in a race in Roskilde, Denmark and died in Denny’s arms. Denny though devastated, managed to press on and towed his racing car around Europe along with Greeta, his New Zealand girlfriend, who later became his wife and also mother to their two children.
Since money was always an issue, Denny eventually took up a job as a mechanic with Jack Brabham. Denny won seven Formula Junior races in 1963, and the next year saw him back up his boss with many wins at the F2 series. This started their Formula One partnership in 1965, and the following year saw Brabham win the 1966 driving title, while Denny finished on the podium four times, and was ranked fourth overall.
Though the 1967 Brabham-Repcos was not one of the fastest cars of its time, they were more reliable and consistent, qualities displayed by their drivers as well. Sharing a serious work ethic, the Down Under duo also shared the tendency of not wasting words. Chris Amon, who was driving for Ferrari at that time, noted “Jack and Denny didn’t talk much at the best of times. But in 1967 what used to be extraordinarily limited conversation became almost non-existent”.
Denny’s brilliant win in Monaco established him as much more than a journeyman driver, as he was labeled by critics. His first Formula One victory was not all celebrations as the death of Lorenzo Bandini, whose Ferrari was second to Denny at the time of the accident, marred the win. The following win at Nurburgring, in Germany, proved Denny’s versatility on any type of track. His successful sprint continued into the season, with Denny finished on the podium in six more races and by the end of the season became the 1967 World Champion, five points ahead of Brabham. Jim Clark, who had four race wins while Denny had two, further honored Denny when he invited the shy Kiwi to share the victor’s laurel wreath at the season finale in Mexico, where Clark came first and Denny third.
The period after the win was not an entirely pleasant experience for Denny, who being a shy and private person disliked all the attention. He clashed with several Formula One journalists and was awarded the Lemon Prize twice, for being the least cooperative and uncommunicative driver. Denny was unperturbed by these events and only wanted to race and then go back home. In 1968 Denny joined up with countryman Bruce Mclaren, and what was termed as the “Bruce and Denny Show”, their partnership met with immense success in the North American Can-Am sportscar series, a feat which was not imitated in Formula One racing. Their partnership only lasted till 1970, the year Bruce was killed while he was testing a Can-Am McLaren at Goodwood.
The death of his friend left a deep mark on Denny, who only returned to racing because he felt obligated to Bruce and the team. Having burnt his hands severely while testing a McLaren for the Indianapolis 500 in the US, Denny was also in immense physical pain throughout the year, this apart from the emotional distress. Nevertheless Denny went on to win six Grands Prix for McLaren, though by the end of his Formula One career, his driving began to show signs of apprehension regarding the lack of safety in the sport. In March 1974, in Kyalami, the gruesome death of friend and former teammate Peter Revson during a testing accident was the final straw for Denny, who at the age of 38. finished the season and left Formula One racing entirely.
He did not stop driving competitively for another 18 years and made quite an impact in truck and saloon racing. During the 1992 edition of Australia’s Bathurst 1000 km touring car race, Denny Hulme’s BMW suddenly rolled to a stop beside the track. When marshals arrived at the spot they found that the 1967 World Champion had already died after a heart attack.