Denny Hulme (1936 - 1992)

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Denny Hulme (1936 - 1992)
Denny Hulme

David, George or Denis Hulme?

Denny Hulme was almost a has-been before he ever started seriously in Formula One racing. He began with an MG TF at club races in New Zealand driving in shorts and bare feet. When he arrived in England in 1960 as one of two "Drivers to Europe" that season, he was still racing his Formula Two Cooper in bare feet because he maintained he had a better feel of the accelerator.

With shoes and a veneer of civilisation, he raced Formula Two and Formula Junior Coopers throughout Europe that summer. Autosport mentioned him first as David Hulme, then as George Hulme when he won the Grand Prix de Pescara in his FJ car in August 1960. In September his New Zealand team-mate George Lawton was killed in a crash on the Danish Roskilde track, and later that month Denis drove in his first Formula One race at Snetterton in a Yeoman Credit Cooper-Climax, a drive first arranged for Lawton.

In 1961 and 1962 Hulme campaigned his own FJ Cooper but he had missed the main chance that the "Driver to Euope" scholarship had given its first recipient, Bruce McLaren, by then established as a Cooper Grand Prix driver. Ken Tyrrell didn't rate Hulme highly as a driver. By 1963 he had sold his Cooper and was working in the nuts-and-bolts end of Jack Brabham's customer garage, racing other people's cars as a journeyman driver when asked at weekends.

Joining The Brabham Team

Tasmanian Gavin Youl was the heir apparent to a Brabham works drive in those fledgling days of the Brabham empire, and when Youl broke his collarbone, Hulme stepped in to take his place at Crystal Palace, and later in the year on Boxing Day at Brands Hatch. Phil Kerr, then Brabham's manager, was a champion of the Hulme cause and it was through his insistence that Brabham gave Hulme a chance.

Denny raced a works FJ Brabham during 1963, was upgraded to partner Jack in the works F2 Brabham-Hondas in 1964, and in the same season he was given a Formula One drive at Karlskoga. He drove the transporter up to Sweden as well. When Brabham decided to try his hand at retirement in 1965, Hulme took his place in the team, but for 1966, Jack was back and Hulme was his regular number two. That was Jack's year to take the world title. In 1967 it was Denny's championship and he won the Monaco and German GPs on the two toughest tracks of the season.

The Bruce & Denny Show

Although presumably satisfied that one of his cars had won the world title, Jack would have preferred to do the winning personally. Hulme felt Brabham might have tripped himself by experimenting during the season with new parts for his engine. There was tension in the Brabham team and tension is something Hulme was never really equipped to cope with. When he was offered a Can Am McLaren at the end of the 1967 season he thoroughly enjoyed the new atmosphere as the "Bruce & Denny Show" began its domination of the Can Am series. McLaren won that year and Denis won in 1968 and 1970. In 1968 Hulme had switched to the McLaren team for Formula One as well and looked like retaining his World Championship until the last round in Mexico City when a suspension breakage put him into the wall and out of the championship chase.

One of Hulme's best racing seasons was that summer of 1968 driving the M8 winged McLaren-Chevrolet. Denny said the following in an interview in the mid 1970s ... "We were so far ahead of the opposition in those days that we went water skiing one afternoon when we should have been practising." He won three of the six races and the championship. That M8A McLaren was Hulme's ideal as a motorcar and he would have liked to buy one of the ex-works cars to restore it. "People can't understand why I don't have a Boxer Ferrari or a Lamborghini or something like that. It's just that I've driven what I consider to be one of the best cars ever made, and I'm probably one of only a dozen guys who has ever done it. Nothing else measures up. It's like going to the moon. There are only a few guys ever gone up there, and I'll bet they're pleased too ..."

1967 World Champion

Hulme was very much the reluctant champion when he won the title in 1967, but he looked back on it with no regrets at his lack of grace. "It put me on the map, right? I won the World Championship, but I don't think 1967 was my happiest year. Sure, it was exhilarating building- up to it and the chances that you'd win the title, but you were also on tenterhooks wondering if you'd do it and you only needed a couple of things to go wrong and it wouldn't have happened. We scraped through and had enough points to win, but I felt a lot happier the following year with Bruce McLaren.

"It was more enjoyable being CanAm champion those two years than it was being World Champion in 1967. I knew when I won the World Championship that I'd have to do this and do that, make speeches and give interviews, something I still dread to this day. I'm not so bad when I actually get there, but it's the thought of having to do it, preparing myself to go to these places. As far as I'm concerned Fd rather stay at home but I know you're obliged to go out and do these things. When I won the CanAm series there was only the prize-giving at the end of the series and that was it. We'd won the series, had a good time, a lot of fun, met a lot of people, but there was no big deal afterwards, which suited me just fine."

Denny Hulme

Denny Hulme
A sad day for racing at the 1992 Bathurst 1000.

The Loss of Bruce McLaren

Bruce McLaren's death early in June 1970 caught Hulme at a very low ebb. He was also still recovering from severe burns to his hands when the M15 McLaren caught fire during practice at Indianapolis, and it was then that Denny started seriously to consider his future. Until then, accidents had been things that happened to other people. His 10 days in hospital at Indianapolis gave him time to dwell on the shortening odds. There was always the chance element, the chance that it wouldn't happen again. But it did. In the opening laps of the Road Atlanta CanAm race in 1972, Hulme was tucked into the slipstream of Follmer's Turbo-Porsche, shaping up to pass, when his McLaren flipped over backwards and skated to a halt upside down.

A flash flame was immediately extinguished, and the heavy car was manhandled back on to its wheels. But it was more food for thought. He could so easily have been killed in a crash he knew nothing about, a crash he had escaped from with only a bump on the head. "I realised how you could be wiped off the face of the earth without really knowing it. I was following Follmer and I don't remember anything to this day except coming to in hospital ... it was an indication that you could be snuffed out painlessly without even knowing you'd been killed."

Hulme said that experience with the vagaries of aerodynamics snatching control from a driver had an effect on his racing from then on. "It stopped me from racing right close to people; trying to dice with them. If I couldn't get past them cleanly I wouldn't bother to get too close to them. I think that had an effect on me in Formula One as well. I do not like running close to anyone in Formula One cars ... not right up their exhaust pipes.

"Ever since that Atlanta flip I've worried that something is going to lift and the car will skate out. Ronnie said in Austria (in 1974) that he tucked in behind me on the first lap and his car just washed completely out across the road and nearly hit the guardrail ... I KNOW that's what it's going to do - I don't need anyone to tell me that's what's likely to happen ... so I don't run within cooee of anyone for that reason. Maybe I don't race as well as I used to, but I know how easy it is to get yourself sucked in and flung off the road. It's just one of those things. The older you get the more you begin to realise it's more difficult than it looks. All right, it might never happen again, but I'm just not prepared to take that risk, tucking right in behind and hoping to dive out at the end of the straight and go by. I'd probably dive out but I know I'd only be faking because I'm nowhere near enough to go past them under braking unless they make a mistake ..."


After leaving the sport, Hulme led the GPDA (Grand Prix Drivers' Association) for a brief period, but the cut and thrust nature of the post was ill-suited to his gentlemanly nature and he did not fill the post for very long. He then retired to New Zealand, returning to touring cars to race occasionally in the Benson & Hedges 500 race at Pukekohe Park Raceway in the late 1970s first in Chrysler Chargers then later a Volkswagen Golf, partnering Stirling Moss on occasion for the 500 kilometre endurance format. Hulme began racing regularly again in 1982 with amateur racer Ray Smith, building up a team with the Holden Commodore V8 capable of winning the New Zealand Production Car Series for Group A toruing cars in 1983/1984. Hulme also started racing here in Australia, racing in the team of former European compatriot Frank Gardner's JPS Team BMW, which included second in class at the 1984 Bathurst 1000.

Hulme returned to Europe in 1986 racing in the European Touring Car Championship in a Tom Walkinshaw Racing prepared Rover Vitesse. That campaign culminated in a victory in the RAC Tourist Trophy, Hulme's fourth win in the event, 18 years after his third win. After that Hulme raced briefly for Bob Jane's Mercedes-Benz team before linking up with Larry Perkins in 1987, moving with Perkins in 1988 to the newly formed Holden Racing Team. Hulme would later join Benson & Hedges Racing, another team run by Frank Gardner in 1990. In the meantime Hulme was one of the founding drivers driver a truck racing craze in New Zealand in the early 1990s running Scania trucks, returning to Europe to race in European Truck Championship.

Death At The Mount

A favourite event of Hulme's was the Bathurst 1000, held at the famous Mount Panorama track in Australia. In the 1992 event he was driving a semi-works supported BMW M3 for the Benson & Hedges Racing when after complaining over the car to pits radio of blurred vision (originally thought to be because of the heavy rain) Hulme suffered a massive heart attack at the wheel whilst driving along the high-speed Conrod Straight. After veering into the wall on the left side of the track at about 140 mph (230 km/h), he managed to bring the car to a relatively controlled stop sliding against the safety railing and concrete wall on the right side of the track.

When marshals reached the scene they found Hulme still strapped in. He was taken from the car straight to Bathurst Hospital where he was officially pronounced dead. Hulme's death from a heart attack saw him become the first F1 World Champion to die of natural causes.
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