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Denny Hulme's dislike of celebrity and preference for anonymity made him the most low key of champions. He hated fame, had no trace of vanity and found social functions an agony. His nickname 'The Bear' was a reference to both his rugged features and a gruff nature that would erupt when he was provoked. Yet he was also a sensitive man unable to express his feelings, except in a racing car, in which he was an accomplished if unspectacular driver. He eventually died behind the wheel, a quarter of a century after he became champion.
Denny Hulme's father Clive was a World War II hero who won the Victoria Cross for bravery as a sniper in a bloody battle on the island of Crete. On his return home, to Te Puke on New Zealand's North Island, Clive operated a small farm and a trucking business. Denny, born on June 18, 1936, learned to drive a truck while sitting on his father's lap and by the age of six was driving solo. As a youngster he preferred trout fishing, hunting or working on his father's trucks. At 17 he left school and became a mechanic and a driver, hauling cargo over long distances on New Zealand's winding roads. On these journeys he whiled away the hours with reveries of racing, imagining that he was Stirling Moss or another of the European stars he had seen racing in New Zealand's Tasman Series.
Denny's first competitions were in driving skill tests and local races, in an MGTF then an MGA bought for him by his father. In 1959 Clive and Denny purchased a F2 Cooper, which Denny prepared and raced - in his bare feet because he thought it gave him a better feel for the pedals. He did well enough to become joint winner, with George Lawton, of New Zealand's Driver To Europe scholarship that funded a season racing abroad for 1960. Denny and Lawton based themselves in London, where fellow Kiwi Bruce McLaren, then making a name for himself in Formula One racing, helped them get settled. Their European debut year ended in disaster in Denmark for Lawton, who crashed in a race at Roskilde and died in Denny's arms. Denny was devastated but stoically pressed on, towing his racing car around Europe in company with his New Zealand girlfriend Greeta, a nurse who would later become his wife and the mother of their two children. Money was always short and to finance his racing Denny got a job as a mechanic with Jack Brabham, who also gave him drives in his Brabham sportscars and single seaters. In 1963 Denny won seven Formula Junior races and the next year ably backed up his boss in a Brabham domination of the F2 series. Their Formula One partnership began in 1965 and when Brabham won the 1966 driving title his New Zealand team mate made it to the podium four times and finished fourth overall.
The 1967 Brabham-Repcos were not the fastest cars, but they were reliable and consistent, as were their drivers. The Down Under duo also shared a serious work ethic and a tendency not to waste words, as was noted by fellow Antipodean, Chris Amon. "Jack and Denny and didn't talk much at the best of times," said Amon (then driving for Ferrari). "But in 1967 what used to be extraordinarily limited conversation became almost non-existent!"
Denny silenced those critics who had dismissed him as little more than a journeyman driver with an excellent win in Monaco, though his first Formula One victory was marred by the appalling accident that claimed the life of Lorenzo Bandini, whose Ferrari was running second to Denny at the time. Denny's second win of the season, at Germany's mighty Nurburgring, proved his versatility on any type of track. He finished on the podium in six other races and by the end of the season had accumulated five more points than Brabham to become the 1967 World Champion. Any thoughts that he didn't deserve it were not shared by Jim Clark, who had four race wins to Denny's two. On the podium at the season finale in Mexico, where Clark won and Denny was third, the great Scot invited the embarrassed Kiwi to share the victor's laurel wreath.
Denny wore his crown uneasily and being the focus of attention made him cringe. Privately, he had a soft and sentimental side, but few saw it. He could be abrasive and clashed with Formula One journalists who retaliated by twice awarding him their 'Lemon Prize' for being the least co-operative and most uncommunicative driver. Yes, he agreed, he didn't say much, but when he did he said what he thought. Now, 'The Bear' growled, it was payback time for those fickle scribes who had ignored him before he was champion. Freeloaders, phonies and time-wasters who wanted a piece of the reluctant celebrity got similarly short shrift. All Denny wanted to do was go racing and go home, which in a way he did in 1968 by joining forces with his countryman Bruce McLaren.
The 'Bruce and Denny Show' that dominated the North American Can-Am sportscar series for several season in their McLarens was less successful in Formula One racing. Sadly, their partnership only lasted until 1970, when Bruce was killed while testing a Can-Am McLaren at Goodwood. Denny wept inconsolably at the loss of his friend and only continued racing because he felt he owed it to Bruce and the team. Besides his emotional distress Denny was in severe pain throughout most of 1970, having seriously burned his hands in the US while testing a McLaren for the Indianapolis 500. In all, he won six Grands Prix for McLaren but near the end of his Formula One career his competitive urges were blunted by a growing apprehension about the dangers of his sport. His fears were well founded and for Denny the final blow came in March of 1974 when he witnessed the gruesome death of his friend and former team mate Peter Revson in a testing accident at Kyalami in South Africa. Denny, now 38, finished the season then left Formula One racing for good, though he didn't stop driving competitively for another 18 years.
He enjoyed competing in historic events and was also successful in saloon and truck racing. A favourite event was Australia's Bathurst 1000km touring car race. During the 1992 edition of that race the Denny Hulme-driven BMW suddenly stopped beside the track. Marshals ran to the car and inside it found the 1967 World Champion dead from a heart attack.
Text - Gerald Donaldson