A Tribute to Denny Hulme – by Michael Clark
On one hand, Denny Hulme was no overnight star – but on the other hand he was! How could this be so? The answer lies in one of motor racing’s more unusual careers. Many top Formula 1 drivers of his era followed a familiar path – a season or two in Formula 3 followed by a season or two in Formula 2. With luck a ride in a mid-field Grand Prix team, at least, and then the big break.
Denny took a long time to get a regular Formula 1 ride – in fact he came oh so close to jacking it all in it 1962 and heading back to New Zealand. From the time he arrived in England in 1960, with Whangarei’s George Lawton as joint winners of the Driver to Europe, until securing the number 2 drive in the Brabham Formula 1 team for 1966, there had been six hard seasons of racing - and working as a mechanic by day to make ends meet.
There were several turning points in Denny’s career over those six years – his first Formula Junior win on the daunting Pescara circuit in Italy (even longer than the Nurburgring) in 1960 before scoring the first UK win for a new manufacturer on Boxing Day at Brands Hatch in 1962. Denny had been given a chance in the new Brabham BT2 in June 1962 and immediately pleased his boss by putting the new challenger on pole position. He challenged the Lotus supremacy in Formula Junior in 1963 and only missed the title by a whisker. That was enough to be entrusted with a works Brabham-Climax for the inaugural Tasman Cup at the start of 1964. He won first time out.
Denny was a force in Formula 2 throughout 1964 and ’65 but when Brabham produced a little 2-litre sportscar, he was damn near unbeatable. It was then a natural progression to the new Group 7 sportscars thatbecame to be known as Can-Am. It was a match made in motor racing heaven – Denny, the big strong brute of a man, and these muscular big horsepower monsters. Jack Brabham first gave him a run in a Formula 1 car in a non-championship race in Sweden before his biggest chance came at the biggest venue of all – Monaco. He neither starred nor disgraced himself. He did exactly what was required –qualify solidly and bring it home in one piece.
1966 was the great turning point – the culmination of all the years struggling, sleeping in his tow-car en route to another far flung European Formula Junior race, towing the Cooper on an open trailer and being driver/team manager and mechanic all rolled into one. He made his first F1 podium visit in France in round 3. He went another step up the ladder when he came second to his boss in the British Grand Prix and finished the year with two more podiums and fourth in the world championship. There were more Group 7 wins in Britain and the shared drive at Le Mans where he and his co-driver finished a just behind the identical Ford GT40 of McLaren and Amon.
If 1966 was the year that showed the world that Denny might just be good enough to win a Formula 1 Grand Prix, 1967 confirmed it – and then some. If you had to pick a place to score your maiden GP victory, it might as well be Monaco. Or perhaps the Nurburgring. He won both – in that order, plus enough other seconds and thirds to be crowned world champion. After taking forever to get into F1, once there he just aced it – no other driver of the rear engine era had taken less Grand Prixs to go from F1GP debut to World Champion. He moved to McLaren in 1968 and nearly won it again – the first time the all-Kiwi team had mounted a serious two-car challenge. Denny had already driven for Bruce in Can-Am in 1967 – Bruce won the title that year but Denny was champion in 1968. He again raced at Indianapolis after being crowned Rookie of the Year in 1967. He was again Can-Am champion in 1970 – the year his great mate Bruce was killed. It was also the year Denny’s hands were burnt so badly that he barely move them, yet – just like all those times in the early 60s when it all just seemed too hard, with so many obstacles – he just never gave up.
In fact he couldn’t give up – whether it was touring cars or trucks, he really couldn’t give up. He died in 1992 doing what he loved in Australia’s ‘Great Race’ – without so much as putting a mark on the car. Hollywood couldn’t have dreamed up Denny Hulme’s career – it just didn’t follow the normal pattern, but then that was Denis Clive Hulme – he was never ‘standard issue’.