Tomorrow marks the 16th Anniversary of the death of racing legend Denny Hulme. Hulme’s greatest success was winning the 1967 Formula One World Championship with the Brabham team. Hulme later went on to race for McLaren. He was CanAm champion in 1968 and 1970. Hulme suffered a massive heart attack at the wheel of a BMW M3 in the Bathurst 1000, making him the first Formula One World Champion to die of natural causes.
Born and raised on a tobacco farm belonging to his parents in Moteuka in the South Island of New Zealand. Hulme’s first car was an MG TF, which he promptly entered into hillclimbing events. After making impressive progress, he purchased a Cooper-Climax, subsequently being chosen for the New Zealand driver to Europe program. Once there, he worked as a mechanic in Jack Brabham’s garage in Chessington and began to pave his way on his motor-racing path.
After making an impact on the local scene, he came to Europe in 1960 with George Lawton on the ‘New Zealand Driver to Europe’ scheme, racing a Cooper in Formula 2 and Formula Junior around the Continent. Unfortunately poor Lawton was soon killed at Roskilde Ring but Hulme carried on before returning home to contest his local series early in 1961. He was soon back in Europe, appearing at Le Mans for the Abarth team, before the late great Ken Tyrrell invited the likeable (but sometimes gruff) New Zealander to race in his Formula 2 team. After some impressive performances there, it was his old boss Jack Brabham who gave Hulme the call, and he joined the Australian legend’s F2 team. The pair set about dominating the Championship that year, resulting in a one-two finish in the European Championship.
After making numerous appearances in non-championship events for Brabham, Denny finally got the call he had been waiting for, making his World Championship debut in 1965 at the famed Monza circuit in Italy. Later that year, he scored his first points, for fourth position at the daunting Clermont-Ferrand (Charade) circuit in France.
1966 was Hulme’s first full season of Formula One. Now, after the departure of Dan Gurney, he was the outright number two at Brabham behind Jack himself. Finishing a fine fourth that year, the highlights came. A third place at Reims in France, a second behind Brabham at Brands Hatch, and the fastest lap at Zandvoort, before ignition problems put paid to his race there.
The 1967 Championship was essentially an internal affair within the Brabham team for most of the year, but the new Lotus 49 gave Jim Clark and Graham Hill the opportunity to bite back. But two wins in the 11-race Championship, at Monte Carlo and the ferocious Nurburgring (the Green Hell), and a series of strong points finishes, gave Hulme the advantage. He won the Championship by five points from Brabham, and a further five from Jim Clark. Hulme was the first (and to date, only) Formula One World Champion from New Zealand.
Hulme’s first Can-Am championship came his way in 1968, taking victories at Elkhardt Lake, Edmonton and in Las Vegas and notching up 35 points. 1969 saw the McLaren team dominate the series; they won every race. In 1970, he took his second Can-Am title in difficult circumstances, as the team mourned the loss of Bruce McLaren who had died while testing a new Can-Am car (the M8D) at Goodwood. Hulme took the championship, with 132 points.
After leaving the sport, Hulme lead 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 in the early 1980s, driving for the concern of the well-travelled Scot Tom Walkinshaw, racing for his Austin Rover team in the European Touring Car Championship.
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 sharing a Benson & Hedges-sponsored BMW M3 with Paul Morris. After complaining of blurred vision Hulme suffered a massive heart attack at the wheel whilst travelling down the 200-mph Conrod Straight. After veering into the wall on the left side of the track, he managed to bring the car to a relatively controlled stop on the opposite side of the course. When marshals reached the scene they found Hulme still strapped in, dead, making him the first Formula One World Champion to die of natural causes.
He was always a shy man who never basked in glory, but instead was fair, subtle, and motivated by mechanics. He was a gentle giant who for many years showed just why his deft touch and excellent car control left him well deserved of his F1 crown in 1967.
Before 1960, he was know for his preference for driving barefoot and it was not until 1960 that people convinced him to start racing with shoes on. His nickname at the time was “The Barefoot Boy From Te Puke”