He may not have been in the same class as Clark or Surtees in F1, but in Can-Am, Denivy Hulme was the man. His muscular style, says Andrew Frankel, suited the magnificent Mclarens, but it was his strength of mind that most remember.
Driving the works Mclaren Can-Am cars must have been a surreal and special way to earn a living. First there were the obvious factors such as almost unlimited power in theory and, even in practice, getting on for double the grunt of contemporary grand prix machines. They nudged 1000bhp per tonne and genuinely shook the ground.
But while they may have seemed unsophisticated beasts on paper with their thunderous pushrod Detroit V8s in the back, in reality a McLaren M8 was state of the art, with a mono-coque tub and stressed engine under those wild orange flanks.
Some impression of the animal speed of these cars is provided by comparative lap times at Goodwood. When the circuit shut in 1966, the outright lap record was 1 min 20.4sec, held by Jim Clark’s GP Lotus. Four years later, and with the circuit in a worse condition, the M8Ds of Bruce McLaren and Denny Hulme routinely lapped below 1 min 05 sec.
They called it the ‘Bruce and Denny Show’ because, if Can-Am was your thing, no-one else counted at the time. Bruce won McLaren’s first title in 1967; Denny claimed the spoils in ’68. In 1969, they achieved what no-one has yet managed in F1 and whitewashed the field: 11 rounds in the championship, six to Bruce, the remainder to Denny.
But it all went wrong in 1970. In May, Denny got burned at Indianapolis and his hands were so bad some wondered if rather than when he’d drive again. And while he was still out of action, Bruce went to Goodwood to shake down the M8D 12 days before the season’s first race. At 170mph, the rear bodywork detached and pitched the car into an unsurviveable crash.
Given this, it is some tribute to the guts of the whole McLaren organisation, the speed of the M8D and the courage of Denny Hulme, that he still managed to win more Can-Am races that year than every other driver combined.
Denis Clive Hulme came into the world on June 18, 1936, in Nelson, New Zealand, and left it 56 years later in Bathurst, Australia. Had a heart attack not claimed him during the 1992 Bathurst 1000, he’d be just 65 years old today.
His Formula One career was more successful than stellar, providing eight wins, one pole position and nine fastest laps in 112 starts over a total of 10 seasons. But he not only claimed the 1967 world championship, but did so when Jim Clark was at the height of his powers, with Jack Brabham as his team-mate, and against opposition that included Graham Hill, John Surtees, Jackie Stewart and Dan Gurney.
But it was in Can-Am that Denny found his vocation. The facts are these: in six seasons he won 22 races more than any other driver; he set 26 lap records eclipsing all opponents; he claimed pole position 22 times and no-one else matched that either. By the time McLaren pulled the plug on its Can-Am activities, he had amassed more points than any other in the history of the series twice as many in fact.
“Denny could really turn it on when he wanted to,” says Tyler Alexander, an American engineer who joined the fledgling McLaren race team in 1964 and has been a vital component ever since. “He was really bloody good very determined. He loved those Can-Am’s, all that power in a car that was the class of the field. He was also a lovely guy, incredibly loyal to the team and a real team player.
” The Robin Herd-designed, monocoque-chassis M6 of 1967 showed the world that McLaren could build a championship-winning car. “What no-one knew,” says Herd today, “is we actually had ground effect under the car and, without it, we would have been nowhere.” If there is an earlier claim to the use of ground effect, I haven’t heard it. With it they won four from six races and the championship. It served as something of a spur to the team. “From now on,” said Bruce at the time, “we’re going to try much harder!” And hard work, says Alexander, was the real secret of the team’s success.
Clearly this is true. The M8 was a terrific design, but it was the time that McLaren took to refine and perfect it that best explains the results. They simply tried harder, were more dedicated and professional than any other outfit until, says Alexander somewhat ruefully, “Porsche came along with all that money.”
But until Porsche ‘spoiled’ the fun in 1972, McLaren had it to themselves, and even on those rare occasions that the orange machines did not head the field home, often as not one of their customers would fill the void.
Key to this was the fact that, for all their power, the cars were also remarkably easy to drive. Dan Gurney and Peter Gethin are the two who know best, having been drafted into the team after Bruce died to drive the mighty M8D. Both would win, too.
Today, Gurney remembers the team, the car and being Denny’s teammate with almost limitless affection.
“Gee, those cars were doggone powerful,” he reflects, spontaneously laughing at the recollection of the 700bhp M8D he inherited. The team needed the right result that day at Mosport, the first Can-Am race since their founder’s death, more than any other and, with Denny racing but scarcely recovered from his Indy episode, it fell to Gurney to deliver the goods.
Tyler remembers Gurney fiddling with the set-up through qualifying, trundling around uncompetitively, coming in and fiddling some more. “Eventually I said to him, Dan, we’ve got just 10 minutes left’, to which he said, ‘Oh, okay’, got back in the car and put it on pole.” He won the race too, with Denny and his raw hands a scarcely credible third.
“The thing is,” says Gurney, “if you got those cars right you could do anything with them, drive them right up to the limit and they’d stay with you all the way. Denny just loved that in the car and, no question, he got the most out of it. In the car I’d say he was better even than Bruce.”
This is a judgement that Herd, in particular, backs up: “Denny was the number one driver and Bruce was very happy with that. Even after I left the team, Bruce would talk to me about retiring, and I have no doubt at all that at the time of his death he already regarded his racing days as all but over.”
Gethin’s insight into the magical synergy that existed between Hulme and the Can-Am McLarens is different, but no less compelling. Gethin came to the team after spells in both Formula One and F5000 – and he found the machinery to be tough taskmasters.
“They were such physical cars to drive compared to F1 cars. They were totally different animals and not just because you were dealing with another league of power. They were heavy too, and needed real strength to control.”
Gethin’s first race was at Edmonton in July 1970, Gurney being forced out by contractual difficulties. The works McLarens duly took up their spaces on the front row, Denny on pole, and away they blasted to complete 200 miles.
“I was reasonably near Denny in qualifying and, for the first 100 miles, I was able to hang on to him. But in the second half, I found hauling this thing around at such a relentless pace utterly knackering. In the second half, I really struggled while Denny ran away and won.” Gethin is too modest to mention that before that weekend, he’d not done a single lap at racing speed in a Can-Am car. And yet he still came second.
The point is, Can-Am McLarens gave Denny all the excuses he needed to show he was the best It was the best car out there, which provided its own special motivation, but it also needed someone with great physical strength and unyielding determination to master. Not for nothing did they call him The Bear’.
But perhaps his greatest contribution had little to do with such qualities. As Gurney recalls: “When I got to McLaren, no-one was thinking about how life was going to be after Bruce. The question was if there was going to be a life for the team after Bruce. His spirit was everywhere and the various personnel really didn’t know if they could go on. So to an extent they were looking to Denny and he helped show the way.”
Like Graham Hill at Lotus after the death of Jim Clark, so Denny kept alive the will to win after the loss of Bruce, and never with greater conviction than when behind the wheel of an M8. It was a bravura performance from a man who felt the loss more keenly than most.
Alexander is an encyclopaedia of Bruce and Denny stories, of them fooling around, plotting a worldbeating team, giggling in the corner of the pit garage. Clearly Hulme’s relationship with Bruce extended far beyond that of employee and team-mate.
So by all means look at Denis Clive Hulme as a extremely competent rather than great grand prix driver, but he deserves to be considered the finest Can-Am racer of all, better even than Peter Revson or Mark Donohue.
As far as the team he raced for is concerned, Ill leave that judgement to Robin Herd, who was there, and who should know: ‘They were the finest group of individuals lever had the honour to work with — and by a substantial distance, too.”
Denny and McLaren deserved each other.