The bear facts

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Gruff and insular, Denny Hulme was always a reluctant star who gave away little about himself. Adam Cooper talks to the two women who knew him best in search of a clearer picture

Between this year’s Australian and Malaysian grands prix, Mrs C and I used up a free week with our first visit to New Zealand. On our travels around the wonderful countryside we came across the town of Te Puke. It was a name which I recognised instantly, for it has appeared in every potted CV or profile of its most famous former resident, Denny Hulme. But would anyone here still remember the 1967 Formula One world champion?

The first place we tried was an antique shop, where a small photo of a McLaren Can-Am car provided a good starting point. Clearly he had not been forgotten, so I asked the lady behind the counter if there was any memorial to Hulme in town. Only his gravestone, she answered. But would I like to meet Denny’s sister, who worked just up the street?

A couple of minutes later we were sitting in a nearby estate agent’s office chatting to Anita Hulme. And through her we met Denny’s widow, Greeta, who lives an hour or so away. These two lively ladies were delighted to talk about the man they lost to a heart attack in October 1992, and who has never received the recognition that he deserves, especially back in his home country.

The first thing to get right is the pronunciation of his surname. “My father was a very dominant man,” says Anita, who was born three years after Denny. “He always used to say, ‘Don’t knock the ‘l’ out of Hulme!”

Denny’s life was coloured by the fact that his father was an extraordinary character. Clive Hulme was a genuine WWII hero, one of a select group of New Zealanders awarded the Victoria Cross. He won it for his exploits as a sniper in Crete; he’d honed his stealthy approach by catching missing cows back home. He also had unusual powers that, among other things, enabled him to divine water for local farmers.

“I don’t know whether it was inherited or self-taught, but someone told him that blond-haired people with blue eyes were very good at it,” says Anita. “He could also lay a map out and dangle a crystal over oilfields.

“But dad was a very hard man, very hard. The only time I ever remember him giving me a cuddle was when I had my wisdom teeth out and he had to carry me inside! But other than that, he was so hard to live with, he really was. You could never do anything right. He was hard on both of us, and my mum.”

After the war Clive started a trucking business, carting pigs, cows, sheep and even fertiliser around the local area. Later he bought a better truck and began carrying sand. When he fell sick, the teenage Denny had to leave school to take over the driving duties:There’s no doubt as to where he developed his muscular physique: “He had to load the sand on and off by hand,” explains Anita. “And, if the sea had been in, it was heavy, wet sand.”

“He’d drive the truck barefoot to the concrete works,” adds Greeta. “If it was overloaded he’d take the long way to avoid the traffic cops. I think that’s where he honed his skills, because it was just a windy dirt road.”

Denny earned very little but, in 1955, by way of compensation, Clive helped him to buy an MG TF. The younger Hulme hitch-hiked all the way to Auckland to pick it up from the boat, and the sportscar became his pride and joy, until he replaced it with a sleeker MGA. From there, his motorsport career had its humble beginnings when he and Anita joined in with the driving tests at the local car club: “They’d put a grapefruit by a post,” she says, “and you’d drive up to it, spear it, reverse back, and drop it into a box!”

Denny and Greeta had been at school together, and her younger sisters had been friends of Anita, but they didn’t really know each other until she returned from infant nursing training to become a registered nurse and they both attended a dance. Afterwards Denny offered Greeta a ride in his MG. She was not at all impressed by the draught and the rattles that came from all corners of the vehicle, but before long they were an item.

Denny’s racing career developed rapidly, from hillclimbs with the MG to the in-at-the-deep-end purchase of a Cooper single-seater, which his father helped to finance. “Dad was right behind him,” says Anita. “Denny was very proud of dad, and dad was very proud of him, but there was no communication between them.”

Denny made an immediate impact when he raced the car at Ardmore, having tested it extensively on local roads: “One of the farmers said he’d put a bloody axe through the car because his cows weren’t milking properly!”

Hulme did so well in his initial outings that he was selected for the 1960 ‘Driver to Europe’ sponsorship scheme, along with George Lawton, who was the son of a local mayor.

Denny had barely travelled within his own country, so the trip to England was a major expedition. It was made a little easier by the fact that his sister had been working in Europe for a year, and was able to help out: “I met them off the train in London with Bruce McLaren, who gave them a Morris Minor to use. We had to go to a lunch somewhere, and I was saying to Denny, ‘Left here, right there’, and he said, ‘I’m not driving in this bloody traffic!’ and made me take over.”

Hulme didn’t know Lawton well, but the pair lived together and were just getting acquainted when George was killed over at Roskilde in Denmark, as Anita recalls: “Denny stopped his car and got out, and George died in his arms. It was a major shock.”

“He still wanted to continue,” continues Greeta, who’d stayed home. “I felt that I had no right to say, ‘Don’t you do it, because I’m frightened.’ It was still something that he had to do. My role was to patch him up and send him back until he’d had enough.”

Hulme finished the season and then returned to contest the New Zealand GP, and took the opportunity to get engaged to Greeta.

“We decided that we still felt the same about each other,” she says. “What’s that saying — absence makes the heart grow fonder? But he decided to continue racing.”

The scholarship funding ended with the GP, and Denny was now on his own. He sold his car, returned to Britain and helped build a new Cooper. Later Greeta embarked on an epic three-day flight to join him, and at first she lived in the bedsit in Kingston previously occupied by Pat McLaren, who’d just married Bruce. She soon found work as a staff nurse, arranging the schedules so that she had weekends off.

Having recently learned to drive Greeta shared tow-car duties as she and Denny toured the Continent. “It was us two versus the world,” she smiles. She still owns their original Ford Zodiac.

Hulme made good progress on the tracks and subsequently found rides with Ken Tyrrell and later Jack Brabham, for whom he also worked as a mechanic. He was the pacesetter in Formula Junior in 1963, and then shone in Formula Two the following year.

“What came through in the end was that you had to be in the right place at the right time to get the breaks,” says Greeta.

Hulme made his Formula One championship debut for Brabham at Monaco in 1965, and finished fourth second time out at Clermont-Ferrand. Inevitably, it wasn’t always easy being in a team owned by the other driver, as Greeta admits: “Denis was always careful that he didn’t tread on Jack’s toes, played it quietly, and did what was expected of him. It was all unspoken.”

He had a great season in 1966, starring in F2 with the Brabham-Honda, finishing second for Ford in the formation finish at Le Mans, and taking four grand prix podiums as he supported Jack’s successful title campaign. But ’67 was to be his year, as he won in Monaco and at the ‘Ring to set up his own title triumph in the last round in Mexico City.

“Denis knew all he had to do was follow Jack around, and he’d have enough points to beat him,” says Greeta. “There was nothing Jack could do. He couldn’t reverse into him and shunt him off!” Brabham finished second and Hulme third, and Denny was world champion by 51 points to 46.

For the following season he joined his old pal McLaren, with whom he enjoyed a much closer relationship than he ever had with Brabham. The DFV-powered M7A was a great car and Denny very nearly won the world title for a second time in 1968, late-season victories in Italy and Canada putting him in contention in Mexico once again. On this occasion he didn’t make it, but the Can-Am title provided compensation.

Hulme loved that sportscar series, and it was in the States that he picked up his nickname ‘The Bear’. Never one to seek the limelight, he did not have much time for the media, though occasionally he would be difficult purely for his own amusement.

“They would ask him the most stupid questions, just before a race,” remembers Greeta. “I’d learned to leave him be. He did not tolerate fools. But over the years he did mellow a bit.”

“He was a very private person,” agrees Anita. “Everybody walked on eggshells around him, including me! But it’s a family trait, it comes down through the generations. He was happiest when there was no fuss.”

Denny wasn’t in contention for the world championship in 1969, but he did score his fifth GP win in the Mexican finale.

In May 1970 he burned his hands and feet in a methanol fire during testing at Indianapolis, returning to the UK after three weeks on his own in hospital. “It was like having another child, because I had to dress and feed him,” says Greeta.

Then, on June 2, came the shock of McLaren’s death in a testing crash at Goodwood, on a day when Denny should have been driving the car. The Hulmes heard the news when they returned home to Surbiton from a trip to a Harley Street doctor.

“He was crying. Inconsolable,” Greeta recalls. “It was the end of the world. His family had never shown any emotion whatsoever, so it was weird.” She adds that had they not been committed to the building of an expensive new house, Denny might have given up and returned straight to New Zealand. But he had other reasons for staying, too. “He realised that Bruce wouldn’t have wanted all his efforts to have been sold off or gone in a Dutch auction. They all looked to Denis.”

Now Hulme had to find the strength with which to give the team a direction. He returned to the cockpit far earlier than he should have, and was in terrible pain. But Greeta kept replacing the bandages, and his heroics helped to keep Team McLaren afloat — and won him a second Can-Am title.

Into the early 1970s Hulme, although usually still a front runner, faded as a force in grand prix racing. He had two young children, Martin and Adele, and later freely admitted that he began to take fewer risks, driving well within his limits. The string of fatal accidents had affected him. There were still occasional grand prix wins when everything fell in his favour — Kyalami in 1972, Anderstorp ’73 and Buenos Aires ’74 — but he was more aware than ever before of the dangers.

The final straw was the death of friend and former team-mate Peter Revson in testing at Kyalami in early ’74. He saw the immediate aftermath of the accident, and his own overalls were bloodied. He knew it was time to stop.

“He thought that enough was enough,” says Greeta. “He asked, ‘What am I trying to prove?’ But he never said anything; he kept it quiet until the last race and, when the car broke down, he said that was it.”

Denny was only 38 when he contested his final grand prix at Watkins Glen in 1974, but he looked a lot older. “Everyone used to say that he was my father!” jokes Anita. “My grandad was bald, dad was bald, and Denny was headed that way.”

He stayed in Europe in 1975, travelling to races as the representative of the GPDA, before heading back to New Zealand the following year. He didn’t stay away from the cockpit for long, and was soon happily accepting invitations to race touring cars, becoming a regular at Bathurst.

As Group A took off worldwide so his profile rose again, and he raced extensively in Europe with a TWR Rover, famously winning the Tourist Trophy at Silverstone in 1986 alongside Jeff Allam. Later he was also drawn to truck racing, enjoying both the monster machines and the unpretentious camaraderie among his fellow competitors.

But what he perhaps appreciated most was the recognition he now enjoyed from the historic racing world; he was stunned by the affection that fans still held for him in Europe and the USA. Occasionally, he had a run in his own McLaren M23/1, which he’d shipped back home. He also tracked down and restored his original MG TF.

But life was to change forever on Christmas Day, 1988. The family had just enjoyed a happy lunch at Lake Rotoiti when their world was shattered; Denny’s 21-year-old son Martin died in a diving accident, despite desperate efforts to revive him. Denny had recently grown closer to Martin, and had proudly shown him off at the Australian GP just a few weeks earlier. He was torn apart by the loss, which also created a divide between him and Greeta. He subsequently left home.

Greeta returned to nursing, tried to sort her life out, and made the most of her new situation.

Meanwhile, Denny was at times a troubled man during the last few years of his life. He had some stressful financial issues to deal with, and his personal relationships were complicated — he was never actually divorced from Greeta, and they remained in touch.

By 1992 he found himself living back with his mother. What nobody really knew, but some suspected, was that his health was deteriorating.

“My mum told me,” says Anita, “that she did not know what to feed him: ‘He says everything I cook him is giving him indigestion.’ Before going to Bathurst he’d gone swimming to get fit, and he’d sat on the side breathless.”

More through chance than planning, the 1992 Bathurst 1000 turned into a Hulme family reunion. Anita made the trip along with her daughter and two sons — who’d never been to a race — and they were joined by Denny’s mother and his daughter Adele. Only Greeta wasn’t there.

Denny was driving a Benson & Hedges-backed BMW M3 for his old chum Frank Gardner, and initially there seemed to be nothing untoward. As the race went on a thunderstorm passed through, and Denny radioed in to say that he was having trouble seeing. His pit assumed he was talking about the soaked windscreen. It was much more serious than that.

“I’d noticed he hadn’t come round,” says Anita, who was in the grandstand. “And the public address system said that he had kissed the wall and stopped at the side of the track. I said to mum, ‘I think he’s had a heart attack’, but I didn’t think it was going to be a fatal one, even when we were all there waiting at the hospital.”

But Denny was dead even before the marshals reached his stranded car. He was buried in Te Puke, where dad Clive and son Martin had been laid to rest.

“He was so upset after Martin’s death,” says Anita. “He used to go and sit in the cemetery.

“I know that he died of a broken heart.”

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