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Original Issue

Crowned king of the road

The most glamorous title in auto racing was conferred upon a balding New Zealander, Denis Hulme, who wondered what the fuss was all about

At the end of last Sunday's Mexican Grand Prix every spectator who knew a sparkplug from a distributor—a considerable number—climbed through the barbed wire surrounding the Mexico City autodrome and converged on Jimmy Clark. Clark had just received several thousand olés and the victory wreath for winning his 24th Grand Prix, which tied him with an Argentine gentleman named Juan Manuel Fangio for most victories in a career. But two pits down from Clark sat the real winner of the afternoon. Although Denis Hulme had finished more than a lap behind Clark in this last race of the 1967 season, the four points he earned for his third-place finish clinched the most important racing title going—the world driving championship. On his victory lap Clark, who has won the title twice, slowed down enough for Hulme to catch up with him, and as Clark's spidery Lotus and Hulme's Brabham-Repco headed slowly side by side down the autodrome's long main straight, the Scotsman raised his hands in a victory salute to the New Zealander.

Hulme nodded and drove the rest of the victory lap with his boxer chin resting gently on his right hand, not quite sure what to make of it all. Hulme, who is a balding 31 and looks 41, is the most reluctant champion the sport has known. The day before the race he ate breakfast while analyzing himself in the presence of two other people, which is about the maximum number he can tolerate at close quarters.

Hulme said, "A group of psychologists just finished a study of race drivers—what makes them tick and all that—and they came pretty close to me. I think I am straightforward—when I say something I mean it—and I don't like to repeat things. I'm a shy person, quite suspicious of other people. I've only really got two close friends. And as far as other people go, I form an opinion of them by the first words they say to me."

To those who don't know him, this occasionally brings him to the brink of rudeness. During Friday's practice, for example, an eager character rushed up to Hulme and announced, "I'm from UPI." Hulme slowly turned his head. "And what, may I ask, is UPI?"

Fame comes slowly to some men, but in Hulme's case it was thrust on him in one sudden burst this season. Besides his Grand Prix renown, he has won three of the four Canadian-American Challenge Cup races and the Rookie of the Year award for his fourth-place finish in the Indianapolis 500.

Bruce McLaren, like Hulme a New Zealander, whose cars Denny is driving in the Can-Am series and for whom he will drive in the Grand Prix races next year, said, "He's jumped into prominence so suddenly just this year that he still doesn't quite understand why everybody wants to make such a fuss over him. He doesn't care about the famous part of being famous, if you know what I mean. He would just as soon, I think, race in front of an empty grandstand."

Hulme did not disagree. "I really can't get worked up too much about the championship," he said. "I think about it a lot, and since Monte Carlo [where he won his first big victory] I've tried to get more serious about it. It's strange, isn't it? The championship is something everybody wants to win and here I am about to win it, but I was prepared to wait four years for the title. It usually takes that long."

Hulme's driving style is much like his personality. He does not object to charging to the lead, and is so bullishly strong that in a Formula II race last year he broke a spoke on his steering wheel wrestling his car around the circuit. But once he has positioned himself, he is unspectacular.

That is exactly the kind of race he drove Sunday. He went into it leading his boss, Jack Brabham, by five points in the championship race and knew that all he had to do was finish in the top four to win the title. So his strategy was simple: keep Brabham in sight at all times, which he did, and thus wound up some distance behind the defending world champion. "Things," he said, "tended to drag out."

Scotland's Jackie Stewart had said, "Hulme doesn't have the fire that great drivers have. Some drivers get mad and go faster; others get mad and go slower. Hulme is sort of in between."

Fire or not, this is only Hulme's second full season in Grand Prix racing and he already has proved himself one of the best. He began driving in his home town of Te Puke (sic, sic, sic), New Zealand in huge lorries owned by his father that carried everything from sugar to sheep along severely rutted roads, and got an education in mechanics fixing trucks that broke down in the dead of night in the middle of nowhere. In 1955 he bought an MG, but with little thought of competitive driving. But after running in a series of slalom, sprint and hill-climb events sponsored by a local car club, he was hooked. He graduated to a single-seater Cooper-Climax, and in 1960 won the New Zealand International Grand Prix Association Driver to Europe award, which gave him passage to England, expenses and no firm commitment to drive for anybody. After a series of ups and downs, he went to work for Brabham in 1962. Jack was just beginning to build his own cars, and by 1966 Denny had progressed so rapidly that Brabham gave him the second car in the Brabham-Repco team. Brabham, of course, won the title, and in Formula II Brabham and Hulme took 12 of 13 races in Brabham cars powered by Honda engines. Their cars were far superior to anything else on the road, but Hulme's orders were clear: let the boss take the checkered flag, which he did.

This year, though, things were a bit different. Hulme won the Monaco Grand Prix and the German Grand Prix (over the twisting, vicious Nürburgring) and, including Sunday's race, piled up an impressive number of points, testimony both to the strength of the Brabham-Repco and Hulme's steady driving.

As clouds gathered Sunday afternoon on Popocatepetl, Mexico City's Mount Fuji, Hulme wondered what the folks back at Te Puke thought of him now. "It's just not in their nature to make a big fuss about me," he said. "And, besides, Rugby and horses are more important."