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F1's wildest ever race? - 9 reasons Dallas ‘84 will never be forgotten

21 Oct 2015

Think Austin was the first Texan city to host a Grand Prix? Think again. That honour went to its much larger state neighbour Dallas, which in 1984 staged one of the most controversial, exciting and downright bizarre races to ever take place on American soil. We take a look back at some of the most memorable moments from the unforgettable one-off event…
1. The crumbling track surface had to be repaired just hours before the start

Street circuits are never likely to be billiard-table smooth, but the track surface in Dallas was something else. Never one to mince his words, Keke Rosberg described the bumpy asphalt as "disgustingly bad - the worst I've ever seen anywhere" - but the bumps were just the tip of the iceberg. No sooner had the drivers begun to pound the 3.9 kilometres of public roads at Fair Park on Friday afternoon than the surface had started to come away in chunks underneath their tyres, and the already dire situation was only made worse when the organisers inexplicably allowed a heavy fleet of CanAm racers to further chew up the track less than 24-hours before the start of the Grand Prix. The pre-race warm-up was cancelled as, against the growing threat of a drivers boycott, emergency repairs were made with quick drying cement. Ordinarily that might have solved the problem, but in the fierce heat of a Texan summer, the cement failed to cure… Things were so bad, according to one contemporary report, that the circuit resembled “a glorified rallycross track” ahead of the race - “a blend of crumbling tarmacadam and soft concrete.” Little wonder then that F1 racing never returned to ‘Big D’.

2. The temperature on race day soared into the forties 

The fact that a driver - Osella’s Piercarlo Ghinzani - had to be revived by having a bucket of cold water thrown over him during a pit stop is a good indicator of just how high the mercury soared on race day in Dallas. Early July in Texas was stiflingly hot - over 40 degrees Celsius for most of the weekend, with tyre supplier Goodyear recording record track temperatures of 66. Already burdened with a crumbling, unpredictable track surface, the sky-high temperatures were exactly what the drivers didn’t need, and in the interests of safety, the organisers decided to move the race start forward by three hours to 11.00am. But even in the morning temperatures were only marginally less furnace-like. Spare a thought then for Huub Rothengatter whose Spirit-Hart gave up the ghost with a fuel leak after slowly dousing its driver with gasoline for nigh on 15 laps. Hot and bothered, the Dutch driver climbed from his cockpit and, according to Autosport reporter Nigel Roebuck, dashed straight to a spectator area where he commandeered several cups of water “for pouring over his nether regions…” No surprise then that the current race in Texas is held in October…

3. Rosberg stole a march on the opposition by using a water-cooled skullcap

On a normal weekend, with normal conditions, Keke Rosberg probably wouldn’t have figured at the sharp end in Dallas. His Williams FW09 handled too poorly and its Honda turbo was far too abrupt in its power delivery. None of that changed in Texas of course – if anything, those issues were magnified - but when the going got tough Rosberg’s blend of lightning reflexes and gung-ho attitude proved to be a winning combination. The chain-smoking Finn started the race from eighth on the grid, but it wasn’t long before he was battling for the lead. On lap 35 he hauled his way past Nigel Mansell’s Lotus, and despite subsequently losing P1 to Alain Prost, by the chequered flag it was Rosberg who’d once again thrust ahead. But how did the 1982 world champion keep a cool head whilst all around him were losing theirs? The answer was quite literally by keeping his head cool. Unlike the rest of the field, Rosberg wore a special water-cooled skull cap underneath his helmet to help combat the fierce heat - a common enough device in Nascar at the time, but exclusive to the Williams team in Dallas. How important this unusual headwear was to his victory is unclear, but Rosberg certainly looked fresher than Rene Arnoux and Elio de Angelis on the podium.

4. Nigel Mansell passed out trying to push his car across the line

"This is the toughest place I've ever been to, without a doubt,” Nigel Mansell had said on the Friday in Dallas - but little did he know how much tougher his weekend was going to get. After qualifying his Lotus on pole, the determined Englishman shot into the lead at the start of the race and doggedly held the advantage until Rosberg squeezed past. It was from that point that Mansell’s race began to unravel. A couple of laps later he clipped a wall, a mistake which not only necessitated a tyre change - dropping him to fifth - but which quite probably led to the gear linkage problem which brought his black and gold machine to an agonising halt within sight of the finish. Instinctively Mansell leapt from his cockpit and, in a moment of incredible, almost irrational single-mindedness, tried to push his car across the line. But exhausted and dehydrated from toiling for nearly two hours in the blazing heat, the future world champion was always fighting an uphill battle and within a matter of metres collapsed dramatically to the ground. “I was so angry, I just kept pushing,” Mansell would later explain. “Then the lights went out and I woke up in hospital, on a drip in a bed packed with ice...”

5. 18 of the 26 drivers on the grid retired - 14 of them after hitting the wall

When the ingredients for a race include searing heat, a treacherous surface and a track lined with unforgiving concrete blocks, it should perhaps come as no surprise when the end product is a sackful of retirements. The rate of attrition in Dallas was so high that only 8 of the 26 starters were classified as having finished the race, with 14 of them - including Derek Warwick (whilst attempting to take the lead), Patrick Tambay, Michele Alboreto, Nelson Piquet and Niki Lauda - eliminated after clobbering or spinning into the barriers. Martin Brundle, meanwhile, didn’t even make it as far as the race after having a run-in with a wall on Friday and fracturing both ankles. But the most high-profile casualty was McLaren’s Alain Prost. “It’s not racing, no way,” the Frenchman had said of the event earlier in the weekend, and the world championship and race leader was unlikely to have changed his assessment after a bump-induced brush with the barriers ended his bid for victory on Sunday.

6. A ‘moving wall’ put Senna out

If Prost’s was the most surprising retirement of the day, then Ayrton Senna’s was surely the most bizarre. The young Brazilian, just nine Grands Prix into his fledgling F1 career with Toleman, went out on lap 47 after clipping a wall and damaging a driveshaft. Nothing unusual in that you might think, except for the fact that Senna swore blind afterwards that he hadn’t hit the wall - the wall, he reasoned, had moved and in effect hit him. “He was so insistent,” recalled Pat Symonds, then Toleman’s chief engineer, in the book Ayrton Senna: All His Races by Tony Dodgins.  “I had so much confidence in the guy, that I said, ‘Ok, we've just got to go and look at this’. I did think he was talking b*****ks but he needed to go and see it. So we walked out to where he'd hit the wall and do you know what? The wall had moved. What had happened was that someone had hit the far end of a [concrete] block and pushed it, which made the leading edge come out a few millimetres. He was driving with such precision that those few millimetres, and I'm talking probably ten millimetres, were enough for him to hit the wall that time rather than just miss it…”

7. Rene Arnoux drove to second place from 26th on the grid

Ferrari’s Rene Arnoux qualified a promising fourth in Dallas, but the Frenchman’s hopes of mounting a serious challenge for victory were seemingly dashed before the race had even begun after his V6 failed to fire into life for the formation lap. Forced to start the race from the back of the grid, Arnoux, brimming with frustration, went on to drive the race of his life, throwing his scarlet car around the bumpy, concrete-lined circuit - a circuit he bitterly detested - with all the abandon you’d expect from someone with little to lose and a point to prove. According to Motorsport’s trackside reporter Alan Henry, the seven-time Grand Prix winner drove every lap “as if he was jousting for pole position”, eventually finishing up a magnificent second, just 22 seconds down on Rosberg and the only other driver on the lead lap. Yes he benefitted from the retirement of others, but nonetheless Arnoux's was a truly special performance.

8. Jacques Laffite arrived at the track in pyjamas on race day

Lewis Hamilton’s exuberant fashion choices frequently hog the headlines, but would the world champion ever do anything so daring as to arrive in the paddock in his pyjamas? That’s exactly what Jacques Laffite did on Sunday morning in Dallas, as a tongue-in-cheek response to the organisers shifting the (eventually cancelled) pre-race warm-up to 7.00am - a time when the French racer clearly thought he should still be in bed. The great irony was that many thought Laffite must have been dozing during qualifying when he lapped nearly five seconds off Williams team mate Rosberg. Hardly on peak form, he clearly woke up during the course of the 67-lap race, surviving the mayhem to finish fourth, albeit two laps down on the Flying Finn. The six-time Grand Prix winner then provided one of the images of the event when, having ditched his helmet, he gave not one but both stranded McLaren drivers a post-race lift back to the pits on the sidepods of his FW09.

9. The residents of Southfork came to town

If there’s one thing guaranteed to get tongues wagging in the paddock it’s the presence of a major celebrity or two, and back in 1984 TV stars didn’t come much bigger than Larry Hagman and Linda Gray from the hit show Dallas. Amid escalating frustration and rancour over the crumbling track surface, the arrival of JR and Sue Ellen Ewing in the paddock on Sunday morning provided a welcome distraction, as well as injecting a touch of glamour and glitz into proceedings. But Hagman and Gray weren’t just there to soak up the race day atmosphere (and champagne) in hospitality - they were there on official duties too, with the former waving the green flag at the start of the formation lap and the latter presenting the top three drivers with elaborate garlands on the podium, before laughing boisterously when Rosberg got into the local spirit by donning a commemorative ten-gallon cowboy hat. Yee-haw!