For one section of my screenplay in particular, first-hand research would be necessary. The only problem was that the research would require a trip to Tucson, Arizona. But it was a trip I knew I would need to take at some point.
Part of my movie takes place at a greyhound track. There was a time when greyhound racing was the sixth most popular sporting event in the country, and race tracks dotted the map. But the heyday of greyhound racing is long gone, and most of the tracks are closed. Only a few are scattered across the country, with the majority of those that are still open in Florida.
Tucson Greyhound Park is the one closest to the West Coast, so I set my sights on traveling there.
I found my opportunity to make the trip when I had a conference scheduled in Phoenix. I simply left a day early and drove the two extra hours to Tucson.
I struggled with the decision of whether or not to contact the track to let them know I would be there. The introvert in me wanted to just show up and observe. But the journalist in me knew I needed to talk to people who might have information I could use. The journalist won, luckily. I emailed the general manager of the Tucson Greyhound Park, Dale Popp, and let him know that I would be in town and would love to meet him. Plus I asked for a tour of the facility, if possible (Turned out, he replied that a tour was not possible. Odd, I thought, but ok.).
So early on the morning of December 2, 2015, I packed my car and headed out for the 500 -mile drive to Tucson. I needed to get there before 7:15 PM, the post time of the first race.
As I rolled into town, I decided to head straight to the track to get my bearings and then find a hotel close by.
I plugged in the address on my GPS and blindly followed the instructions, as I usually do. Once I got close, I became concerned that maybe I had the wrong address or that the track actually didn’t exist. I found myself in a deserted industrial area of town. But then I remembered that I had heard from the general manager. So it had to still be in existence.
I turned a corner and saw what looked like a generic warehouse behind a cinder block wall. But a small sign read “Tucson Greyhound Park.” This was it.
I drove back and forth a couple of times trying to figure out if there actually was a track there. I thought I would at least be able to see stands. Plus, the entire facility didn’t seem big enough to house a track. Oh boy.
At the end of the block was the nearby hotel. I don’t even know how to describe this accurately. Remember my plan to stay near the track? That was not going to happen. I have never seen such a run-down motel. The only car in the parking lot when I drove by looked abandoned. And the sign declared $24.99 per night. Where in the world was I??
It was quickly clear that I would need to find a place to stay far from this area. Feeling less than confident about this entire trip, I drove to the other side of town and found a Holiday Inn or a Days Inn or something of that nature (I don’t even remember).
This left me with little time to get ready. So I ran up to my room, freshened up, and returned to the car to head back over to the track. I wanted to get there by 6:45 PM.
The sky grew dark as I made my way back, and by the time I got there, the sun had completely set. The street at the track was poorly lit, and the track’s parking lot was even darker. The sign at the entrance was difficult to find. Only a handful of cars dotted the lot. There was not a person in sight.
I parked in a spot near the entrance. Actually, I wasn’t even sure that this was the main entrance. But I did not see any other way to get in. I put the car in park, turned it off, and then just sat there. All I could do is laugh. What in the world had I gotten myself into?? With no sign of life, I thought surely I was confused. This place seemed deserted.
Then I did what I always do in crazy situations like this. I called my sister! I laughed as I described where I was sitting. It was surreal.
If I had not just driven 8 hours for this specifically, a trip I had been eagerly anticipating for months, I would have skipped the whole thing and driven back home. I really think I would have. But how ridiculous would it be for me to do that in this situation? I had to go in.
So when the clock changed to 6:45, I bid my sister good bye. She wished me luck. And then I dialed Dale.
He answered right away and told me to walk up to the door. He would meet me there.
Just then, another car full of people pulled into the lot. I walked to the door with them. And sure enough, Dale was waiting for me as he warmly greeted the four who proceeded me through the door.
Dale looked about as old as the track he was managing. But he seemed to be a nice gentleman. I shook his hand as he led me up a long carpeted hallway.
He apologized and immediately explained that he would not be able to talk to me right now because he had to go to work and check the track. He pretty much does everything around there. It seemed like a one-man operation at this point. And every night before the races, he would “walk the track,” looking for debris or trash. No problem, I told him.
He led me to the main room in the building, past a couple of dark, empty rooms, and pointed to a bar. He told me I could order some food or a drink while I waited for him to return. I thanked him, and he walked off.
I was left to myself to take a look around. Maybe six people were in the room.
There was not a chance that I was going to order any food or even a beer.
I walked down to the front of the room where the wall of plate glass windows faced the track so that I could take in the scene. I looked outside for my first glimpse of the track I so longed to see.
Here’s what I saw:
Here’s what my mind’s eye saw:
I have been to Santa Anita Park horse track from time to time here in LA. It is simply gorgeous. I had never been to a greyhound track, but I had a vision in my head that was clearly based on my experiences with horse racing. I figured this would be a miniature Santa Anita.
It was about this time when the texts to my daughter started. I just needed someone to laugh with, and she would have enjoyed the ridiculousness of this place had she been with me. I gave her running updates on Dale’s progress around the track. He had the gait and the speed of an arthritic penguin. Occasionally, he would spot something, slowly lean down, and pick it up.
Then the greyhound track equivalent of the Zamboni entered the track, smoothing the dirt as it circled around several times.
A few more people had wandered into the room, so now we were up to maybe 9 or 10. Then all of the sudden, a woman came running down an aisle toward me, yelling, “Turn it up! Turn it up!”
When she got to the table next to me, she turned on a TV sitting there and turned it to face a group of four. She yelled, “Turn it up!” once again. Suddenly, the loud speakers crackled and the music of the “Star Spangled Banner” screeched out, starting in the middle of the song. I leaned over to look at the TV, and on it, a video of a flag waved in the wind. The table of four stood up and respectfully put their hands over their hearts (See photo above for that TV in the bottom right hand corner).
As soon as the instrumental version of our National Anthem finished, a voice over the loudspeaker announced the first post.
I signed off with Emily. Happy to get out of the awkwardness of that room, I wanted to be outside, front and center, for the first race.
(to be continued)