Taking it to the Field: Research Part 2

TucsonSo in part one of this journey to Tucson, I wrote about conducting firsthand research for my screenplay. The research took place at Tucson Greyhound Park, a run-down, deserted, out-of-date greyhound racing track.

The track announcer had just begun to read off the dogs for the first post. I had been texting my daughter, so I told her I needed to go, and I headed outside.

As I walked out into the cool evening, the dogs and their leadoffs lined up as their names and stats were announced. I was about ten feet from the dogs and had this odd feeling that they were all looking at me. At least they were when they were not joking around about the party they had been to the night before. That’s right. I could here everything they were chatting about as they waited for the announcer to finish.

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The leadoffs walked to dogs to the starting boxes, and I looked to the left:

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I looked to the right:

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Yep. It was just me. No wonder I felt so awkward. I was the only one there. The flight side of my fight or flight response mechanism was in full gear. But again, I couldn’t come all this way and now leave. Plus, I really wanted to get some good photos (my second love after writing).

The leadouts took turns placing the dogs in their respective starting boxes. And then they ran single file back across the stands, where only I stood, to the far side of the track. I later realized that they would wait over there for the end of the race to collect the dogs.

Once they reached the other side, I heard some sort of machine loudly click. And the dogs went crazy – howling, barking, whining. The noise shocked me. Then the announcer noted that the rabbit had been released. I looked up and could see a blur of white flying around the back of the track towards the starting boxes.

Then I heard, “Here’s comes that rabbit, rabbit, rabbit.”

The boxes opened, the barking stopped dead, and the dogs shot out.

I loved watching them race around the track. It was actually beautiful.

When the race finished, and the leadoffs led the dogs off the track, I sat down on one of the empty faded fiberglass benches, and Dale made his way over to me.  He wanted to know how I liked the first race.

Initially, he sat down to give me some more information and to answer any questions I might have. The next race would not be starting for another 10 minutes.

He went on to tell me about the routine of the leadoffs before the race, how the head leadout would  check their masks and blankets one last time before entering the starting boxes, about the kennels on site, about the paddock where they are washed and checked on by a vet before the race, about the marshmallow treats, and about the cool down showers.

Then he suddenly stopped. He stood up and pulled out a cigarette.

“This is my one vice,” he explained.

After he took a long draw on the cigarette, he asked, “How do I know that you are who you really say you are? How do I know that you actually are a writer and not some activist here to spy on us and cause trouble?’

I almost choked on the sip of water I had been taking. What???

He stared at me, waiting for my response. I did all I could to convince him that I was indeed a writer and came simply to learn and not to uncover something. I could hear myself trying too hard, laying out my resume and experience. I wished I would just shut up. I owed no explanation. But it worked. He was convinced.

He then said I was probably wondering how the place was paying its bills seeing as I appeared to be the only person watching the races. Uh, yes. I was wondering about that. Tucson Greyhound Park ran races four times a week. And there were a few people inside sitting at the bar, and I was alone outside.

There used to be a day, he explained, when thousands attended these races. But today, the track makes its money not at this location but through off track betting and simulcasts. Well that explains that.

Just about then, announcements for the second post started. Dale told me he was going to check on a few things and that he would be happy to answer any other questions I might have throughout the night. However, that was the last I saw of him.

I pulled my camera out to try to capture some photos of the dogs, and despite the fact that I have a really nice Canon DSLR with a special lens for dark environments, the track was too dark and the dogs were too fast. I just could not get the kinds of shots I had hoped to get.

After a few races, I started to get cold, so I slipped inside a different door than the door I had come out. Two men sat at an unstocked, unused bar near the window. Tables were stacked into a corner, lights were off, betting windows were shut down. Who knows the last time this room had been used?

So for the next few races, I slipped out as the race started to snap some shots, and when the race ended, I sneaked back inside to the abandoned room where I waited for the next race.

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Empty second and third floor

One time when I was outside waiting for the rabbit to round the corner by the starting box, the two gentlemen from the empty bar had stepped out side for the race and called out to me.

“What are you doing here? Why are you taking pictures?

I could sense their suspicions. I also have a pretty impressive professional zoom lens for my camera. They must have thought I was there with nefarious intentions. I responded that I am a writer and making a movie about greyhounds and just doing some research. Their demeanor changed immediately.

“Oh great! Hope you get some great shots! Good luck.”

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In retrospect, thank goodness I emailed the manager ahead of time. I am not sure it would have been possible for me to have been more obviously out of place.

About this time, after the ninth race, I realized that I would not get the ideal picture I wanted and that I had seen enough to really get the information I needed for my screenplay. There was no reason for me to stay until the very end of 16 races.

I packed up my camera, and worked my way out through a maze of dark, abandoned rooms, secretly hoping I would not run into Dale.

As I climbed into my car, I had a sense that I had just entered an alternative universe. I can only assume that in a couple of days, the same people would act out the exact same scenario. I could not have imagined that this world existed.

I am grateful for the opportunity to take a peek at it. And I am grateful for the information and experience so that I can translate them to the page and ultimately to the screen.

And now, back to work!

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