Debacle in the Desert – The Phoenix Trotting Park

Posted on December 27, 2014


Photo by Trevor Freeman,

Photo by Trevor Freeman,

We know dry heat preserves food and mummies, but never thought about its preservation qualities as applied to buildings.

Being mostly familiar with the Southeast and Midwest, we’re used to the way unoccupied buildings can be quickly brought down by moisture, freezing and thawing, invasive animals, and the onslaught of rampant vegetation.

So, when we first viewed the Phoenix (Arizona) Trotting Park from the heights of I-10, we thought it was just another big, new building springing up from the Arizona desert – like maybe a stadium for a Cactus League ball club?

Well, no.

We were amazed to discover this very unique, futuristic structure opened in 1965, closed in 1966 and has not seen human habitation – at least for legal usage – since then, with the exception of a brief burst of activity as a movie set.

One wonders what James J. Dunnigan of Hamburg, New York, was thinking when he came up with the idea of building a harness racing track in the desert.   He probably just assumed it would be as successful as his first venture, the Buffalo Raceway, constructed in 1942 and still in operation today, though under different ownership.

But that was in the Northeast, where Buffalo Raceway patrons enjoyed paved roads to the park and much cooler temperatures, even in summer, making watching the nags an enjoyable way to spend an afternoon.

Rural Phoenix, however, was pretty much just a wide swath of open desert in 1965, but for some reason (cheap land?) this was where Dunningan chose to locate his park – 20 miles away from the center of the city and accessible in those pre-I-10 years only by hot, dusty, dirt roads.


Photo by Trevor Freeman,

And once you arrived at the park, the discomfort continued. Spectator seats were located behind a glass wall magnifying the desert sun to the point that no amount of air conditioning could deal with it, even in the winter.

Attendance never came anywhere close to projected figures.

The construction of the park drove Dunnigan into bankruptcy, in part because of its elaborate, futuristic design that required the assistance of a firm of Italian architects to complete.

It was simply a debacle in the desert.

So there it stands. No freezing and thawing to crumble the concrete, no kudzu to cover it, no moisture to encourage rot, no woodchucks to undermine its walls.

However, according to a YouTube comment, apparently it’s filled with asbestos and tearing it down would be so expensive that it’s just cheaper to leave it standing there – at least for a while longer.

But with suburbia creeping ever closer – it’s now located in the City of Goodyear – sooner or later a different kind of race will be on to convert one of the biggest bad ideas of all time into something more useful for the residents of Goodyear.

Posted in: Travel - Arizona