EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP - Baseball players practicing on the Swift Elementary School fields Sunday couldn't be blamed for stealing glances at the BMX competition going on a mere 20 yards away.
Hundreds of riders from around the country, ranging in age from 3 to older than 50, raced their bicycles around hairpin turns and over jumps and obstacles in a USA BMX-sanctioned event.
Two years ago, Egg Harbor Township resident Evan Puentes was one of those baseball players. Now, he's a BMX racer.
"We were playing baseball, and he saw the kids riding the bikes here," said 9-year-old Evan's father, Mark Puentes. "And he came over, and they're like, 'Oh, take my bike for a ride.' "
Now the Puentes family is immersed in the sport. Six-year-old Zachary also races BMX, or bicyle motocross, and Mark, 48, is one of the main volunteers at the track.
"It's something healthy for the kids," the elder Puentes said. "It's good. You make good friends with a lot of people all over the country."
The EHT track was built in 1980 and is owned by the township, but it is maintained by volunteers including Puentes, an electrician; track president Stan Russ, a 43-year-old who works for the Atlantic County Public Works Authority; and track operator Dave Dorofee, a 35-year-old who works in heating and air conditioning.
Russ and Puentes both said Dorofee is "the heart" of the track.
"For every 10 hours we volunteer, he volunteers 20," Puentes said.
Dorofee's father, George, helped build the track in 1980. The younger Dorofee and Russ both grew up riding on the track. Now, still living in EHT, they maintain it for their own children.
Sunday's season opener was the culmination of months of work.
"No sleep, Red Bull, BodyArmor, 5-hour Energy shots," Russ said with a laugh. "No, it's months of preparation. Track maintenance is grueling because it's all volunteers. We come out after work, drive right from work to here and we're working on the track until late. We take days off from work."
Russ doesn't race in this event since he's too busy with his responsibilities as track president. But his sons Noah (13), Easton (9) and Eric (8) all race. His wife, Beth, a teacher at EHT's Slaybaugh Primary School, also took up the sport.
"Can you imagine your teacher in a BMX race?" Russ said.
Turns out, it's not that unusual. Many of the riders in the older age groups are parents of riders.
"There's no other sport that I know of where if you're a participant, so is your brother, your sister, your mom and your dad," said race announcer Lou Mota, a Cromwell, Conn., resident who travels around the country to work events.
EHT resident Amy Sandfort took up the sport two years ago because her children race.
"I was like, 'Oh, what the hell, let's do it,' " said Sandfort, 35, a Wawa general manager. "Once you start, you can't help but become competitive."
The EHT track is one of three in New Jersey, along with tracks in Howell and Flemington. The season opener in EHT was a big deal - Sunday's races counted for double points in the USA BMX standings - but starting next week, there will be weekly races in Flemington on Saturday mornings, EHT on Saturday nights and Howell on Sunday mornings. Many riders compete in all three.
There are also national races all over the country. USA BMX lists standings on its website.
"It's a lifestyle because it becomes your vacation," Russ said. "Your vacation is traveling to Kentucky for a national race. The whole family's coming and you're spending family time together. It's great."
And they continue to welcome new riders, especially the ones who wander over from the surrounding baseball fields, football fields and street hockey rink.
"Their parents come over, and we give them information," Russ said. "We introduce the kids to the sport. Slowly but surely, they get into it and they find out it's great. It's a great family atmosphere. They get involved and they stick with it."
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