- Associated Press - Sunday, May 7, 2017

GOSPORT, Ind. (AP) - Before he can ride his all-terrain vehicle to the starting line, Craig Englert must be in control. Every detail needs to be to his liking. His father, Jeff, says that’s the way it’s always been.

So on this wet and chilly morning in Gosport on April 1, 22-year-old Craig checks the vehicle a couple more times, before eventually taking his place at the beginning of the course. He’s at the second race of the season of the Midwest Cross Country Racing League, a 12-race circuit that travels around different Indiana towns. Each race follows the same format. After an hour and a half of racing, the leader finishes his lap.

Then, the other riders have 40 minutes to finish their current lap, with the results formatted by how many laps a rider completes and the time it took to complete them. Craig said he usually finishes four or five depending on the race and length of the laps, which generally range between 6 and 10 miles.

The league also features motorcycles, but Craig, his girlfriend Jade Hoffman and their German shepherd make the trip for Craig to compete on his four-wheeler.

After winning the eight-rider Sport Class in his first year, Craig has elevated himself into C-Class, a change that brought more riders and stiffer competition. But so far, Craig is eighth out of 51 riders entering today’s third race in Rosedale.

While Craig can control many aspects of his life, like racing, he hasn’t been able to control every detail.

The Birdseye man was born with kidney problems and has Stage 3 chronic kidney disease. A couple of valves in his bladder grew in backward and the condition required the installation of an artificial bladder liner and artificial valves when he was younger. He estimates he had somewhere around a dozen childhood surgeries because of the condition. Every three or four months, Craig and his family drove from their home in Birdseye to Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis for checkups, blood work and urine tests to ensure his organs were still functioning properly until they discovered a branch of the hospital in Evansville where Craig could have the same work done.

As a result, sports were dangerous. Any contact to his kidneys had the potential to cause serious problems, so he quit baseball whenever other kids started live-pitching. He stopped playing basketball before high school, and was relegated to the status of unofficial assistant soccer coach for his team at Forest Park. He still practiced with the team, but never played in a game.

“It kind of sucked in high school since I could only go to watch anything but it wasn’t a big deal,” Craig said.

He never stopped riding his four-wheeler, though, even though there is the risk of falling off the vehicle and damaging his kidneys.

Craig, now 22, has pretty much ridden since he could walk. When he was 3 years old, Jeff bought him his first vehicle - a Suzuki three-wheeler. From that day, Craig’s loved riding, on top of making any necessary repairs.

When he was 8 or 9 years old, Craig was out on his four-wheeler speeding up hills to try and get as much air time as possible. After one of those launches, his four-wheeler hit a tree, bending the axel enough to create a slight wobble when he rode. For Craig, that was enough to replace the entire axel.

“He always has to have things fixed the way they’re supposed to be,” Jeff said. “He won’t throw something together and have it not be the right way.”

Craig learned how to change oil when he was 5, and was seemingly always watching Jeff work on one of his collections of cars.

“It didn’t matter what I was doing, he was always right underneath the car with me,” Jeff said.

That collection has grown to 14 cars, plus five classics they wouldn’t dare take off the property. One of those 14 vehicles is Craig’s 1950 GMC pickup, which he purchased and rebuilt himself. When he bought the truck, Craig didn’t paint over the rust. After reupholstering the seats, he only installed a new motor, transmission and headliner so the car would run correctly.

“When we put the motor in the truck he didn’t want to put a real fancy, chromed-up motor in it,” Jeff said. “He wanted to keep it looking old, so we didn’t clean the grease off of it or nothing.”

Now, Craig works in the service center at Bob Luegers, where he got his first job changing oil when he was 15. Jeff works in the body shop and has for years.

So when Jeff first heard his son was joining MWXC, it wasn’t exactly a shock. His mother, Pam, wasn’t thrilled about the idea, but there was almost an expectation that the man who started riding not long after he could walk was looking for more opportunities to ride.

On top of simply darting around his family’s farm in Birdseye, Craig rides in Lynnville, at a campground near the Ferdinand State Forest and takes a trip or two a year with his family down to Tennessee.

He also races in the flat drag race at the 4-H Fair each year. After last year’s race, Craig started looking for a way to race his four-wheeler and stumbled upon MWXC.

“My cousin asked me why I didn’t race so we went on Google and typed in ‘Indiana cross-country racing’ and there were three or four different series that run around here,” Craig said. “We chose that one because it had - a lot of them you have to do a lot of different safety stuff on your four-wheeler so I did that one because it’d be a cheaper option and closer to home than most of them.”

Craig estimates he’s put around $1,500 into his ATV in the last year. Most of that was due to new shocks before this year’s season started, but also includes new brake pads and an oil change after every race.

“He bought that four-wheeler himself so he takes good care of it other than racing it,” Jeff said.

Each race is on a Saturday. If you count the time needed to clean the ATV after each race, each race weekend consumes five out of seven days of the week. Craig starts prepping his vehicle Wednesday and Thursday, while Jade makes sure everything is set with the camper before each race weekend.

Then, the couple and their dog, Shep, make the trip Friday night to the site of the race, where they spend the night.

On the morning of the race, the cheering section joins them. Typically, this consists of Jeff, Pam and Craig’s two sisters, Katelyn and Alyssa. Alyssa’s son Wren can also usually be found as close to Craig and the ATV as possible.

If Craig and Jeff had their way, Wren would be racing in the children’s race once he’s old enough next year. His mom might have different ideas though, they both concede.

The traveling party can also include some of Craig’s friends. At last year’s first race in Bloomfield, a pair of friends came to support Craig. The problem is that the course is big and much of it is in the woods, so Craig’s audience ends up spending a lot of time sitting around the trailer at most races.

“We got an awesome parking spot so we could see in multiple places where he came out of the woods,” Jade said of the Bloomfield race. “We were all sitting around watching him and by the time he got back to the trailer after the race they were pretty drunk.”

On most weekends, Craig estimates there’s about 250 riders who compete, which means there’s a large number of campers throughout the race site. At the start of last year, Jeff could never find his son’s, so Jade designed an Englert racing logo and stuck it on the side of the trailer.

She also started selling T-shirts and sweatshirts emblazoned with it, which Craig’s family wears to every race.

Since they can’t see much of the races from their post beside the trailer, Jade decided to attach a video camera to Craig’s helmet that streams his point of view. They still haven’t figured out how to prevent it from shutting off after 30 or 40 minutes.

“The first time I watched it gave me motion sickness,” Jade said.

As the season progresses, the courses become more difficult. Some have jumps, others have chopped down trees across parts of the track.

“They just put 10 of them in a row with two feet between them and you had to go over that, which was really bumpy,” Jade said. “One of the races had old cars and they just piled dirt on top of them.”

At one of those races, Craig lost control going over a jump. He fell off his ATV, initializing its kill switch. This happened within the first half hour of the race, so Craig’s entire watch party laughed as he became increasingly frustrated that his ATV wouldn’t restart.

In Gosport, the camera didn’t work at all, so Craig’s cheering section followed along through an app that shows what Craig’s position is in the overall race and within his class. They also caught brief glimpses of him every time he rode by the trailer, laughing as his clothes attracted more mud with every lap.

“We’ve pretty much got baby wipes, water bottles and paper towels,” Craig said.

Still, he prefers the early-season mud to the dust that accompanies races late in the year. Last season, the dust was so bad at one race that a rider lost track of where he was and slammed into a fence post. He needed to be life-flighted to a hospital.

The series doesn’t require any gear beyond a helmet, goggles, a muffler and a kill switch. It also recommends a chest protector. Jade wishes Craig would wear a neck brace, but he says it restricts his ability to see side-to-side and approaching hills, so he goes without.

In Gosport, the trailer was stationed near the steepest incline that proved to cause the most problems for a number of racers. At one point, a rider got stuck in the mud going up the hill, which caused a backup of about 10 riders at the bottom. That’s when Craig came around the corner.

After a couple seconds, Craig shot up the hill, and right before he reached the stalled rider, cut to his left through a gap in the trees and then back onto the course, taking advantage of a detail no one else was aware of to continue moving forward.

“For a kid that has kidney problems and the stuff he has going on in his life he stays positive all the way through it,” Jeff said. “Whatever life throws he just takes it and runs with it.”

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Source: Dubois County Herald, https://bit.ly/2oYLiL3

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Information from: The Herald, https://www.dcherald.com


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