When Jeff Sarver retired from the United States Army in 2011, there were times he felt lost, “not knowing where I’m supposed to be, what I’m supposed to do,” he said. He was looking for something to keep him occupied and moving, and he found it at the race track.
In 2013, Sarver put in an offer for a race car he said was “sleeping under a tarp” at his neighbor’s house. He had raced dirt bikes and ATVs when he was really young, and had always had a love for race cars and mechanical work that challenged him mentally.
There was a lot more to racing than he realized, though.
“I was an idiot. I had no clue,” Sarver said with a laugh. “I had three different sized wheels on the car. I didn’t know about wedge. I didn’t know anything about that stuff. I just thought you just jump in it and go, and the majority of the work is really setting the car up and making changes.”
The work and learning has been healing for Sarver, though. He finds working on the car comforting, and gives him something to do in retirement.
Sarver spent 17 years in the Army. In 2005, a reporter spent 38 days embedded with him on a deployment, and took all the videos, pictures, and notes from that time and made it into the movie, “The Hurt Locker,” which was released in 2008 and was awarded Best Picture and five other Oscars.
Sarver began racing at La Crosse Fairgrounds Speedway — a 1/4-mile and 5/8-mile asphalt oval track in West Salem, Wisconsin, in 2013.
Since he began eight years ago, he said the sport of racing has helped him “more than anybody could ever understand.”
“Ever since I retired I’ve always felt lost,” Sarver said. “This kind of keeps me grounded, keeps me occupied, keeps me moving. Because if you’re not doing anything you’re just sitting around thinking about 20 years of being away from home in other countries and the whole combat.
“With other drivers, they’re kind of thick-headed and have big egos, but they also have a human side where they remember how they felt when they started off. The majority of them are really personable. A lot of them have helped me out in many ways that they don’t even know.
“There’s friendships I have at La Crosse that are probably as tight as the friendships I had in the Army.”
Even though he’s been racing eight years, Sarver said he’s never really ran a full season, and there are still learning curves he’s trying to overcome.
“I want to race a little bit harder. I’ve always been afraid of either tearing my car up or tearing somebody else’s car up and I’ve been really, really, really reserved,” he said. “I don’t have that background of go-kart racing for years and four-cylinder racing for years. I don’t have that. So it’s taken me several years to try to figure it out and now that I’ve finally figured it out at the end of last year and was finally getting comfortable in the car, this year it’s like, OK, I’m comfortable now in the car. Now I’ve just got to push.’”
Racing has grown into a family sport for the Sarvers, and Sarver said the sport allows him to spend even more time with his children. His 13-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter are at all the races, and get in the cars themselves, racing a 4-cylinder enduro car last summer.
And this year will be “a lot more racing” for the whole family. Sarver and his son are putting together a car to take to street drags at the track, and this week they picked up another limited late model they’re going to put together this summer so his two kids can get in some practice laps on a bigger track. His son also has 16 shows scheduled for this season.
“My kids, we do everything together,” he said. “I enjoy spending time with my kids. My kids come first before racing and if it was something my kids wanted to do, we’ll go do it.”
Sarver said his car got “tore up,” in an Octoberfest event, and between getting his car and his son’s car ready, he hopes both can be on the track in the next couple weeks.
When he’s not racing, though, he’s at the track, his new comfort zone.
“Between my kids and gymnastics and wrestling and their racing and my dogs, the rest of my time goes to the cars,” Sarver said.
“I love the car, I love working on the car, but it’s just something about being at the track with other people with the same like-minded hobbies or passions. But then you also have all the little kids walking round talking to the drivers.
“It’s just the people. It’s the little kids that come to watch.”