Nicknamed “The Shark,” Sarff made his Chili Bowl Nationals powered by NOS Energy Drink debut in 2020 as a 16-year-old, and he was largely in underfunded or family-owned equipment through his first four appearances at the Super Bowl of Midget Racing.
However, Sarff has had a breakout performance this year during his fifth time competing at the Chili Bowl. Driving for NASCAR Cup Series star Chase Briscoe, Sarff has turned heads all week long and appears poised to make a run at his first career start in the Saturday night championship A-Feature.
The Mason City, Ill., native’s strong week started during Monday’s O’Reilly Invitational Race of Champions, which Sarff earned a berth in by virtue of his POWRi title from last season. Sarff qualified eighth for the all-star race and contended for a podium before finishing a strong fourth in the No. 5CB.
That was the moment that Sarff, now 20, realized he had a shot to do something special this week.
“The car felt really good in [Sunday’s] practice, but you never really know what you have here until you start racing against other cars,” Sarff told Motorsport Hotspot during an exclusive interview Friday. “When we went eighth-quick overall in Race of Champions qualifying, I thought, ‘All right, we’re pretty good here.’ Come feature time, it was hard to know exactly what to do, because I knew my prelim night was late in the week and I could go pretty hard. If we tore something up, we had time to fix it.
“I don’t really know where the luck came from,” Sarff added of his Monday run.” We got to going and I started getting by good cars pretty quick … and then just kept going from there and clicking off spots one at a time. We got to third at one point, but just couldn’t quite hold it. Fourth was still a big deal, though.”
Sarff noted that a top-five run for someone like Chase Briscoe in the Chili Bowl’s prestigious Race of Champions was on a similar level to his POWRi championship in his mind.
It was a strong comparison from Sarff, who had started talking to Briscoe months before the Chili Bowl about a ride for the week-long spectacular.
“This whole deal actually started at [the] BC39 [at The Dirt Track at IMS],” Sarff reflected. “After our heat race that night, Kevin Briscoe [Chase’s father] came up to me. I was actually still in the car … and he just asked me if I’d be interested in running one of their cars at the Chili Bowl. I said, ‘Heck yeah, that’d be awesome.’ Didn’t even think twice about it. You can’t pass up an opportunity like that if it comes to you.
“A couple weeks went by and we didn’t hear anything, but eventually, Kevin reached out and said he’d just been working through some [details] to get it all outlined and we ended up getting everything locked in. It’s been a wild ride to get to where we are now, but I couldn’t be more grateful to have this chance.”
Without hesitation, Sarff stressed that the equipment he’s in this week with Chase Briscoe Racing is “the best car I’ve ever had in the building.”
That machinery, combined with a veteran crew chief in Paul May and the confidence Sarff carried over from his outdoor season, has allowed the young star to approach this year’s Chili Bowl differently.
“Obviously, our outdoor season was really good. We had our good and bad nights, but we weren’t ever super consistent until the end of the year, and then we started running up front often. Coming here, I was nervous [about] running a different car because I didn’t know if I was going to be comfortable or not in it, but the seat bolted right in and it felt just like home,” Sarff said. “Since the first time I hit the track, the thing’s been absolutely perfect. I’ve had nothing to complain about all week in the pits with Paul.
“I’ve never had a race car like this, and that’s made it such a fun week. It’s taken a lot of the normal stress off because I know I can just go out and focus on racing,” Sarff continued. “Confidence and being comfortable in the car are the most important things in this building … and we’ve definitely had those.”
Sarff had a shot at locking into Saturday’s finale during the Thursday night prelim feature, running third on the final restart behind eventual top two Spencer Bayston and Tanner Thorson.
He went to the outside to try and pass Thorson at the green flag but got over the cushion in turn one and stumbled, losing his corner speed and five positions in the process. By the time Sarff was able to regain his rhythm, he had faded to eighth and out of contention for a lock-in position.
It was a tough moment, but also a learning moment for Sarff as he absorbed information in preparation for a B-Feature Saturday night. Sarff will roll off 15th in the second B-Feature, which will be 20 laps and take the top seven finishers to the $20,000-to-win Chili Bowl finale.
“Man, I was running Thorson down late … and that last restart I just made a mistake and jumped the curb,” Sarff explained. “It just sucked the car up into the fluff [loose dirt] and we bottomed out hard. I was lucky I didn’t stall it.
“By the time I got back going, eighth was about all I could hang on to, but I’m excited to see what we can do in our B because we’ve got the pace to be in the show.”
Briscoe, who joined the FloRacing broadcast crew on Friday evening, had nothing but praise for Sarff’s efforts all week long – even as the Stewart-Haas Racing driver and Chili Bowl owner-for-the-week is racing himself and attempting to return to the championship feature in his own right.
“This week has been the best, I think, we’ve been as a team in this building … and it’s been fun to be fast again. Karter’s been fantastic,” Briscoe noted. “It takes a whole package, and we brought a different package this year with a Tim Engler Stealth motor; that program has been really fun to be part of.
“Thursday night stung, I won’t lie,” he added. “I really thought Karter was going to lock in before that last restart, when he biked there and ended up eighth, but to have the speed we’ve had … we know there’s a great opportunity ahead of us and I believe Karter will be able to come through traffic and have a shot.”
Sarff recognizes the tall task that’s ahead of him, but he’s trying to stay loose as he chases a goal that has been on his mind for a half-decade since he first came to the SageNet Center with a race car to drive.
“The pressure’s gonna be on me,” said Sarff. “That car has been spot on every time it’s hit the racetrack, so now it comes down to the driver doing his job … and I know that we can do it, that’s for sure. It’s just a matter of getting through stuff and staying out of trouble while we make our way up through [the field]. Twenty laps should be plenty of time to get it done.
“Hopefully all goes well and I can lock into my first Saturday night Chili Bowl feature, but man … regardless of what happens, this has been a week and an experience I’ll treasure no matter what.”
Opening ceremonies for the nighttime portion of the 38th Chili Bowl Nationals are slated for 6 p.m. CT. Sarff’s B-Feature is expected to begin around 9:30 p.m. CT. Every lap can be streamed on FloRacing.