Sebastopol, California is a quaint burg of about eight thousand souls, approximately 55 miles north of San Francisco. While once known for the quality of apples and plums that were raised there, in recent times the locals have fallen in line with the rest of the region and focused increased energy on grape production and the wine industry. It is a town with an artsy and laid-back vibe, but like all such locales there is always concern that an invasion of outsiders can alter the essential character of the community.
This is the place where Geoff Ensign was raised, and when he headed out for a leisurely motorcycle trip with his wife of less than a year, there was little to fear. Then, in an instant, so much that he had worked for almost came to an end.
Petaluma Speedway is just a few miles south of Sebastopol and, with the fairgrounds oval as an anchor, the Ensign family have been involved in racing for years. Geoff’s grandfather ran midgets and sprint cars, and his father Rob Ensign also took his turn behind the wheel. Rob’s driving career largely ended when he made a decision consistent with his role as a father. Geoff had become involved in baseball and, accordingly, his dad felt it was time to spend more time at the diamond and less time at
the race track.
Then a funny thing happened. Geoff decided that race cars were a whole lot more exciting than baseball. He had discovered that sprint car driver Dave Lindt Jr. had a shop just down the street and says, “It got to the point where I would rather go to the shop and hang around race cars.”
It seems that when someone hangs around a garage for too long, no matter what their age, they are likely to be put to work. “I ended up being the trailer jockey guy,” he says. “I made sure all the parts were in there, swept up, and just got everything ready.” Also predictably,
after playing a supportive role for a few years he was anxious to see if he had what it takes.
Unlike so many of today’s stars, Ensign didn’t get a real chance to race until he was around 15 years old, and when he did get his shot it was at ground zero. “I started out in a pure stock at Petaluma with a 1978 Dodge Aspen,” he says with a laugh, “I basically knocked the windows out, put a roll cage in it and went racing.”
Ensign isn’t the kind to beat his chest and tell you how great he was, so it is almost an afterthought that he shares that he quickly moved to modifieds and was the Petaluma Speedway Rookie of the Year.
Then he switched gears. He realized he wanted to make a career of racing and took a bold step and moved across the country to attend the NASCAR Technical Institute in North Carolina. He had enrolled, taken part in all of the initial orientation meetings when it was suggested that with his experience he really didn’t need this endorsement
on his resume.
One night he was simply driving around when he saw a shop with the doors open and a group working on a car. It was the home base for ARCA racer Nick Tucker. With nothing to lose, Geoff approached a group of total strangers and asked if they needed any help. It was here that he learned they were preparing for the next round on the schedule at Indiana’s Salem Speedway and, amazingly, he was asked if he was interested in joining them. In the blink of an eye he was off on a 500-mile joyride to assist on a professional race team.
It was a whole new bag, and a gig that provided valuable experience. Later he would join Kyle Strickler (“The High Side Tickler”) who was racing big block modifieds in the northeast. It is a time he recalls fondly. “It was a great experience for me at 18 years old,” he recalls. “I was like the tire guy and I really did whatever they needed.” For a time, it looked like he had found his niche in the sport, but then he got an unexpected call from his father. It seems that Rob and his best friend decided to obtain a two-barrel sprint car, and they felt that Geoff was the logical choice for a pilot. It was an offer too good to pass up and, in a flash, Ensign was back home and getting primed for the next phase of his life.
While it was fun racing with his dad, there were some pesky motor issues, and Ensign reasoned that it was time to make something happen. It was here that an old friend came to the rescue. “Dave Lindt Jr. had a motor laying around in his garage,” Geoff says. “And he told me that I could borrow it. So, I stuck it in my car and went from a spec sprint to a sprint car in just a couple of weeks.”
One thing all quickly realized was that Ensign was brave, and in his own words he admits, “I was a bit of a wild child and I was doing wheelies everywhere.” One person who certainly noticed was Petaluma Speedway announcer Ron Lingron who hung the name “The Human Highlight Reel” on him. It was such an apt descriptor that everyone picked up on it.