While he may have been an arrow without feathers for a time, he improved with each lap, and soon he was racing all over northern California and in demand as a hired gun.
While Geoff Ensign was carving his way into the sport, Shayna Sylvia was also moving her racing career forward. Hailing from San Carlos, billed as The City of Good Living, Shayna also came from a racing family. Her grandfather Bill Sylvia had owned a midget team years ago, and along the way his son Dave also caught the bug. Unfortunately, Bill had passed long before he could share his stories with his granddaughter and, perhaps prompted by a nostalgic mood, Dave also felt the urge to track down one of his father’s old cars.
It became a mutual quest between father and daughter. Using the internet, Dave began posting old pictures and running down leads. Then the glorious day came when it was discovered that one of Bill’s old cars was resting in a car collection assembled in Oakland. In a neat twist, father and daughter soon learned that the restored car, which had originally been painted red and white, was now painted yellow and carried the number nine on the tail tank. It was a great moment for the pair for, as Shayna says, “My car number is nine and my dad’s favorite color is yellow.”
Shayna’s career began at the age of eight years and, reflecting the tenor of the times, she adds, “which was kind of old.” Her father learned there were quarter-midget races being conducted at Baylands Raceway Park and, better yet, that training sessions were offered.
“We did the four week session,” Shayna says. “And after that you can buy your car. I did that, and when my dad asked me if I wanted to keep going I said yes.”
The fact that she decided to stay in the game is not surprising, but the direction her career took was a bit unusual. “We bought a road course open-wheel kart and did that for a year-and-a-half,” she says. “And we discovered that it was dangerous and that we really didn’t have the funds to compete. So one day after racing in Dixon we went out to Stockton to watch the races at Delta Speedway and there were some cars for sale. My dad asked if I was tired of turning right and I said yes. I told him I wanted to turn left and race on dirt. So, at that point we sold all of my kart stuff and bought a micro.”
Her report on how things went initially is characteristically candid. “We struggled a bit,” she says. “I really didn’t do anything memorable. We crashed a lot in the 600.”
It might have been fun to run more up front, but frankly that wasn’t the overall goal. While her parents subsequently divorced, Shayna’s mother Patty was, and remains, a strong supporter of her racing efforts. However, for much of the time she has been too nervous to attend. Thus, on race day for most of her formative years, it was a project shared with her dad. “That was really the whole goal for us,” she says. “Just to do something together.”
When Shayna began to dip her toe into sprint car racing, Geoff was already an established star, having captured the 2011 USAC Western Classic title racing for Ted and Rose Finkenbinder. Late in the 2012 season, both parties had signed in at Watsonville, California’s Ocean Speedway for the running of the prestigious Walt Branco Memorial. The bottom line is that Ensign carried Jim VanLare’s car to the victory, but the overall significance of the moment was much greater. Recalling the night, Geoff says, “She was pitted two cars down from us, and I could see it was just her and her dad. I could also see they really didn’t know what they were doing in terms of setups, so I went over there and asked if they needed help. I ended up giving them a base setup to get them going.”
While she might have been impressed that her new contact had taken the checkered flag that night, in Ensign’s mind she certainly didn’t show it. “She didn’t like me too much at first,” he says. “She thought I was one of those sprint car guys with an attitude. A couple of weeks later I was driving Dave Johnson’s car at Antioch and I thought, ‘I have to talk to this girl because she is kind of cute.’
“So, I took my helmet over and asked her if she had any glass cleaner for my visor. So I broke the ice there. We ended up racing, and I had to give her a right rear to get by her in the main event. She flipped me off, but I ended up talking to her afterwards.”
In some way these early interactions were consistent with the two parties involved. As Ron Lingron sees it, Geoff Ensign is about as easy-going as they come in sprint car racing, enjoys milling around after the races, and loves talking shop. When it comes to Shayna, Lingron notes, “Look up spunky and that’s her. You see the cars she drives flying around and then this tiny thing pops out of it at the end of the race. She looks like she belongs on the back of a horse, but there is that inner fire that propels her into wrangling sprint cars, micros, or whatever she can get into. She’s not afraid to get into the mix when it comes time to put her elbows up at the end of the race and fight for the checkered flag.”
Then, adding the punch line that her future husband experienced early on, Lingron adds, “She’s fiery and not afraid to confront someone whom she thinks wronged her.”
Obviously they developed an understanding, and by November 2019 they were married. Both parties were committed to continuing their racing careers. By the time of the nuptials Geoff was an established star. In 2014 he seized on an opportunity to race in Australia and was the Victoria State champion for owner Jason Smith. Stateside, among his signature wins was the 360 sprint car portion of the 2016 Turkey Night Grand Prix, and then he reloaded for the upcoming season.