Rispoli, WBR Prepare to Duke It Out at Red Mile

Even before he added a Progressive American Flat Track title to his collection of national roadracing championships, James Rispoli was highly regarded for his versatility.

The New Hampshire native is leaning into that aspect of his wide-ranging game in 2022 via a number of two-wheeled pursuits, including a return to racing on tarmac, providing instruction for aspiring racers, and even kicking off a career as an expert commentator.

Before Progressive AFT fans get too concerned that he’s forgotten about them in the process, don’t worry, he’s about to resurface in a major way.

But first, he needed to take a step back, reevaluate, and chart a path forward after following up his dominant 2021 Mission Production Twins presented by Vance & Hines campaign with a difficult Mission SuperTwins presented by S&S Cycle season in 2022.

“There's no reason to sugarcoat it,” Rispoli said. “Last year wasn't the season I wanted to have, and it wasn’t the season Latus Motors wanted to have. We thought it would be tough, but we didn't know it was going to be that tough. Things just didn't go our way. They say luck is not a part of it, but I think we might have used up all our luck the year before.

“Just with myself coming in with an injury, building new bikes that weren't proven, and not being able to do the development in the offseason we needed to confirm which platform we should have started with, it was a big ask. In hindsight, you could say we should have done things differently. But in the end, everything is still good with me and the team. We still have a good relationship, and we had a couple great years together. It's just one of those things where it didn't go right.”

No matter how severe the struggles, Rispoli still takes some positives from a season that saw him collect just a single result better than 10th.

“The biggest thing for me is I kept a level head the whole season. I never got too down. I knew it wasn't my talent or ability. We just knew we didn't quite have the package together. So the biggest thing is mentally, just being able to go into every race like a goldfish, forget the last one, and think, ‘You know what? This might be it. This might be the breakthrough we need.’

“Every single time I went on the track, I gave it 100%. That's something where in the past if I wasn’t winning, it wasn't good enough, no matter what the circumstances were. ‘I should have rode at 200%.’ Well, that's impossible.

“Once you lose your confidence with that downward spiral, you're gone for a while. And that never happened. That was the big thing. I'm in a place now in my career where I know my level. I'm able to jump right back to where I know I should be.”

While he managed to salvage his self-belief, that doesn’t mean he didn’t need something of a mental reset after a long year. The way he found it was by mixing things up – scoring a podium in the most recent King of the Baggers race, for example, or by taking part in video promos for Harley’s new LiveWire S2 Del Mar, getting into Super Hooligan competitions, and even exploring a possible future career path working as a color commentator for the all-new global eSkootr Championship.

“After last year, I kind of went, ‘You know what? I’m going to actively avoid looking for a full-time ride.’ I want to do some other things – Ryan Sipes it a little bit. I wanted to have a little bit more flexibility.

“And, as a result, I've just been able to do so many different things. It's been really fun. It's a lot of travel, and I'm tired, but you know what, I'm having a blast. I'm doing things I've wanted to do, and my biggest thing this year was I want to be competitive in everything I do. I want to align with people who want to continue to grow and put me on good motorcycles and be at the forefront of any race I enter.”

Finding a suitable partner in Progressive AFT that fit those aspirations should have been next to impossible. But somehow Rispoli hooked up with a similarly talented and accomplished team in Wally Brown Racing that was itself in a similar position.

Led by Joe Gibbs Racing’s Competition Director, the eponymous Wally Brown, and loaded up with decades of motorsports experience from NASCAR, Supercross, Indycar, Grand Am, and SCCA racing, WBR came away from its initial foray in Progressive AFT in search of its own reset.

The team demonstrated the depth of its capabilities by transforming a relatively unfancied platform in the Suzuki RM-Z450 and transforming it into a Parts Unlimited AFT Singles presented by KICKER race winner but fell short of genuine title contention in both 2020 or 2021.

Rather than slink away, WBR tackled an even more ambitious project – one that could eventually prove to have major consequences for the sport – by electing to field KTM’s 890 Duke in Mission Production Twins competition. However grand the project might eventually become, the plan was to ramp up slowly, focus on development, and compete part time in 2022. Similar to Rispoli, for WBR to find a suitable partner with championship-winning skills should have been next to impossible.

Photo by Dustin Ishikura – Fast Glass Media

Rispoli said, “I thought Wally was just going to field 450s again, so the team didn't cross my mind. I wasn't riding 450s again, that class isn't really built for me. But a mutual friend of ours was like, ‘Hey, Wally is looking to do a twin.’ And I'm like, ‘What?’ ‘Yeah, they are talking about doing this KTM, the 890.’ I thought that was interesting. I knew what they did with the Suzuki and that was impressive.

“I immediately reached out to Wally, and I drove down to JGR. He took me on a tour around the shop. We just sat in his office for a few hours, and he's like, ‘We want to relax and build something. Yeah, we want to win and we're competitive, but we want to do something that's a lot less pressure.’

“And you know what? That works for me because I didn’t want to do a full season this year. I just wanted to do a handful of races. And crazy enough, none of the races they wanted to do clashed with my other obligations. The stars aligned. It was kind of a match made in heaven.”

The team currently plans to compete at the upcoming Red Mile doubleheader, Springfield Mile doubleheader, Port Royal Half-Mile, New York Short Track, and Volusia Half-Mile III. That effectively removes them from title contention but firmly places them in the role of spoiler considering their combined ability, particularly if the KTM platform backs up its promise on track. And the early working relationship suggests they’ll give the Duke the best possible chance to do exactly that.

“(Wally) comes from a NASCAR background, and I feel with my roadracing background we kind of speak the same language. We just do things in a little different way. I felt I was able to connect with him right away. It's been super lovely to work with the whole team. They're so nice and so open and accommodating. It's been really, really good so far.

“I think what's also making the project super cool is that there's so much experience in the team from different series. We're coming from all different avenues of motorsports. Everyone is coming from a different place, but we're all coming together as a collective. It's kind of got the vibe that we're just weekend warriors and we're just all having a blast, but we're all killers in our own areas. That's the crazy thing. Wally is a killer, our electronics guy is a killer. Everybody comes from a high, high level. Yeah, we're going to have fun and try to put this thing together, but in the back of our minds, we all want to win.

“The potential is so big that they could scale if they wanted to. It just comes down to time and what they really want to do in the future.”

While Rispoli hopes to hit the dirt running at the Red Mile, he’s only had a single day on the bike to date, testing it just over a week ago at Harris Speedway in Rutherfordton, North Carolina.

“It's not like going to buy a Kawi or a Yamaha that someone's already built and prepared. This is a brand-new motorcycle, brand-new wiring harnesses, brand-new frame. Everything is made for the bike and made for me. It's taken a lot of time getting to this point.

“But that first day on the bike was phenomenal. We had a really good test. We worked specifically on just maps and electronics and things of that nature. We focused on finding a base setting and getting handlebars, levers, foot pedals, and all that set up.

Photo by Dustin Ishikura – Fast Glass Media

“It went super good. By the end of the day, we felt really, really comfortable with the bike and the way it was running, the stuff they've done, and the maps they've built. It was super predictable and super easy to ride right out of the gate even though the track wasn't quite cooperating. The test couldn't have gone any better for what we had.”

It’s a good thing it did because Rispoli expects to go into the Red Mile with just that solitary day of experience on the bike under his belt.

“The team has a lot of work to do, and there's still a lot of dyno time needed to confirm everything we did. There's still so much to learn, but we really need to get on track next to other bikes to really see where we’re at. We could continue to test and go down developmental paths that we think are really good, but nothing lets you know like getting out there next to Cory Texter.

“Our real data is going to come from that. Our bike runs really good and runs really clean. The ergonomics feel pretty good. We've now got to go through those two days and see where our speed is. Once we do that, we can go and test it to hone in on the Achilles heels that we learn from the races.”

As it stands, Rispoli is quietly confident about where they are even at this early stage.

“I feel like we're in a lot better position than everybody thinks. I think we're going to surprise some people. Of course, there are going to be some teething issues. But the feelings we've got… I've ridden the Harley so much, and I know what's needed to win in class. I don't think we're that far off from that. Dirt track is won and lost by tenths, but I feel like we're in a pretty good spot for literally building something brand new.”

As for where this all could eventually lead, it’s not too difficult to imagine that a healthy dose of success this year in Mission Production Twins could spur greater factory involvement for when the classes merge to form a reunified Mission SuperTwins championship in 2023.

“I'm pretty sure if we go and win, KTM will be all over it,” Rispoli said. “And if we go and lose, I think everything will understand it's something we're building. For KTM, this allows them to dip their toe into the water and see where it lands. They know what Wally did with the Suzuki, so they know WBR doesn't build bad stuff. It'll give everyone a better understanding of the potential of the KTM straight out the gate without factory involvement.

“I know the Harleys go well at the Red Mile, and I know Cory and his Yamaha do too, but I feel like we're going to be okay. I feel like if we can be in the top five and battling around there, I think that would be a win for us. I think that would be a super solid result. And if we can do any better than that, it would be crazy. I can't say much more than that because there's just so much unknown.

“Beyond that, all I can really say is that I’m going to do everything I can, and I'm super excited to do it.”