Racing fans on both sides of the Atlantic have witnessed James ‘The Rocket’ Rispoli’s rise to stardom over the past decade. During that time, the 28-year-old New Hampshire native has progressed from Roof Systems AFT Singles presented by Russ Brown Motorcycle Attorneys championship runner-up, to Bonneville Salt Flats record-holder, to two-time AMA SuperSport champion, to British Supersport title contender, to -- most recently -- his return to the American Flat Track podium.
Along the way, he’s garnered an impressive contingent of fans -- both Stateside and in the UK -- thanks to his ideal blend of natural talent, charisma and bravado.
What’s less easily observed behind the flashy riding style and ever-present smile is the sacrifice, courage and adaptability that’s been required to negotiate a constantly evolving career and always land on two wheels.
Rispoli has somehow managed to absorb multiple career-threatening turns of misfortune that might have tempted less motivated riders to go looking for another line of work. Rather than a carefully calculated trajectory, his career path has been one of repeatedly peering into the unknown and being pushed over the cliff by circumstance before he was quite ready to jump.
His AMA Pro Road Racing career was cut short following a promising rookie Daytona SportBike campaign in 2013, after which Michael Jordan Motorsports suspended operations and Suzuki dramatically streamlined its overall satellite efforts.
With no good options remaining, Rispoli improvised and went in search of a ride overseas -- which had been part of the grander plan anyway (“I was always going to go try to make it internationally even if I had to swim across the ocean…”).
And then following five seasons in BSB in which he spent time in British Supersport, Superstock and Superbike, Rispoli faced a similar dilemma entering the 2019 season.
After racking up seven podiums and falling a single point of third place in the ‘18 British Supersport title fight, his team made an extremely late decision to lower its sights and pull out of the hotly-contested Supersport category altogether, leaving Rispoli with what he generously labeled a “bad lay of lands.”
Again, he was forced to accelerate long-term plans to the here and now, no matter the difficulties that entailed.
He explained, “My original plan was to race overseas in 2019 and come back to American Flat Track in 2020 as a Twins rider. But things happened -- things out of my control -- and we had to make plans earlier.
“Everything was looking very good to race with the same team again. We were 95% good to go, but the team didn't feel confident enough to go for a real-deal Supersport effort to go for a championship, so they kind of folded underneath. The company itself didn't want to spend £200,000 -- and fair enough -- but the problem is, being such a new team, they didn't really understand that by Thanksgiving time, there are no rides left. I had been more than confident that the ride was going through, and I didn't really pursue anything else. I was kind of left high and dry.”
So his ideal world plan of a high-profile dirt track entry in 2020 was modified into a makeshift effort for 2019.
“I could see the way things were moving on both fronts. I had several conversations with American Flat Track, and I heard the plan. I was very interested in that plan. And I also realized that BSB for me was getting to be very difficult to remain in because it was becoming more and more money hungry and sponsor-reliant. And being American, it's even more difficult to carry sponsors.”
Ultimately, he did what he had to do to keep racing.
“I went over to BSB with nothing, and now I’m doing it again. This is kind of the third time I've had to reinvent myself in three different series. I came from dirt track and went roadracing and won a championship, and went to BSB and got on the podium, and now I'm back in dirt track.
“I think some people think there's a train of money behind me. They don't understand what the reality is. I had six friends, realistically, go to bat for me, and buy a bike, build an engine, buy a $1500 van complete with holes in the floor and pay for some tires and some fuel.
“That's how this whole thing started. I had nothing. All my financial sponsors were gone. Everything was gone except a couple key people and my friends. I've done a couple movie things with a buddy across the pond -- (former British MX champ and Hollywood stuntman) Kieran Clarke. He’s now one of my main sponsors and actually owns my 450. Together, we just said, listen, we've just got to get in there and do it.
“I did nine rounds out that van. We had one bike, one engine. We blew up at Perris on the 450 and we were done. I didn't have a bike for the rest of that trip. It's been hard, but it's been good.”
‘Hard’ is perhaps an understatement. Rispoli’s credentials coming into the season suggested overdog, but the situation screamed underdog.
A decade ago, he finished as the 2009 AFT Singles championship runner-up behind Brad Baker -- and ahead of the likes of Jeffrey Carver Jr., JD Beach, and Shayna Texter, among others. But on his return, he’s found it difficult to come to grips with the No 71. El Tito/KC74 Tracking/Hudson Valley Motorcycles Kawasaki KX450F, as well as the current state of the Singles class.
“It took us a long time to get things sorted,” he said. “And in the Singles class, it's very, very difficult -- it's become a lot harder because more people have money and better bikes on the grid all around. It was very hard for us to build that package. And the Kawasaki is probably the most difficult package to jump on because there's almost no information.
“Not long ago, a good rider could run up front on a stock bike, but now you’d struggle to even make the Mains. You've got to have a good bike and great starts. The starts are crucial. Dude, when you're a tenth and a half off and you’re P18... it's difficult.”
Despite the readjustment pains, Rispoli’s raw ability was plainly obvious to see, and ultimately enough to earn him a ride on the No. 71 Black Hills H-D ProBEAM Harley-Davidson XG750R Rev X in the AFT Production Twins class.
That opportunity immediately proved to be a revelation -- for rider, team and machinery.
Rispoli said, “Fortunately, I did enough to show (Black Hills Harley-Davidson General Manager) Terry Rymer to go to bat for me to get the Production Harley deal.
“Literally the first time I jumped on that bike, I felt like I was back home. I was comfortable and quick, and I knew I had all the rust knocked off. I just felt amazing on the bike. It was, ‘oh, I didn't forget how to dirt track -- I just don't have my stuff sorted on the 450s yet.’ And that's kind of the way I look at it at the moment.
“I think everybody wrote me off coming into the class, but we were just lurking in the background. I don't think people thought I could ride a Twin. And I think people thought I forgot how to ride a dirt track bike.”
Rispoli challenged for the podium at the Red Mile before a bike issue took him out of contention, and then he made good on that promise by finishing third at the technically challenging and physically demanding Lima Half-Mile. He expects that form to become the norm rather than the exception moving forward.
“Now I just want to continue to put Harley-Davidson on the podium and show Harley and all the dealerships that Harley is back and that we’re competitive in the Production Twins class. It's just that simple.
“When I took the Harley deal and we had some flashes of brilliance, Vance & Hines, Black Hills Harley-Davidson, and the entire program really got behind us. Now I'm really involved in the program and my input is getting listened to. My second goal for this year is to provide the best feedback possible to help get Sammy (Halbert) and Jarod (Vanderkooi) and Harley-Davidson factory bikes consistently on the podium as well.”
“I'm really thankful for this opportunity. I think the number one thing for me is I was kind of going broke and losing a lot -- losing all my financial sponsors and racing out of that $1500 van. That experience has given me back the hunger I had when I was 16, 17 years old, trying to get a factory ride. I've got the fire in my belly again, and I want to earn a spot in the premier Twins class.”
Rispoli is convinced that his time spent on pavement will increasingly prove an asset -- not merely a diversion that built up a layer of rust to be shaken off.
“We all kind of grew up in the Nicky Hayden era, where you went dirt tracking to build your skills and then you went roadracing to make money. It's come back to where dirt track is here to stay. The good thing for us guys who have gone roadracing is that dirt track has taken a very big leap in evolution.
“Our knowledge coming from roadracing is starting to pay dividends in dirt track. The bikes are starting to get more technical, and you can't rely just on old school dirt track tricks. The way I see it, the next five years it's going to be a whole different game, and you'll see the guys with a broader technical base shine through.”
When asked if he truly does view AFT as his number one option moving into the future, Rispoli said, “It is the number one option. Now if, for example, Paul Bird offered me a ride on a factory Ducati, I'd seriously consider it, but my first option is to home in on this.
“I think I have huge value on the development side, and I think I have very good learning curve. I believe I can become a really good dirt tracker, and I've got good marketability and a whole UK fanbase behind me that still wants to see me succeed even though I'm back in America. As AFT continues to blow up more and more on an international level, I'd like to take my fanbase and add to that.
“If I could get a premier class ride here and do that, yeah, I'd love that. That'd be phenomenal. That's what I'm fighting for.”