Yamaha Factory Racing rider Jorge Lorenzo will not participate in this weekend’s season finale at Valencia. The Mallorcan is still recovering from finger surgery following a crash in warm up in Australia. Read more.
Things could not have gone much better in 2011 for AMA Pro SuperSport East Champion James Rispoli. “The Rocket”, as TV announcers and fans like to call him, had a stellar season of road racing. He scored a podium result in all but one round of the SuperSport races he entered, took a pair of hard-fought victories on his ANT Racing/STAR School/NationalGuard.com Suzuki GSX-R600, and became series champion. Not bad for the flat tracker, turned road racer, who was completing his first full season in professional road racing.
And it didn’t stop there. Rispoli teamed up with a former world champion, Jason Pridmore, who is now helping guide James as he navigates the exciting, but often complicated world that is motorcycle road racing. Pridmore has a solid track record of mentoring young racers. In addition to his vast instructional experience at his STAR Schools, a few years ago Pridmore was teammate with a young up-and-comer named Ben Spies. Spies later said having Pridmore as a teammate was one of the best things for his career. Coincidently, Spies is the rider Rispoli says he most wants to pattern his career after, so working with Pridmore was a logical choice.
The combo of Pridmore working with the raw talent of Rispoli proved to be a winning one. Perhaps the biggest thing Pridmore, or JP as James calls him, has helped with is getting Rispoli to understand that winning races is important, but earning championships is even more so.
“Everybody wants to win every race,” Pridmore said. “The reality is sometimes you can’t win every race. You do everything you can and at the end of the day James is learning when he has the package he’s going to win races. You look at how little road racing experience he has compared to most of the riders he’s going against. While he’s always looking to score maximum points you can look at how much he matured as the season progressed. Sometimes you can ride around things going on with your bike. You can get passed and fight back. That’s what he did at New Jersey, and to me that shows how far he came as a rider in a short time.”
You need look no further than Rispoli’s reaction to his 2011 SuperSport East title to understand that James is indeed thinking big picture.
“The championship was great, don’t get me wrong,” Rispoli says. “But I went into the season with my goals pretty well set and that was to get as close to the times of DSB as possible.”
Rispoli is referring to the Daytona Sportbike class, the next rung up ladder ranks from SuperSport in the pro ranks. Looking ahead to the next level might seem like putting the cart before the horse, but James believes looking as far down the path as possible helped him win the championship in the long run.
“I wasn’t so focused on winning races or championships,” he said. “I broke it down to even simpler goals and I think by doing that I was able to relax and not get caught up in the heat of the battle. There were times when I threw all that out the window and just went out there to win, but if you look at the season as a whole I think I remained focused the whole year. Winning the championship was pretty much a bonus.”
Pridmore also recognized in Rispoli he had a rider with perhaps a little bit of tunnel vision, almost solely focused on winning races. The years of knowledge helped Pridmore understand that winning is important, but it’s not everything. Sometimes you take what the track, your bike, your tires and so on will give you and that was one of the lessons Pridmore helped to convey.
“In the past I think I had a little bit of that ‘Win at all cost attitude,’” Rispoli said before adding with a smile. “OK, I probably had a lot of that attitude. JP has helped me understand that sometimes you might lose a battle, but you can still ultimately reach your goal. That helped me a lot this season. There were times that I just didn’t have the combo to win a particular race, so I would focus my concentration on scoring the best result I could. In the past I probably would have over ridden just to try to win and would end up hitting the ground. That’s probably been the biggest improvement for me this year. I still want to win, but I can accept not winning if I know it will help me reach bigger goals.”
Looking at the season long term was important to Rispoli, especially considering he got off to a slow start in the opening round of the season at Daytona International Speedway, where he finished seventh.
“That opening race wasn’t the best,” Rispoli freely admits. “I got off to a good start, but I didn’t ride hard the first couple of laps and lost the draft of the lead pack. We also didn’t get our new bikes in time, so I was riding a 2008 model. We thought we were going to get the new bikes in time, so we actually sold one of my other race bikes, so I just had just one bike and no margin for error. We kind of got caught out on that first one. I ended up racing just to get points.”
It didn’t take long for Rispoli to rally though. In the second round, the same weekend at Daytona, he came charging back with a podium finish, a solid third.
“I got a little lucky with that podium, but we were a little down on horsepower and couldn’t get off the corners like we needed. Basically I was running at Daytona just for points and we did what we had to do. Overall it was a good result, especially coming back and getting that podium result. That really gave me some momentum going into Road America.”
Road America was a SuperSport West round, so Rispoli had nothing to lose, or gain, by racing the event. He simply did it to get his new bikes set up. He scored another podium, but it was just a warm up for things to come.
At the next round at Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama, everything came together for Rispoli. He earned his first pole and then after scoring second on Saturday at Barber, he broke through to score his first victory of the season in Sunday’s race. On that weekend it was East versus West, New Yorker Rispoli versus Californian Benny Solis. Solis, coming off a doubleheader sweep at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif., was moving out of his normal SuperSport West series and taking a run at the SuperSport East competitors.
Solis took the win Saturday at Barber, causing a little of the old Rocket Rispoli to boil out in Sunday’s race.
“That was one where I had the fire in me and I said, ‘No matter what, I’m not going to let him beat me today,’” Rispoli admits. “I got a great start, led early and then he got by me and I went straight back at him and took over the lead again. I led all but one lap of that race. It didn’t matter how bad my tire got I was going to make it work to get that first win of the year. That was really important to me.”
A great day Barber was made even better by the fact that Rispoli had taken over the series points lead. While leading a series is always a racer’s goal, it also means the target is on his back. Rispoli said that was another part of the learning curve this year, learning to manage being the top dog.
“I liked building a points lead and controlling things from the front,” Rispoli said. “It might have hurt me a little bit in terms of getting a win at Mid-Ohio. In the second race I had a pretty sizable lead, something like three seconds, and then the front end started pushing really bad. I couldn’t afford to crash so I had to give up the lead. It bothered me at first, because everything in me told me to push harder to win, but my riding coach Mark Gallardo (from Star School) reinforced it in me that I’d rather take a second and get the points for the championship instead of crashing trying to win that race.”
Mid-Ohio proved yet another step in the maturation as a rider for Rispoli.
Some riders might have looked at the cancelation of the Virginia International Raceway round as a good thing. After all Rispoli had a solid series lead and without VIR he just needed to play it safe in the season finales at New Jersey Motorsports Park to secure the title, but the racer in James came out.
“Even though it benefited me in the championship battle, I was really disappointed we didn’t race VIR,” Rispoli said somewhat surprisingly. “That track’s always been good to me, I was feeling confident, so I was really looking forward to racing there and maybe wrapping up the title a race early.”
The championship ultimately came down to the final two rounds in New Jersey. Even though he had a solid points lead, the title chase still wasn’t settled.
“It’s kind of sketchy knowing that there are enough points on the line in the final two races that the championship was still open,” Rispoli said.
With all the pressure of the championship on his shoulders, Rispoli was still able to race to the pole at the last minute in New Jersey, and then go out with a strategic race and secure the title Saturday’s race. With the burden of the championship lifted, Rispoli finished off the season in Sunday’s race with a riveting win over Graves Yamaha rider Garrett Gerloff in the season finale. It was a great way to cap off a picture-perfect season.
One thing racing insiders mention that went a bit unrecognized was the fact that Rispoli won the title on a motorcycle that was considered a bit of an underdog in the class. It’s generally acknowledged that the Suzuki was slightly underpowered compared to the other bikes in the field. Rispoli shrugs off any suggestion that his bike was not competitive, instead focusing on the positive aspects of the Suzuki, such as its razor-sharp handling. Still the record shows that the top SuperSport results on both coasts were dominated by other brands, making Rispoli’s accomplishments even more impressive.
Now Rispoli looks to the future. He says he’ll spend the majority his off season in Florida, training hard to shave off a few more pounds from his already athletically lean frame. He’ll also ride in the STAR School with Pridmore at every opportunity. While the economy has made the climb to the top tougher on today’s young racers, Rispoli is keeping his eyes focused on finding the prospects that do exist and making things happen with his own team behind him.
“He’s so much farther along his development than I was at his age,” Pridmore explained. “You look at James and here you have a kid who doesn’t crash, he’s continuing to learn and he wins championships. If he keeps that attitude and climbing the learning curve like he is now I think the sky’s the limit for him.”