H-D dealer Latus Motors and James Rispoli are having a dream season, reinvigorating dealer involvement, boosting the Production Twins class and thrilling Motor Company fans worldwide
Words by Mitch Boehm
Photos by Brian J. Nelson and Kristen Lassen
“James Rispoli is on another planet right now.”
When a crew member from a rival team texts you those words about a fellow competitor just minutes after a professional dirt track Main event (in which the rider in question won convincingly), you know something’s up.
But he nailed it. Because with six wins in ten outings, dirt-tracker-turned-roadracer-turned-dirt-tracker James Rispoli and the Latus Motors team – owned by Harley dealer George Latus and run by ex-Grand National Champ Joe Kopp – are not only leading American Flat Track’s suddenly-hot Production Twins class on a Vance & Hines XG750R by a whopping 48 points with just six (of 16) races left; they are rekindling excitement for the Motor Co., leading the charge for Harley-dealer participation in racing, and helping transform AFT’s Production Twins class into must-see TV.
And Harley fans are loving it.
It’s been a while since Harley dealers – the Bartels, Moroneys, Tilleys, Gerencers and others – were involved in a significant way in professional dirt track racing, and just as long since the Motor Company was winning consistently. For decades, competition-oriented dealers gave Milwaukee’s factory team a run for its money with the legendary XR750.
But the 2008 recession, the aging (and expensive-to-keep-competitive) XR, and the appearance of the all-conquering Indian FTR750 in 2017 killed off nearly all of the H-D racer-dealers. Indian dealers filled that void nicely with the FTR, but with the production-based XG still not quite up to par with the for-racing-only FTR, competition-oriented H-D dealers have been pretty much non-existent.
But that’s changing, finally, thanks to the creation of the Production Twins class (which doesn’t allow for-racing-only motorcycles such as the FTR) and the efforts of Vance & Hines, who run Harley’s factory SuperTwins team but who are also making Production Twins-spec XG racers available for sale to private teams through H-D dealers for $36,000 – $14,000 less than the SuperTwins-spec FTR.
Black Hills Harley-Davidson’s Terry Rymer got this ball rolling in 2019 when he hired Rispoli and eventual 2019 AFT Singles champ Dalton Gauthier to ride a pair of Production Twins-spec XG750Rs for the store. They did well, scoring seven podiums, with Gauthier grabbing wins at Sacramento and Springfield – and in the off-season a factory Harley ride for 2020 alongside Jarod Vanderkooi and ex-Grand National Champion Bryan Smith.
With Rymer leaving Black Hills for a consultancy gig, the door was wide open for a new dealer to step in…and through it hopped George Latus, longtime Harley dealer from Portland, Oregon and a fan and supporter of racing and race teams for decades – including professional flat track. Past Latus Motors team riders include Johnny Lewis, Shayna Texter, Brandon Robinson and Joe Kopp, to name just a few.
Latus’ dealership team had been building its own XGs for ex-champ Kopp and Andy Dibrino to ride in Hooligan events during 2018 and ’19 (winning two championships in the process), and knew a bit about the XG. Latus was interested in getting back into the pro dirt track scene and in the Vance & Hines Production Twins program – and called old friend Terry Vance to inquire. A deal was made for a couple bikes and, naturally, talk turned to which rider to hire.
“We’d known James [Rispoli] and competed against him when we were road racing,” Latus remembers. “I knew he had a dirt track background, and I’d always admired his grit in going to the UK to race in a very difficult British-Superbike environment. He’s a great rider, and a cerebral one, too, and he did well last season on the XG. So he was high on our list.”
“George and I discussed James,” Vance says, “and I told George, ‘you can’t go wrong’ with Rispoli. He’s very talented, and with Joe [Kopp’s] experience you’d have a great combination on your team.” So Rispoli got the nod.
“It’s really good being with the Latus Motors guys,” Rispoli told us. “The best teams all have experienced guys leading the way, Tolbert, Bigelow, Coolbeth, etc. You have to have that type of experience, and we have that on our team with Joe [Kopp]. He’s so good. We gel. We trust each other, feel like we’ve known each other forever. He doesn’t BS me. What he tells me about my riding or setup, I can trust, and I often agree with him. We’re in sync.”
“George is great, too,” Risoli added, “in that he lets us crack on. He’s super involved, but doesn’t step into the bubble; he lets us do our thing. His famous words are epic: ‘What do you need to win, and how can I get that for you?’ That’s awesome.
“And then there’s Mike Stegman and Arnie and Amy Wick of Fast Track Racing, who help both logistically and financially. Mike’s a brilliant engine and chassis guy, and Arnie and Amy do just about everything! Truck drivers, fun havers, wheel changers, motor pullers, water getters, emotional supporters…they are totally the glue for our team. Our chemistry is really good!”
George Latus has a history of developing good plans and teams, in racing, yes, but also in business. Growing up in Helena, Montana, Latus wasn’t allowed a motorcycle…too dangerous, said Mom and Dad. But he finagled a scooter somehow, and then a go-kart and, later, a hot rod car. But no motorcycles until after an Army gig. “I got drafted during Vietnam,” he says, “but lucked out and got sent to Germany, working in an armored tank unit. When I got home I rode dirtbikes, still had the motorcycle bug, and during college at the University of Montana I got a job at local dealer Cycle Center after hounding them relentlessly to hire me.”
“This was 1969,” Latus added, “so Honda’s CB750 was just out. You couldn’t build ’em fast enough, and motorcycles were everywhere and selling like crazy. Went from mechanic to parts manager to sales. Started racing motocross, which was the coming thing, on Maicos, Bultacos and Huskys, and did some flat track, too. Didn’t have much talent, but loved it anyway. Started to help out local racers, too, on the tuning side.”
“At Cycle Center we’d take in tons of used bikes on trade. Most had problems, but there wasn’t time or manpower to fix them until wintertime, so they piled up. We filled shed after shed and began to run out of room. I noticed folks were always looking for good used bikes, and they sold well if we had them, so I decided I’d open my own repair shop and specialize in used bikes. I’d drive around the western U.S. buying any decent used bike I could find from dealers, and then fix them up and sell them.”
“So I shared shop space with a Massey Ferguson tractor outfit and called it Latus Motors. It was tough going at first…we heated the place with a wood stove. When the recession hit in the mid to late ’70s and interest rates went to 14%, it got hard. We survived, mostly because we did quality work, sold parts and had a good reputation, but a lot of OE dealers didn’t. Loved it, though. It was fun!”
“In the early ’80s I figured that if I was ever gonna make it I’d need to be a dealer, and one day saw a newspaper ad about a Harley-Davidson open spot in Spokane, Washington. I wasn’t into Harleys at all; I was into Japanese and European bikes, modern bikes with power and the latest chassis tech. But I spoke to the local rep, and he spoke to Harley management, and they decided to take a chance on me even though I didn’t have the money to open a shop. So I sold my motorcycles, some firearms, cashed out what meager savings I had and borrowed what I could from the bank, which wasn’t much. I still was well short of Harley-Davidson’s new-dealer requirements, but luckily they waived them. Now, 36 years later, I’m forever grateful they did!”
“This was ’84,” Latus remembered, “and they’d just released the Evo engine after the buyback, so it was a perfect time to get involved. Rented a 3000 square-foot building, just me and two employees, and pretty quickly we moved to a 6000 square-foot place, and eventually bought a 10,000 square-foot building, and things just kept improving from there.”
Around 1990, Harley asked Latus if he’d be interested in buying a dealership in Portland, and he agreed, running both stores for more than a decade before eventually selling the Spokane store and concentrating his efforts in Portland. And while business was always the focus, racing was always part of the Latus mix.
“We did some Bonneville speed-record stuff in the early ’90s,” Latus remembers, “and I’ve sponsored several guys in drag racing; did some Top Fuel and V-Rod racing, which is where I met Terry Vance. Then we got into road racing, first on Buells, then on Ducatis, and later on Triumphs. Then we went dirt track racing with Triumph, first with Johnny Lewis, then Shayna Texter and later with Brandon Robinson; we struggled a bit developing the bike, but we made a lot of Main events, and when B-Rob nearly won the Sacramento Mile and got Triumph on the podium for the first time in 30-some years, we were all really proud of that.”
“When Triumph redesigned its Bonneville engine it didn’t really lend itself to dirt track, and the company wasn’t interested in supporting it anyway, so we dropped out and went road racing again, this time with Bobby Fong on Kawasakis. Did pretty well there, but when MotoAmerica wanted to move Superstock 1000 riders into Superbike, it got really expensive to compete. So we left and got back into dirt track in the Super Hooligan class with Andy [Dibrino] and Joe [Kopp]. We then started building our own XGs after acquiring some work-in-progress bikes from a guy named ‘Chuck Deluxe’ Ruiz from Wyoming, and made some progress there. But when Terry [Vance] began selling factory-spec XGs, we figured that was the best way forward for 2020.”
This AFT season has been like no other, of course, with Covid-19 forcing a massive schedule tweak…eight double-header weekends featuring just two Short Tracks (two for Singles, one for Twins), four Miles, no TTs and the rest Half-Miles. Regardless of whether the Mile- and Half-Mile-weighted schedule favored the XG or not, Team Latus came out of the gate swinging, Rispoli and company wanting the paddock and the racing world to know that his four podiums last year were no fluke – and that Team Latus was a genuine contender for the Production Twins title.
It didn’t take long, either. Rispoli grabbed a pair of runner-up spots in the season’s opening two rounds at Florida’s Volusia Speedway, leading most of the way on night number one (getting nipped at the line by Ryan Varnes) and netting another second the following evening behind last year’s champ Cory Texter.
At what may have been the last Indy Mile ever (the track scheduled to be redone for horse-racing only) Rispoli recorded his first National win in Production Twins with a crushing, 12-second runaway victory on night number two, though there was drama aplenty leading up to it.
First, the team blew up one of its two engines during testing in the days before the race. “We had a valve failure,” Latus told us, “but the bike was running on one cylinder, so James limped it back to the paddock, which ended up destroying a bunch of internal parts. The Vance & Hines race shop is nearby, though, and the guys there came though big-time, helping us out with a spare engine.”
Rispoli recorded another runner-up on Friday night at Indy, but his dominating performance on Saturday night did more than put him on the top step of the podium for the first time in more than a decade – it triggered a protest by the Ryan Varnes team. AFT officials checked the bike and found it legal, which cost someone in the Varnes camp $1000…in cash.
“It was just James’ night, you know?” said Latus afterward. “Sometimes everything just works perfectly. Plus, we used tire warmers that evening in staging, with a generator, and I’m pretty sure we were the only team doing that. So I think some were thinking we doped the tire or something, and were keeping it warm for that reason.”
“Indy was pretty insane,” Rispoli told us. “People asked me afterward why I didn’t slow down, but honestly, I had no idea I was that far out front! The exhaust was ricocheting off the walls and I thought there were bikes right on my ass, so I kept pushing. The protest was a bit silly. I mean, I’d been second a lot already, so it wasn’t a huge surprise I’d win one, you know? I teased Varnes afterward, asking him if he had an extra thou on him for beer money. [Laughs] He took it pretty well.”
The Springfield Miles over Labor Day weekend were exciting as well, but for different reasons. Rispoli ran fast on Saturday but faded a bit at the end to finish fifth, with Varnes snagging his first-ever Mile win. But Rispoli rebounded on Sunday, running with a group of eight riders in a Main event that’s sure to go down in Production Twins history. Prior to a backmarker crash and subsequent red flag with just four laps remaining, the group of eight put on a white-knuckle display, with guys running high, low and in the middle, the riders trading places constantly.
On the restart, Rispoli followed for a few laps and then jammed his way to the front on the final lap, leading out of turn four with enough of a gap to grab the win. “It was carnage,” Rispoli told us afterward. “We didn’t have as much straightaway speed as the Yamahas and Kawasakis, but we had more grip, and I was able to stay with the lead group. Joe [Kopp] had told me going in, ‘get a gap on the last lap if you can,’ and that’s what I did. I fired it up the inside of turns three and four, was able to get a little gap, and tucked in for dear life!”
The Rocket Men did it again at Pennsylvania’s Williams Grove Speedway and at Devil’s Bowl Speedway in Dallas in the following weeks with a pair of double-win weekends that put Rispoli solidly in the points lead – and made him the favorite to take the 2020 Production Twins championship. And for a team assembled from scratch in the off-season that hadn’t turned a wheel in a professional dirt track race for several years, that’s damn impressive.
“I’m pretty relaxed at this point,” Rispoli told us. “I knew we’d be strong, but six wins and three runner-ups, with a fifth being our worst result? We’ll take it, for sure. Just gotta continue to take it race by race, not look too far ahead, and do what we do. Gotta continue to win on our good days, and podium on our bad days. We figured we’d be terrible at Williams Grove, but we ended up winning both nights. And then there was Devil’s Bowl. Just crazy. Can’t try to ‘manage’ the rest of the season, either. Just gotta keep doing what we’re doing…looking for wins and doing the best we can. The objective is to go into [the] Daytona [finale] without any pressure. That’s the goal.”
“I’m feeling pretty good,” Latus says, “but I’ve been here before. You start strong and get a points lead, and then the mentality changes and things happen. It’s the nature of racing. James is great to work with, though. He’s been around and he’s grounded. He thinks things through, and Joe’s the same way. It’s good chemistry at this point. Just gotta continue to push and be smart.”
“The Production Twins class has been great,” Latus added. “It’s really exciting, with lots of great riders and different brands, and a great stepping stone to SuperTwins, which is where we want to be eventually. It’d been a while since we’d competed [in dirt track] and we didn’t want to jump into the deep end of the pool right away. Production Twins has been perfect, for us and for Harley-Davidson and its fans, for sponsors, and for the sport in general. I have a feeling it’s expanding the pie for everyone, and that’s a good thing.”
There’s some irony in the fact Harley-Davidson is benefitting so much from its involvement in the class, too.
“[AFT CEO] Michael Lock told me back in 2018 he wanted to introduce the Production Twins class,” Vance told us, “and slide the AFT Twins brand and presentation up a notch or two. And I told him, ‘you’re crazy…a third class is the last thing you need.’ [Laughs] But it was the right thing, one of those ‘I told you so!’ moments. Production Twins has helped AFT keep the momentum it’s built over the last few years. Now we – and Yamaha – need to help make SuperTwins a better show by competing more successfully against the very good Indians.”
“Three things have made this whole Production Twins venture work,” adds Vance. “One, it had the blessing from Harley-Davidson. They saw what it could be, and backed it up, our effort and, the second thing, the $300,000 of contingency money, which is really great for the riders. A rider can make $7500 for a win; that’s good money. Lastly, we have someone really experienced and smart in George Latus. With a less-capable and less-experienced team, no one would see how good the bike and program is. I think this class has the potential to be like Moto2 in MotoGP. There are lots of players, riders and OEs. It’s really on a roll now, and I don’t see things slowing down there.”
We asked Rispoli about not getting the factory ride for 2020, which went to Dalton Gauthier in the off-season, and he was not shy with his answer. “I was definitely not stoked,” he told us. “Let’s just say I have a chip on my shoulder. A bone to pick. Something to prove. Look, Dalton is a great rider, no doubt. But you wanna be there, you know?”
“But being with George and Joe and our team has been awesome,” Rispoli added, “and looking back now it’s maybe the best thing that could have happened. We’re doing well, contending for a title, and my worth as a rider has gone through the roof, which will pay dividends going forward. Plus, I’m so enjoying the vibe and the scene and what we’re doing. The Harley fans are crazy, Harley dealers are back involved, and the ‘Hogspoli’ thing is definitely catching on, so it’s great for me and the team.”
HogSpoli. He’s that Harley racer from another planet, right?