Sometimes you do an interview and have no idea what’s going to come out of it, but when a driver starts talking to you about a sponsor it’s usually a topic you’re keen to move quickly on from.
Not with Juan Manuel Correa.
In a chat with him in Austin about his comeback season and future plans, talk moved onto the name on his hat – Step One Automotive Group – because he has such a gap between planned tests in Formula 3 and Formula 2 this winter, and I wondered what he’d be up to.
It turns out, he’d been up to some pretty inspiring stuff.
Step One is Correa’s main sponsor, and an American company. And given what the 22-year-old has been through in terms of his recovery from extensive injuries sustained in that horrific Formula 2 crash at Spa-Francorchamps in 2019, it is actually opening the door to some remarkable work.
“It’s a company that is very, very focused on teamwork, leadership – they’re supporting a lot of veterans in the U.S. military, so they’re heavily involved in southeastern United States, which is a big military community,” Correa tells RACER.
“They were already supporting me before my crash, but now even more after my crash I have a story in common. Coming back from an injury, getting back into society and back into my life, that’s really a story with many of these veterans and they’re heavily involved in that. So the connection is huge, and we’re working very hard to keep building that connection and that support.”
And it’s not just a case of Correa thanking Step One for its backing and focusing on his own rehab. He’s actively involved in spending time with veterans and sharing stories when it comes to recovering from injury.
“Actually, this week I have a whole week booked with them,” he says. “I’m going down to Pensacola, which is the area where they’re based, and I’ve been already a couple of times. They have a big military base with a lot of special ops teams, and actually many of those retired veterans end up working in Step One because you have this high-performance group of people.
“In many ways, it’s similar to a driver – they’re used to working at a very high performance level, under pressure, high risk, high reward, and once they retire you have all this talent – I’m not going to say it’s wasted, but if they go and work in a ‘normal’ job they’re wasting that personality that they have.
“So what Step One is doing is picking them up and putting them into their high-performance business team. So I will go and do some rehab with wounded soldiers, talk about similar experiences. I’m going to give speeches to a couple of middle schools, and talk about my life experiences and how you shouldn’t give up on your dreams.
“So it’s a very strong community where Step One is based, and I really feel like they’re taking my story and making me part of the family and helping inspire the people in their community, and also the people in the company.
“It’s amazing. They have some surprises for me – I’ve only heard rumors, but I think I’m going to go shooting with the special ops guys, we’re going to go do some drifting, we’re going to go do some rehab and see some of their doctors and the injuries they have. It’ll be a week filled with activities, and we have so many things in common. It’s very, very cool.”
The crossovers can be even more relevant than you may think. Correa sees a number of veterans moving into motorsport to apply their skillset and personality to a new industry.
“There’s a new initiative that we’re doing together with Step One that’s called ‘Forever Warrior’, and it’s basically an initiative to help veterans get back into society,” he says. “Quite often what happens is, these veterans are coming from this high-performance environment, and it’s the same thing you see sometimes with retired drivers; they go back to a normal life and they’re like, ‘What should I do?’.
“It’s very different, they’re very lost. So they’re taking these guys and either helping them go into motorsport or into whatever career they want to pursue, or taking them as part of the team in Step One. I’m very involved in that, because I relate a lot.”
Admittedly, I was already rooting for JM from the moment his recovery effort started. But if he can keep climbing the ladder and serve as an inspiration for even more people who are trying to overcome similar challenges in their own lives, and perhaps even use motorsport as the catalyst for that, I’m even more of a fan.