MIAMI (BVM) — A true sporting life doesn’t come without risk. And when risk calls in its marker, you better hope you’re blessed enough to make it through the adversity. Juan Manuel Correa was.
Car accidents are a nasty business. Horrific experiences. Especially when traveling at speeds in excess of 200 mph.
On Aug. 31, 2019, Correa was involved in a terrifying collision with French driver Anthonie Hubert during a Formula 2 race at the celebrated Spa track in Stavelot, Belgium. Tragically, Hubert died.
Correa suffered major fractures to his legs and vertebrae along with serious damage to his lungs.
“And I just remember I hit the brakes,” Correa recounted. “The car didn’t stop because it was only the rear tires braking…and immediately I looked up, I saw the other car, and boom…and then the next thing I remember is just the very, very big pain in the legs, which was immediate, and how scared I was because of that.”
After the accident, Correa was transported to a hospital in Belgium, undergoing surgery before developing acute respiratory syndrome while in intensive care. Correa was moved to London for special medical treatment and placed in an induced coma, allowing doctors to save his lungs. His injuries also necessitated multiple reconstructive surgeries on his legs.
Correa said he has been involved in many crashes, and it generally takes a couple of hours for the adrenaline effect to dissipate and the pain to make its presence known.
“In this case, the pain was immediate, and I knew something was very wrong,” he said. “Something happened to my legs…I thought the legs had just been chopped off in the moment. So that’s kind of like the memory I have.”
Correa began driving when he was 7 years old and moving on an upward trajectory in 2019, racing in the Formula 2 Championship series; his sights set on a ride in the Formula 1 World Championship series.
The tragic incident was understandably a blur. A dose of surreal reality. Correa mostly remembers what happened from how he told the story — a memory of a memory as it were.
“You know what I mean? So I kind of had the whole plot in my head because of how I remember it, but I don’t know if it’s 100% accurate in many ways,” he admitted. “I was conscious throughout the crash…To be honest, it’s kind of like, you go to sleep one day, and you wake up the next morning, and your whole life is upside down.”
The race car driver remained in a coma for two weeks. When he came out of it, Correa went into an alarming withdrawal process due to the drugs administered to him. He likened it to what a drug addict might experience. Correa was put in a room, losing his mind for a few days.
“So you’re literally hallucinating, you’re seeing ghosts,” Correa said. “A crazy experience, honestly, a crazy experience.”
Correa’s brain tried to block out the trauma, impacting his memories of the entire situation.
“So I had to go kind of through a process of verifying my parents were there, obviously,” he said. “And I had to verify with them what was true and what wasn’t, what I had dreamed in the coma and what had actually happened.”
But the Ecuador-born American has soldiered on despite a carload of severe injuries that would keep most from competing again. He mapped out a route for his return to the track.
“And I kind of told myself, like, I either can sit here and feel bad about myself and be depressed and ruin the rest of my life because of this, or you could just get on with it and make the best out of it,” Correa said.
Almost immediately after his post-coma stupor, Correa began formulating his game plan. He told everyone he was going back to racing, receiving uncertainty masked as encouragement.
“So then I kind of stopped talking about it so much because I felt like people were not taking me seriously,” he said. “I’m not doing this for anyone else. I’m doing it for myself.”
While Correa continued working on the plan for nearly a year and through 20-plus surgeries, people began believing that he really would be returning to the sport.
“And little by little, everything I said started to come through…it was a mix of kind of like faith, feeling,” Correa said. “But at the same time, there was a lot of risk-taking, in the sense of it was an unknown, no one had ever done a recovery like this. I couldn’t ask the doctors, ‘Oh, am I going to be ready to drive in a year?’ Because they would laugh in my face and be like, ‘Man, we don’t even know if you’re gonna be standing up.’”
However, it seemingly has worked out for him. Correa is currently ninth in the F3 Championship standings with 21 points and six races to go — the next competition at Silverstone in the U.K. Correa raced last season but didn’t feel a part of it.
“I was more of a patient than a professional driver…with all the rehab I had to do,” Correa said. “And you know, I started the season being 20 steps behind everyone else, and I finished the season being five steps behind.”
The 2022 season goals are to battle for the title, win some races and achieve a frontrunner outcome. However, a recent setback indirectly related to his injuries — a stress fracture in a metatarsal bone — kept Correa out of two races.
“So it’s very frustrating,” he said. “And it’s gonna be hard to fight for the title having missed the full race weekend. So that’s two more races I couldn’t do. But my goal is still to be a front runner in F3 and win races.”
And there is Hubert. The late Frenchman’s memory serves a residency in Correa’s mind and reflects in his daily pain.
“I think I thought about him every day for the first two years after the accident…I have pain every time I take a step so that automatically makes me think about it,” Correa revealed. “So I just live with that constant thought…that’s also why I don’t process the fact that he died. And you know, what I’m trying to say is I process it differently from other people because I have to process it every day. All the time.”
Correa estimates he’s lost a few years in his racing timeline due to the accident but has gained much more psychologically.
“I was already mentally tough,” he said. “But this has made me a complete different beast, to be honest. I think psychologically, there’s nobody in the paddock as strong as me. And I’m really convinced about that.”
His ultimate goal, of course, is to race at the F1 level, but first has to demonstrate his value this season and in F2.
“My goal is very clear, I want to position myself next year to sign with a top team…and together with a top team, I want to fight for the title in 2023, Formula Two Championship.”
He believes if he can win or place in the top three, his chances of making it into F1 improve dramatically.
“…then I think I am very well-positioned to become that American driver in F1 that everyone is looking for. And I think I can easily be that guy in the next two years. So very bluntly, that’s my goal…but of course, at the moment, I have to worry about my F3 season and take it one step at a time.”