The Entrepreneurship of Racing ft. JM Correa

The Entrepreneurship of Racing ft. JM Correa

By Dariana Almeyda

Our current society views the business of racing as a monopoly of high stakes sponsorships and private funding (“pay drivers,” for example). In truth, these “houses” of funding have always existed–Niki Lauda took out steep loans to finance the start of his racing career, and Michael Schumacher’s Mercedes sponsorship got him in his seat at Jordan. Where these stories overlap is in the role each driver plays in securing the money that guarantees them a spot on the grid. 

Over the years we’ve heard stories of drivers with “normal” jobs and have been astounded at their ability to manage working a nine-to-five while racing world class machines on the weekends. Niki Lauda’s story feels like the tip of the iceberg when discussing driver-driven funding. Tony Brooks, a racing legend in his own right, will forever be known as the “Racing Dentist” because he used his occupation as a means to an end–successful dental exams on Monday meant a guaranteed shot at Quali on Saturday. In recent years, Romain Grosjean was making headlines as a banker in Switzerland while trying to fund his junior career.

In our digital age, society has now reconceptualized labor to include–and somehow monetize–our interactions online. The growing role of the influencer in the early 2010’s resulted in a rising number of people looking to make themselves marketable online. Enter the Creator Economy: business can now be conducted anywhere in the world, with anyone, at any time. Drivers establishing their junior careers with the hopes of making it to F1 can now secure funding with theoretically more ease than the legends of this sport. As a result, the stakes have grown higher, and so have the expectations.  

It’s no secret that racing the most competitive cars in the world comes with a hefty price tag. For spectators, the wealth associated with motorsport feels evident in the sponsorships associated with the sport. How many of us can afford to own a limited edition Rolex, or any of the road cars from major teams like Mercedes or Ferrari? For drivers in series’ outside of F1, the wealth associated with this world can be felt in the pressure to perform–not just on track, but on paper.

For some context: Formula 2 drivers must secure their own funding for their season. That means the roster of drivers on the grid have worked tirelessly, with or without a team, to find enough money to guarantee their seat. No money, no drive. 

I caught up with Juan Manuel Correa, F2 driver with Van Amersfoort Racing and good friend of Parc Fermé, to chat about the business of racing. We chatted about his approach to racing through the context of business, the inspiration behind his entrepreneurial projects, and his intentional brand building:

“The accident was really the moment when I got the chance, unfortunately, to have a lot of time to think about stuff. It gave me the opportunity to plan my return to racing, but I decided that I wanted to do things a little bit differently in the sense that I wanted to become the leader of my own project in every way. Not just as the driver–but taking a much more professional approach to the whole team, to have more people under my wing. Up until that point it was just me and my dad, cowboying, trying to build something of it but it was not easy because we realized early on that this sport is very political and it's very complex in more ways than just the sporting side of it.”

Chatting with JM was like getting a peek behind the curtain at a Broadway show. The audience knows it takes more than one person to put on a show, but once you get to see all of the moving parts behind the scenes, you’re in awe at the amount of effort that goes into even the simplest of tasks. JM considers himself the CEO of his own company, with 7-8 team members all working to build his brand and secure his drive. He understands what we all have known (and danced around) for years: drivers are their own brands that make money, if managed well. It’s up to each driver to recognize themselves as an investment–to acknowledge their value, and work to make themselves more valuable–not just for a racing team, but for the investors they need in order to race. 

We watch driver-driven funding unfold in front of us on social media all the time. From sponsored Instagram posts, to intentional portrayals of personality through vlogs or candid Instagram stories, this curation of content works to build a brand bigger than the driver’s identity as a driver–it works to humanize them in a society that can often idolize celebrities and athletes to the point of dehumanizing them. This signaling is the hallmark of drivers working to secure their seat by becoming business savvy–something that should get its own category of assessment in considering a driver’s racecraft. The reality for a junior career driver is if you’re not business savvy, you likely won’t get the chance to be savvy in a race car. JM comes from a long line of successful business men and women, and spent some time taking a business course at Harvard that helped hone his entrepreneurial skills. I asked him about his perception of business, whether it came from a purely business perspective, or if his business brain would always be influenced by his racing experience:

“I’ve only ever seen business through the lens of racing because racing is what I know best, and I think that gives me a great edge in business, to be honest. I feel that I would be a lethal business man if I would do that full time. Racing at this level is so competitive, you have to be so sharp in every way. Always trying to be better than other people in even the smallest of details and at the end of the day, that’s what business is all about as well. In being instinctive and making decisions, being a leader, teamwork. I feel that I am super efficient in business and that’s all thanks to racing.”

This sharp, competitive mindset makes networking much easier and significantly more useful to drivers that strategically approach funding with long term partnership in mind. JM emphasizes the desire to build relationships with partners with a shared vision that will last years into his driving career. These partnerships extend past sponsorships and seeps into the team he’s built around him. We spoke about his personal projects, including the desire to make a documentary on his return to racing after his accident in 2019, and a passion project, Dalliants, with his business partner Frank Puentes. His desire to establish his brand inside and outside of racing speaks to a greater cultural shift in the way business operates in the motorsport space. For many partners looking to enter the motorsport business arena, drivers must be marketable on and off the track. This dedication to marketability can often feel like a double edged sword, especially considering the various voices that criticize drivers for spending too much, or too little, time focusing on the business aspect of their careers. JM spoke of the immense amount of business that happens in the F2 and F3 paddocks that, on the surface, doesn’t appear complex at all. He predicts this approach to business in these junior series’ will fundamentally shift in the next ten years, and confesses that he’d buy an F2 team tomorrow if he had a few million dollars lying around. 

“I don’t see myself being just a racing driver, it doesn’t matter what I do. I always want to have a foot down in the business world and use the contacts and access that being a racing driver gives you for business opportunities because that’s a huge thing. Being inside this world gives you such huge insight into how the world works. You have access to so many big companies, so many people with a lot of money, with very interesting ideas. The networking you can do as a racing driver, even just being involved in this world, it’s huge.”

The racecraft we idolize in drivers like JM and his peers is reliant on their ability to navigate business transactions behind the scenes. Personal brand building has become essential in an era where personal identity is so closely tied to someone’s career. With the rise of digital fan engagement and a global effort to become a more socially conscious society, these business efforts have shifted in nature and created a need for more visible entrepreneurial engagement from the drivers on the grid. The level of professionalism that is required of drivers and their teams continues to grow as the fame of series’ like F2 and F3 gain popularity and directly impact a driver’s ability to get a seat for the next season. For many in this sport, driving is always a privilege, but not necessarily a given.

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