Sebring International Raceway, Sebring, FL — March 18, 2022
Alright, full disclosure right upfront. This article is not about AJ Foyt. It’s not even about AJ Allmendinger. But, don’t stop reading, the story is about a young man named AJ Muss and it contains an amazing backstory.
AJ Muss raced this past week at Sebring International Raceway. Our own, Phil Lasco, was on hand to report from one of the most active race tracks in America. Phil knows Sebring well as he has raced there on multiple occasions. AJ Muss, not so much, he only has about 25 IMSA events on his racing resume. However, this feature is not really about what AJ did at Sebring, but how he got there.
It Feels Great to Go Fast
The AJ stands for Aaron Jaeger Muss, his mom’s name is Arlette, his dad is Jonathan, which may have been the inspiration that led to the nickname AJ. He fell in love with snowboarding as a toddler, he seemed to have a natural ability for the balance and coordination required to excel at hurtling down a mountain with both feet strapped to a piece of wood (or Polyethylene for the more advanced boards).
Both parents were active skiers, during AJs early years, the family lived in New Jersey. The coastal town of Rumson is located on the southern reaches of the Newark-New York City metro area, not a hotbed of winter mountain sports. Arlette was an attorney and traveled to Colorado frequently on business. AJ would tag along on those work trips. But, instead of parking the youngster in a daycare facility, Arlette took him to the slopes and enrolled him in ski schools.
Soon AJ was displaying the speed that has come to define almost everything he does. “I’m an adrenaline junkie, going fast is my addiction, I love it.” That sums up his feelings about going full-tilt.
There are events in the sport of snowboarding that feature speed instead of style. Snowboard Parallel Slalom and Parallel Giant Slalom are races where board riders compete side-by-side to see who can traverse the downhill course the fastest.
AJ began to train for and participate in events staged for his age group. He was a youthful prodigy, moving up in various divisions of the sport. His parents were supportive, the family moved to Colorado to provide additional opportunities for involvement in snowboard competitions.
If you ask AJ how he became so proficient so quickly he will tell you it’s because of his work effort. He was determined to work harder than his competition. “My goal was to always be stronger and better than my competition. I am a big mindset person, I feel your mindset can get you further than raw talent and skill any day.” A trait more of today’s young people should emulate.
A Four-Time US Junior National Champion, AJ competed in four consecutive World Championships. Qualifying for every year he was eligible and then moved on to be the National Champion four years in a row in the Open Class Division. Setting himself up for competition on the World Stage.
Never one to shrink from a challenge, AJ set a goal to become a member of the United States Olympic Team. He was well on the way to achieving that honor when a set of circumstances threw him a wicked curve.
Injuries Are a Part of Snowboard Racing
Anyone who has observed ski athletes careening down steep mountainside slopes understands that a mistake often means disaster. Injuries happen and are an accepted part of the sacrifice required to become the best at your discipline. Young bodies heal quickly and the art of medicine is advancing to the point where some trauma can be reversed with a stronger joint or muscle as the outcome.
After the 2014 winter season, AJ opted to have a nagging injury surgically repaired. He had a shoulder that had been dislocated and too easily popped in and out of its socket. His labrum was completely detached. “If you shook my hand too hard you would pull my shoulder out of joint.” To repair it doctors cut his clavicle with a bone saw and reconnected his bicep to his shoulder in a different orientation.
The surgery was successful and AJ was released from the hospital to continue his rehabilitation at home. With mom as his attending nurse, she keep a careful watch on her son as he recovered from the anesthesia and body trauma of surgery.
Checking in one evening Arlette found her boy unresponsive, eyes rolled back in his head, and experiencing difficulty breathing. An ambulance was called immediately.
It is a highly cynical world we live in and the paramedics told his mother that the express protocol for such situations, especially with young people, was to treat the patient like it was a drug overdose. During the process of pumping his stomach, AJ aspirated on some fluid and blew out a lung, sending him immediately into pneumonia. Upon getting him to the hospital they also discovered he had developed a hole in his heart.
Life or Death Plays Out in Snowy Colorado
The local hospital was unable to treat AJ’s condition so he was referred to a trauma center in Denver. He was to be loaded aboard a helicopter for the trip down to the city. But the pilot was unable to take off due to a severe snowstorm settling in over the area.
Could things get any worse? After putting the stretcher back in the ambulance for the trip from Breckenridge to Denver they were informed that the tunnel en route had been closed due to the weather. It was the only road available between the two cities.
The police were called and an escort was sent to accompany the emergency evacuation. AJ’s heart stopped beating during the trip. He was able to be revived with defibrillator paddles shocking him back into a life-saving rhythm.
Doctors determined AJ was suffering from high-altitude pulmonary endemic postoperative shock. In layman’s terms, pulmonary edema is a condition caused by excess fluid in the lungs. The collection of fluid fills air sacs in the lungs, making it difficult to breathe. It was necessary to place AJ in a medically induced coma and mechanically assist his breathing as the medical staff worked to clear his lungs.
Two weeks later he awoke and gave his mom a thumbs up, their personal signal that he was ok after a crash.
The near-death episode created some additional challenges for AJ during his recovery. He had to relearn how to read, write, and speak again. Amazingly, AJ retained his motor skills and was able to quickly resume physical activity. He was only sidelined from his sport for four months.
You might think such an experience would alter an athlete’s psyche, make them more conservative, change the way they approach the risk of high-speed competition. Interestingly AJ was back on the snowboarding circuit that fall. 2015 turned out statistically to be the best season of his young career. He won every race he entered, with the exception of a lone-second place finish, and one event he did not post a result in.
As the level of competition increased, AJ continued to have great years. Achieving his goal of making the Olympic Team in 2018 and competing for his country in the 23rd Winter Olympiad at PyeongChang, Korea. “My Olympic experience was phenomenal, I am a patriot at heart, and I loved being able to represent the United States at the games.”
When asked why he was able to achieve such success after an incident that might have derailed his athletic career, AJ responded. “It was all mental, I was not going to give up on my dream. I have no fear of death, no fear period, I was able to lay everything out there and not worry about the consequences. Death is simple, you go to sleep for a long time. It’s harder on everyone around you than on yourself.”
The speed of downhill racing and the speed of automobile racing can certainly give you a comparable adrenaline rush. But how does a skier from Colorado end up in a sports car in Florida? By chance, fate, karma?
That part of the story has a unique twist as well. An invitation from Indy Car racer Marco Andretti brought AJ to the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” the Indianapolis 500. AJ tells the rest. “I met a guy there who is now my manager, out of the blue he said ‘we should put you in a sports car and see how you do,’ of course, I said yes.”
The test went well, the speed was addictive, the potential was there. Not long after AJ found himself making his racing debut at Daytona International Speedway. His manager was well connected in the world of sports car racing, AJ trusted that experience as they moved to different teams providing better opportunities for career development.
In 2022, AJ is driving for Bryan Herta Autosport (BHA), the team has an impressive resume. Indianapolis 500 Champions 2011 and 2016, Pirelli World Challenge TCR Champions 2018, Michelin Pilot Challenge TCR Champions 2019, 2020, and 2021.
AJ drives in the Michelin Pilot Challenge, the TCR class, a feeder series for IMSA’s premier classifications. With BHA, AJ and his teammate qualified second among TCR competitors at the season-opening Michelin Pilot Challenge event at Daytona. Coming to the green flag at the start, the car’s engine backfired and caught on fire. That’s racing.
At Sebring, the team was looking to show their true potential. They started 35th overall, 6th in their class. AJ consistently moved through the field and a top finishing position was within reach. Turning the car over to his co-driver, they were again a victim of bad racing luck. Two drivers crashed directly in front of their car which collected some damage in the incident. With some hard work by the BHA crew they were able to keep running, remain on the lead lap, and finished 29th overall, 8th in the TCR class.
Continuing to Build the Resume
Auto racing is a tough, highly competitive business. Failures far outnumber the limited success stories. You can’t help but sense when speaking with AJ, that he is well aware of the challenge and fully prepared to do what’s necessary to achieve his goals.
Much like auto racing is funded by corporate advertisers, AJ’s skiing career was funded by private sponsors. Competing on the world stage is not inexpensive. His experience in navigating the financial challenges of sports sponsorship will prove highly valuable in his new career. He is under contract with BHA, but he still employs a team of publicists to further his ambitions.
The NASCAR Cup and IndyCar Series are the two most popular forms of racing in America. However, car enthusiasts can more easily identify with sports car racing, those drivers pilot vehicles we actually drive. Endurance racing is the perfect example of why it’s a little harder to follow, five different classifications of cars competed in the 2022 24-hour race at Daytona, all on the track at the same time. The number of minor series in the sport further adds to the complexity of becoming one of the few recognizable faces and actual stars in the genre.
AJ Muss is the perfect individual to become one of those faces. The backstory is remarkable, the skills are evident, his media presence shows a serious effort to bring his endeavors to a wide audience.
Especially in auto racing, getting your name out there provides opportunities to expose people to the sport and opens sponsor doors. AJ displays the same determination in that part of his job as he does in the competition. “I like doing media, I like sharing my story, I like to try to inspire the next generation as much as I can.”
That Need for Speed
Asked about his goals, AJ sites LeMans as his ultimate arena to drive at. “LeMans is the Olympics of auto racing.” He would not rule out the possibility of doing some one-off NASCAR events on road courses, much like noted sports car racer Boris Said filled seats for teams in need of a driver who specialized in turning right as well as left.
Does AJ still ski? Yes, but admits auto racing is now his main focus. About that “need for speed?” When not racing AJ loves to go sky diving. He is now a C Licensed Jumper with nearly 500 jumps, and 250 wingsuit jumps from hot air balloons, helicopters, and airplanes.