He’ll Watch the Winter Games but AJ Muss Is Focused on Becoming a Winning Driver
By Godwin Kelly
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Olympic athlete AJ Muss has traded his snowboard for a race car. Instead of heading to the Winter Olympics in Beijing, China, he will watch the action from the Games unfold over the next two weeks on IMSA’s broadcast partner, NBC Sports.
Muss, 27, was part of Team USA for the 2018 Winter Olympics competing in the parallel giant slalom. Now he’s turned full attention to the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge, where he shares the No. 2 Bryan Herta Autosport with Curb-Agajanian Hyundai Elantra N TCR with Ryan Norman.
Their season got off to a hot start – literally – in the BMW M Endurance Challenge that opened the schedule at Daytona International Speedway. Muss qualified an exceptional second in the Touring Car (TCR) class on Jan. 27, but a fire caused by a fuel injector malfunction on the opening lap of the four-hour race the following day ended their race way too early.
Still, for Muss, it’s a short-term setback in a long-term plan to become a top-notch sports car driver.
“Racing anything has been huge to me,” he said. “I love racing whether it’s scooters or running. I’ve always enjoyed speed, you know, jumping out of planes, doing anything to go as fast as I can. As they say, ‘With age comes a cage.’ Racing cars is a passion of mine and it’s where I want to go with my next step in life.”
Muss is a quick study. He showed up for the 2020 Roar Before the Rolex 24 and ran laps under the watchful eyes of IMSA officials, who approved him for a license to compete in the BMW M Endurance Challenge that year. He and Mason Filippi teamed for the full 2021 Michelin Pilot Challenge season for Copeland Motorsports, another Hyundai team whose cars are prepared by Herta’s outfit.
Muss is now a full-fledged member of BHA, sharing one of six team cars with Norman, the 2020 series TCR champion with Gabby Chaves.
“The resources of this team are phenomenal,” Muss said. “The engineers are awesome; all the drivers get along. We all share data; everything across the board. All the playbooks are open under the same tent. We all want to be as competitive as possible and let the driving on track do the talking, not the cars. This program is doing such a great job of developing the cars and drivers.”
Muss competed in the 2018 Winter Games after making a remarkable recovery from a high-altitude post-operative edema (a build-up of excess fluid in the lungs) following what was supposed to be routine shoulder surgery in 2014. Placed into a medically induced coma, his heart stopped once while being transported to a trauma center. Miraculously, he recovered in time to qualify for the 2018 Games.
It’s a determination and grit he sees in both Olympic-level athletics and professional racers.
“I think it’s the work ethic and mindset – everything you do,” Muss said. “When you can take stuff on the chin and persevere through adversity, that is huge in any sport. People who are competitive in any sport can transfer over to any sport when they are willing to learn.”
Of course, there are differences in the sports, both obvious and not so glaring.
“The difference for me is that (racing a car is) not a sprint, it’s a (two- or four-hour) race,” Muss said. “It’s a long haul. So, you have to be able to slow everything down, be more methodical and realize you have a teammate so you have to set up the car for each other.”
Even though he was rated the No. 1 American in the parallel giant slalom last month by the International Ski Federation, Muss wasn’t selected for the Beijing Games by Team USA. And that’s fine with him. Muss said sports car racing is now his primary focus in life, with the objective of eventually racing in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.
“My goal in this sport is to be a competitive driver and get up to the WeatherTech paddock and to be fighting for Rolex 24 wins,” he said. “I don’t have a big desire to go outside of sports cars. I love sports cars and IMSA.”
As for the Winter Olympics, Muss will be watching. He said this year’s Team USA is one of the strongest ever.
“Our ski team is phenomenal,” he said. “Mikaela Shiffrin is one of the best skiers to come along in a long time. We have some young downhill skiers that are really good. I think the team has a good shot at the medal count, for sure.”
The next Michelin Pilot Challenge race is the Alan Jay Automotive Network 120 on Thursday, March 17 at Sebring International Raceway.