You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

Rolex 24 at Daytona: IMSA driver AJ Muss thrives on adrenaline after near-death experience

Daytona Beach News-Journal logo Daytona Beach News-Journal 1/27/2022 Chris Boyle, The Daytona Beach News-Journal

DAYTONA BEACH — AJ Muss finds tranquility in chaos.

When not behind the wheel of the Bryan Herta Autosport Hyundai touring car, as he will be for Friday's 4-hour BMW Endurance Challenge at Daytona International Speedway, Muss slaloms down the mountainside at breakneck speeds on a snowboard.

The 27-year-old Californian represented Team USA at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

Those are just the day jobs.

His hobby? Jumping out of airplanes, hot air balloons and helicopters.

He's a licensed skydiver with nearly 500 jumps to his name, including about 250 gliding in a wing suit — think of a human-sized giant squirrel.

Seat time at Daytona: Hailie Deegan, Chase Briscoe among 4 NASCAR drivers racing Friday

Rolex car classes: Ever wonder what's under the hood of the different Rolex 24 cars at Daytona? Let's compare

Rolex weather: Will Saturday's Rolex 24 at Daytona be the coldest ever? It'll be really, really close

"I'm a full adrenaline junkie," Muss said. "I have a very addictive personality, so I try to channel it into adrenaline. The healthiest way to channel my inner addiction is jumping, driving race cars and going fast. I just love it ... there's nothing like it.

"At the start of the race, drivers' heart rates go through the roof. I've worn my heart rate monitor that 30-40 seconds before green, my heart rate's the lowest."

Muss' greatest feeling of peace, though, occurred in a hospital bed on April 30, 2014 — opening his eyes for the first time following two weeks in a medically induced coma, during which he flatlined for 30 seconds.

'I'll never forget it'

More than two months of Muss' life is a permanent blind spot, he says.

During the 2014 snowboarding season, Muss suffered a separated shoulder when he struck a gate panel during a training session. He underwent a routine surgical procedure in Colorado at the conclusion of the season.

Feeling no worse for wear two days later, his mother Arlette stayed overnight to monitor him. That is when, as she described in a 2018 story for Sports Illustrated, things took a turn for the worst.

“I’ll never forget it,” she told Daniel Rapaport, recalling that AJ's eyes rolled to the back of his head and that he was unresponsive as she shook him.

“At 3:00 in the morning, he was not coherent. I could not wake him up. At that point, I called the emergency doctor line, who told me to called 9-1-1."

Everything Muss knows about the near-tragedy was told to him after he woke up in the hospital. He suffered from high-altitude, post-operative pulmonary edema — a build-up of excess fluid in the lungs — and his condition worsened due to a perfect storm of post-op opioids, high altitude and a pre-existing hole in his heart.

Placed in a medically induced coma, Muss' heart stopped while being transported to a trauma center in Denver. Doctors feared he might suffer from irreparable brain damage, but, unconsciously, Muss provided his mother with a sign of hope.

"I guess I opened my eyes and gave her a thumbs-up," Muss said. "From that moment, she knew that I was going to be OK.

"The power of the body and the mind is something substantial."

Highs and lows

Muss miraculously recovered, and did so in time to qualify for the 2018 Olympics, despite prior warnings that his career could be over. He placed 20th in PyeongChang, capping off his most successful season to date.

However, some of frontal lobe damage sustained continues to affect Muss' everyday life.

He needed to relearn basic communication skills — speaking, reading and writing. The latter two skills remain a constant challenge.

"When writing, I look like a 5-year-old with a crayon," he said. "It is really bad."

Ahead of racing events, Muss verbalizes all his notes onto an iPad and shares them with the engineers on his team. He's a visual learner, breaking down data overlays alongside fellow driver Ryan Norman outside the car to understand how fast he can truly go on the 3.56-mile circuit.

Emotionally, the person Muss was before entering a coma, he said, is not the same as the one he is now. He's tougher, he's more driven, he's dedicated to the family and friends he calls his "inner circle." 

Muss runs extremely high and low, but does not dwell upon adversity — perhaps a blessing on race days. Frustration dissipates within minutes.

"He's gone through lots of therapy and he has doctors working with him, so he has really learned how to manage it," said Brent Brush, Muss' manager.

Focused on driving

Next Friday marks the opening ceremony for the 2022 Winter Olympics.

Muss, who has spent one night at home over the last four months, planned to pack enough bags to race in Daytona and then board a plane for Beijing.

However, Team USA selected veteran Robert Burns and newcomer Cody Winters to run the parallel giant slalom last week.

As of the Jan. 14 event at Simonhöhe in Austria, he is ranked No. 38 in the world — and No. 1 among Americans — in the event by the International Ski Federation.

"I love the Olympics ... it will always be a special part of me," Muss said. "But my sole focus is on racing right now. I've got a very one-track mind when it comes to my job, what I do and what I am passionate about. My eyes are on the race on Friday, only on that."

This will be Muss' third race at Daytona International Speedway. He finished fifth in last year's TCR race while running for Copeland Motorsports, a fellow Hyundai team.

Goal-oriented as ever, Muss plans to top the podium soon — not exclusively at Daytona, a venue he holds in high sentimental esteem.

"I want to win a championship in every series that I'm in," said Muss, who qualified second in the TCR class for Friday's race. "I would love to win a championship with Bryan Herta and Hyundai — great program, great team.

"One day, I want to win the Rolex. One day, I want to win Le Mans. I want to win some of the big sports-car races, and win a championship. Those are my goals, and I'm going to fight and do whatever I can to make those happen."

This article originally appeared on The Daytona Beach News-Journal: Rolex 24 at Daytona: IMSA driver AJ Muss thrives on adrenaline after near-death experience

AdChoices
AdChoices

More from Daytona Beach News-Journal

Daytona Beach News-Journal
Daytona Beach News-Journal
image beaconimage beaconimage beacon