How David Malukas has become another Coyne success story

Despite considerable junior formula success, David Malukas arrived in IndyCar with little fanfare, which is how this modest young man prefers it. But his talent is ensuring evermore time in the spotlight. David Malsher-Lopez reports.

How David Malukas has become another Coyne success story
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Fans of Family Guy will be familiar with the several times when Peter Griffin has clumsily demolished the front of his pal Cleveland’s house while the occupant is in the bathtub. Suddenly the bathroom floor tilts forward, and Cleveland rides the porcelain down to his front lawn, yelling with increasing anxiety, “No, No, Noo, Nooo, Noooo!”

Myself and those around me sounded much the same while watching David Malukas and Takuma Sato battle through the final stint of Iowa Speedway’s second race, convinced at least one of them was going to end up in the SAFER barrier. The 0.894-mile oval can induce several moments like these, but here were two teammates – one a rookie, the other a veteran famed for not conceding defeat – and of course, intra-team clashes that end in damage for either or both cars are motorsport’s big no-no-noo-nooo, etc.

But the newbie and the oldtimer played nice and survived. And Malukas prevailed in their fight to come home eighth, a couple of places ahead of the two-time Indy 500 winner.

Seeing Malukas running in the Top 10 is never a surprise now, which says a great deal about how the season has progressed for this Chicago-born 20-year-old of Lithuanian heritage. Twice this year he has fought his way into the Firestone Fast Six in qualifying, and if the race results on both occasions, Detroit and Toronto, were underwhelming, this is due to circumstance and poor pitstops. Notably, in both events, Malukas relieved his frustration by earning fastest race lap.

 

Photo by: Perry Nelson / Motorsport Images

“Yeah, we’ve had pitstop struggles this year,” concedes team owner Dale Coyne, who partnered with Henry Malukas to run both his son’s #18 car in IndyCar, and the increasingly impressive HMD Motorsports Indy Lights team. “Out of the bad ones, I’d say one-third were down to David, but two-thirds down to us. He comes over to the shop after every race and we dissect those stops to see where we can improve, because we’ve given away quite a few places. Pace-wise, he’s a whole lot better than his results show.”

Malukas is also a whole lot better than we might have predicted after seeing him shunt out of Rounds 1 and 3, St. Petersburg and Long Beach respectively. At that time, he looked desperate to prove himself, but the youngster took it on board and his errors have been minimized, while his pace has increased. His margin over Sato in qualifying at both Mid-Ohio and Toronto was staggering, and even Coyne has admitted he’s been taken aback by how swiftly his new gem has improved.

“We had that really good test at Barber [Motorsports Park] last year, where he was four-tenths quicker than next fastest,” says Coyne. “But you try not to get too carried away, because it could be just dumb beginner’s luck! If you don’t know any better, you just drive the wheels off the thing! But his data every session has backed it up. We knew he’d be good eventually, but it’s a very pleasant surprise how good he’s gotten and how quickly.”

DCR provides an ideal environment for nurturing rookies. Drivers who think they know it all already are soon disabused of this notion and respond by gaining some humility and adaptability, or stalling on the learning curve. The ones who are talented and receptive rapidly learn how to work on all facets of being a racecar driver. Mercifully, Malukas is very much a front-of-class fully attentive student, eagerly taking full advantage of the veteran voices around him.

 

Photo by: Geoffrey M. Miller / Motorsport Images

“He’s a very good listener,” says Coyne. “We coach him along on the things we feel he needs to get better at, whether it’s hitting his marks in pitstops or managing his tires, and he listens and tries to act on it every time. He’s also good at listening intently to his spotters. And it’s been good to see Takuma helping him and David paying attention. They get along exactly how we want a veteran and a rookie to get along – a lot of respect, and keeping each other on their toes in terms of speed – and it’s worked out very well between David and Ross [Bunnell, his race engineer]. Ross is young too, so they relate to each other on a social level and as a working partnership. Honestly, in terms of working as a team, I think we’ve got a better group of people here than we’ve ever had.”

A couple of hours after his aforementioned first IndyCar test at Barber last fall, the normally perky Malukas sounded like a creature just coming out of hibernation. The fatigue-inducing forces of an IndyCar on a high-grip track surface had caught him by surprise, but that too is an area where the youngster’s progress has been impressive.

“He’s been working out hard and it’s paying off,” confirmed Coyne. “At Iowa on the Saturday [in the first race of the double-header], the car wasn’t quite where he needed it to be and it was very hot so he looked whipped. Sunday’s race was 50 laps longer, but it was about 15 degrees cooler and the car was competitive, and that means you don’t wear yourself out mentally, and he was fine after that one.”

Last weekend at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, Malukas slipped from just four points behind Rahal Letterman Lanigan’s Christian Lundgaard in the Rookie of the Year points standings, to 27 adrift: Malukas endured a troubled and unlucky event and wound up 13th, while Lundgaard secured a runner-up finish. With only four races to go, the Coyne/HMD driver may need a podium finish of his own in order to capture that RotY honor. Is that feasible?

“I definitely think he can get his first podium in these final four races,” says Coyne. “He hasn’t been to Nashville, but we had him on the simulator last Tuesday to learn that one. We’re going to test at Gateway before the race there, and at Laguna Seca before the Portland race, so that’s going to help. We tested him at Mid-Ohio and at Iowa and I’d say both those tests those paid off in terms of how confident he was and therefore how fast he was when it came to race weekend.

“Confidence and speed – one is directly linked to the other, and you’ve seen that in David.”

Malukas himself would agree. He is not a Pato O’Ward, who exudes an innate confidence that he can get the job done, whatever the car, whatever the circumstances. Malukas needed that eye-catching Barber test performance to convince himself he was ready to be an IndyCar driver.

“Yeah, you’ve kinda hit it right on the nose – that’s what I’m like,” he chuckles. “That test really boosted my confidence. Beforehand, as I saw the deal coming together, I was freaking out. ‘I don’t know if I’ll be able to do this. These drivers are so good, and so experienced.’ But then the test was very successful, and that gave me a big boost, and Dale himself was very impressed – except when I flopped down on the floor with exhaustion as soon as I got out of the car! We knew I’d have to go to the gym.”

That Barber test, that turned Malukas into a convincing and convinced IndyCar driver.

That Barber test, that turned Malukas into a convincing and convinced IndyCar driver.

Photo by: IndyCar Series

And then he got the chance to drive a Penske-Chevy on the IMS road course.

“Yes, that was very cool. After the three-hour test, I was like, ‘Can we take pictures so I can hang them up in my room?’ Some time in the future I can tell my kids, ‘This is when I drove for Penske’ – they don’t need to know for how long…”

Considering that so many who avidly watch the Road To Indy spoke and wrote of fellow 2022 IndyCar rookie Kyle Kirkwood as The Second Coming – champion at all three RTI levels – it’s worth recapping the junior formula efforts of Malukas who proved such a worthy adversary of Kirkwood in Indy Lights. Because this year, Malukas is making a far more favorable impression at the top level of U.S. open-wheel. Sure, Kirkwood is carrying his recalcitrant AJ Foyt Racing machine into positions it doesn’t belong, but since his Andretti Autosport deal for 2023 was made public, he’s also made a number of mistakes at crucial moments. Hopefully it’s just a temporary “typical rookie” phase that Kirkwood is going through, but it’s coincided with Malukas reaching a stage of rookie development where he’s able to eliminate such excesses.

Back in 2017, Malukas endured an inconclusive two-thirds season with BN Racing in USF2000 which led to a far more promising year with the same team in Indy Pro 2000 (then called Pro Mazda), when he scored three wins and finished fourth in the championship. Malukas, only 17 at the time, was then expecting to take a slightly conservative approach to his career, and spend two seasons in Indy Lights.

Dale Coyne has been pleased with how well Malukas has absorbed knowledge from the veterans of the team.

Dale Coyne has been pleased with how well Malukas has absorbed knowledge from the veterans of the team.

Photo by: Geoffrey M. Miller / Motorsport Images

“I felt like gaining knowledge and racing against drivers who had been doing it longer than me was just as important as moving up each year,” he says. “We moved to Lights in 2019 with BN Racing but it got really tough because at that point you’re up against teams like Andretti who have so many years of experience, as well as Juncos and Belardi. That’s when HMD came on board.”

Malukas finished sixth in the championship with a couple of podium finishes, but this momentum was brought to a halt on the eve of the 2020 season, soon after the first practice session at St. Pete that year, as COVID struck. With Lights already struggling for grid numbers and extant teams struggling for budget, the uncertainty caused by the knock-on effects of nationwide restrictions saw the series go on hiatus for a year.

“Honestly, that may have helped me,” Malukas says, “because it gave me another year to mature! At the end of every year, I look back at things I did and say, ‘Wow, I was so stupid!’ so returning to Indy Lights two years after the start of my first season, I just felt so much more knowledgeable and prepared. We went off to do Formula Regional Americas [he and HMD finished second despite a rushed start to the season], and then with HMD onboard we went back to Lights for 2021. I was comfortable with the car and felt I could push 110 percent.”

He was superb, finishing second behind Kirkwood (Andretti Autosport), their win tally 10-7 in Kirkwood’s favor across the 20-race season. The champ seemed better able to wring out his car on the days when Andretti were a tad off the pace, but he also had a superior car more often than Malukas. Yet that experience has now worked in Malukas’ favor: learning how to consistently run on the edge to try and beat Kirkwood as well as his own teammate Linus Lundqvist – the man now leading the 2022 Lights championship – has served Malukas well in IndyCar. He knows how and when to capitalize on a strong Coyne car, and knows when to drive within the car’s limits when it’s not so strong.

 

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images

“I think there’s definitely some truth to that,” he says. “If you’re with the best team and the best car all the time, you get less experience of how to adapt if something goes wrong or if the car loses speed. At the beginning of this year, I was definitely being a rookie and crashing, but I feel like I quite quickly figured out what I needed and wanted from the car.”

Which is?

“Making it handle like a big Indy Lights car! That’s what I’m most used to, and so far it’s working.”

Where Malukas has to play more of a guessing game in racecar ‘feel’ and rely on Bunnell’s experience, is on the ovals. If Road To Indy has a particular flaw at the moment, it’s the dearth of oval races, because so few oval venues are suitable for little open-wheel cars. This makes Lights graduates scarcely better off than those switching to IndyCar from a road/street course series in Europe.

In his Indy Lights campaign of 2021, Malukas won both races at Gateway’s 1.25-mile World Wide Technology Raceway but he’ll admit that learning ovals in an IndyCar has been quite a different experience. He did a wonderful job to grab 11th in Texas, he deserved the Rookie of the Year award at Indy for finishing as top newbie (it went instead to a man who crashed seven laps from the end), and now he’s shone at Iowa, a track he didn’t like after his test there…

“The first Iowa race we were struggling and losing places,” he says. “We didn’t have everything we needed setup-wise, it seemed. But that was almost like a big learning curve to prepare me for the second race, seeing what did and didn’t work and listening to Pancho [Carter, his spotter] to figure out how everything works. In the second race we went in the right direction with the car and now I had the knowledge of how to set drivers up for a pass and what lanes to use and when. So it became fun – I was laughing inside my helmet at a couple of my passes – and it became by far my favorite race I’ve ever done.”

Key to Malukas improving has been open acknowledgment of the areas in which he needs to better himself. He self-reproaches in the manner of a Will Power or Charles Leclerc to make it clear that the blame doesn’t lie elsewhere. Then when crew issues, of the kind to which Coyne readily admitted, costs him hard-earned places, he sucks it up, accepts it’s a learning year for others on the team, too. For example, of Toronto – when he should have finished fifth or sixth – he says only: “It’s a shame because I think we had one of the better strategies that day, but that’s how tough IndyCar is. You need to get everything right on the day to get a strong result.” Admirable.

So whether or not he can score a podium this season, whether or not he clinches that Rookie of the Year title, Malukas has covered himself in glory this year. He attributes his couple of crashes in the early season to mistakes driven by being “overanxious to prove I belong at this level”. Now he has proven his potential to himself and everyone else, he’s that much more assured and can thus allow his talent to bloom.

And he’s loving it. Last month during a media session, discussion arose over Alex Palou and his F1 ambitions. Malukas, with a smile on his face but sincerity in his voice, declared: “It’s so bad, but I am so obsessed with IndyCar! I don't think I could ever drive anything ever again other than IndyCar. It’s just so much fun…”

It shows, too.

 

Photo by: Gavin Baker / Motorsport Images

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